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Details dress Earthly Goods

New shop takes over Ashland's historic Fortmiller's building

ASHLAND -- When you first walk into the new Earthly Goods store, you probably won't notice the opalized granite countertop, the bronze inlay on the mezzanine railing or the historically accurate art-glass fixtures.

But it's these details that combine to give the women's clothing and shoe store the feeling of historic chic -- sort of a cross between an urban boutique and an old-time mercantile.

— — BUSINESS CARD

Name: Earthly Goods — Service: Women's clothing and shoes — Location: Downtown Ashland, Berkeley, Calif. — Phone number: (541) 488-8080 — Owners: Allen and Christine Connolly — Managers: Erik and Jahna Connolly — Number of employees: 6 —

It was three-and-a-half years of thoughtful agony, said owner Allen Connolly of the time he and contractor Walt Stokes spent remodeling the building, home to Fortmiller's department store until September 1995.

I wanted to remain true to the period of this 1924 structure. Even though many Craftsman-style houses were built then, I do not think I have ever seen a Craftsman-style store, he said. I'm pretty proud of that accomplishment.

The building was given all new plumbing and electrical wiring and was made more earthquake-resistant. And then came the agonizing details.

The brown granite for the central counter was imported from Italy, custom cut and polished. The gentle curves on the bronze handrail had to be not-so-easily coaxed into place on the spot. The interior wood is solid walnut and white oak, not the more common red oak.

It's pretty unique, said Connolly who owns two other Earthly Goods stores in the Bay Area. You have millions of shopping centers and they all look the same. In time, people are going to look for something unique.

Despite the long wait, curious customers have expressed more relief than frustration that one of the cornerstones of Ashland's downtown is finally open.

People are appreciative of what Allen has done. They come in and say `No wonder it took so long,' said Jahna Connolly, Allen's daughter-in-law. She, along with husband Erik, will manage the Ashland store when Connolly returns to spend part of the year in California.

Connolly got his start 30 years ago in his hometown of Berkeley, making custom sandals and handbags from Oriental rugs.

He gradually stopped making bags and opened two natural-fiber clothing and shoe stores, one in Berkeley and later one in San Francisco.

At the time, says Connolly, the stores were the only ones in the area to specialize in natural-fiber clothing. Back then there were far fewer independent clothing stores, and they, along with the department stores, were filled with polyester clothing, he said.

While today's rayon doesn't carry the stigma of polyester, it is with the same attention to quality and detail that Connolly's wife Christine buys the clothing and shoes for the Earthly Goods stores.

Jahna describes the store's offerings as natural fiber plus a sprinkling of urban. She says employees are writing down requests for specific types of clothing to keep in mind during the next buying trip.

We tried to keep the locals in mind, said Jahna. We knew we'd get tourist traffic, but we want to be an Ashland store.

Prices are average by Ashland standards, which means a dress will cost you from $40 to $120.

Over the next month, the front mezzanine will be filled with lingerie and sleepwear. It's a work in progress, said Erik of the challenges of dressing 6,000 square feet of retail space.

Goods, a women's retail clothing and shoe store, opened in Ashland's historic Fortmiller's building. - Photo by Bob Pennell