Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” February 2010.
Mrs. Brewster’s Double Life
by Lauren Coodley
Just before, and after, the Gold Rush, Chinese and other immigrants came to Napa to settle what had been a Mexican state until l848. Among the others were Jewish merchant Freedman Levinson and his wife Dora. They joined other new arrivals travelling on foot through the Panama Isthmus into Central America and then up through Mexico. Freedman opened a small general store on Main Street where business was usually conducted in gold dust. The family lived within walking distance of the store, and their offspring became part of Napa’s late Nineteenth Century community.
Lin Weber writes that Levinson’s daughter Sarah helped, “bind together the Jewish families who had come from so far…she made so many doses of chicken soup that she actually wore a dent in the table where she rolled her homemade noodles.” Son Charlie opened Levinson’s clothing store on Main Street and was an active member of the Unity Volunteer Hose Company. When he became part of the paid fire department in l906, he offered Jewish families a room to worship in the firehouse’s top floor. Son Joe opened Levinson’s Pharmacy on the corner of Main and First, offering the only X-ray machine in town. Daughter Clara married an Englishman she met at a Unity Hose Company dance, and they set up a tobacco shop next to Charlie’s clothing store.
Thus, when Rachel Nussbaum Friedman arrived here in l960, there was a long-established Jewish business community. She grew up in the small town of Holly Hill, South Carolina where her family ran a store that sold work clothes, piece goods, and linens. The Nussbaums opened a San Francisco branch of their business in the Forties, and Rachel was able to attend the University of California at Berkeley. In l954, her father opened Brewsters in Napa on the corner of Main and Pearl Streets. In 1960, when her husband, Larry Friedman, and her brother, Harris Nussbaum, became partners in the business, Rachel, Larry, and their two young children moved to Napa.
In the early Sixties, the town had a population of about 15,000 people: “When I first moved to Napa, my comment was, ‘I feel like I’m moving to the end of the world.’” But quickly, Rachel realized “I loved being in a small town again.” Back then, Trancas was the north edge of town, uncrowded and barely developed with only the newly built hospital and some Italian and Chinese restaurants, reminiscent of Napa’s early immigrants, The Friedmans bought a home in the just-built Bel Aire subdivision. Rachel remembers that “Bel Aire Plaza housed only Montgomery Ward, the bowling alley, and Levinson’s Drugs, which had moved out there. But, Rachel remembers, “no competition for shopping–everyone went downtown.”
She describes Napa in those days as a “real country town where everyone was very friendly.” Brewsters supplied work clothes, boots, bedding, cots, and almost anything else that the vineyard workers needed to survive; when the store had an outdoor sale, shoppers lined up for blocks. Louis Martini would drive up in his Cadillac clad in overalls. The Brewsters ads were a highlight of the Napa Register, with their zany caricatures of Rachel, Larry and the crew. But this is the story of what the Register in l986 called Rachel’s “double life” – the career she created beyond the women’s department of Brewsters, with its “reasonably priced, timely fashions for women of all ages and sizes.”
Rachel had earned her undergraduate degree in child development around l950, “but there were very few jobs to go with that degree.” She gave birth to two more children and enrolled them in what was one of the first preschools in Napa, operated by Jen Terrace. Rachel worked in the classroom in trade for her kids’ tuition, and describes Jen Terrace with admiration as “the mother of early childhood development in Napa.”
It was through Jen, who worked at Head Start, that Rachel became interested in that program, then still part of the school district. She was inspired by its successful outreach to families, and eagerly joined the Head Start advisory Board. She began teaching at Head Start and enrolled in Sonoma State University for her teaching credential, earning a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education at the age of fifty.
In the Seventies, the County Office of Education was located next door to Brewsters when the Federal Government passed a law requiring counties to offer education to special needs preschoolers for the first time. Rachel recounts:
“The Superintendant was a buddy of Larry’s. He called me up one day and said, “We’re starting this program. I spoke to Larry and he said it was okay for me to hire you. I was so incensed that he would ask Larry before he would ask me!”
Rachel accepted the position. In the preschool program she designed, “You could meet families and become close to your students, because you cannot change a child’s life without having some contact with families.” From that first moment in 1976, Rachel was a working teacher, still full of energy when she finally retired in 2000 at the age of seventy.
“And believe me I saw miracles. I saw miracles happen…I saw children blossom. Kids that had been given up on–that was the fuel for me.” Tammy Rogers, who was Rachel’s classroom aide, says:
“She was a wonderful teacher. What really amazed me was working with her in the classroom; she would hold a kid on each leg and still be able to talk to the moms and do paperwork. If it hadn’t been for Rachel, I would have never have gone back to school to become a teacher…I would never have known about potato pancakes…she celebrated Hanukah along with Christmas and Kwanza with the toddlers.”
In l983, Rachel and her brother Harris Nussbaum were both honored as Teacher of the Year in Napa. Rachel comments that she was called “Mr. Nussbaum’s sister” when she visited his class as a guest speaker, and “Mr Brewster’s wife” in the store.
At the community college, where Carol Kelly hired her to teach in the Early Childhood Education program, she created a new class aimed at educating preschool teachers about special needs children. Although Rachel is no longer teaching there, she feels strongly that this knowledge is crucial for every preschool teacher.
In l986, the most devastating flood in a hundred years hit the town, as the Napa River rose to levels none living had seen before. Nearly 5,000 people were evacuated, 250 homes were destroyed, and three people died. Soscol Avenue turned into a river, most of Napa’s businesses were damaged from the floodwaters, and the downtown stores were drenched with mud. According to the Register: “Larry Friedman thanked his employees for saving the rest of the store by stacking sandbags until almost midnight; nobody has flood insurance. ‘If there’s such a thing as an off the floor sale we’ll have one,’ Friedman joked.”
But the drought years that followed eliminated Brewsters’ wet gear business, and two years after the flood, the town council voted to approve a Target Store in the Bel Aire shopping center. Target and Costco eliminated much of Brewsters’ camping gear sales. In l998, when no buyer for the store could be found, Larry and Rachel decided it was time to close. Kevin Courtney reported:
“News of Brewster’s demise had shaken a lot of old-time customers. “I had a woman break into tears. She said, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve been coming here as a child.’ When Larry made an appearance at the store Tuesday, a shopper came up to the busy shopkeeper and whispered, ‘This is history.’
Larry Friedman died in 2005. At his funeral, the Mayor sat shoulder to shoulder with store employees like Don Stern and Artie Kinney. Vineyard workers paid their respects alongside parents and children taught by Rachel. There was an entire row of homeless people whom Larry had befriended. Tammy Rogers remembers the event: “Mr. Friedman’s funeral was the very first time I’d ever gone to a Jewish synagogue. It was beautiful…all kinds of people, all cultures and backgrounds. As I sat there, I looked around and thought–What a life.”
Rachel Nussbaum Friedman just celebrated her eightieth birthday in downtown Napa at Buckhorn’s Restaurant. Her bridge club, which began with a conversation with Ellen Doniviel, Marsha Rothman, Nadine Zeller, and Cathy Valenzuela at La Cancha Fitness Center in the early Eighties, now holds two tables of women who play monthly and gather for Christmas dinners every year. Today, Rachel’s legacy runs like a river through all the children and mothers whose lives she touched…what a life, indeed.
Sources: Napa Register “Women in Business,” August 29, 1986.
Courtney, Kevin. “Doctor’s orders: Larry must quit,” Napa Register, December 9, 1998.
Weber, Lin. Under the Vine and the Fig Tree, Wine Ventures Publishing, St. Helena, 2003.
Friedman, Larry and Rachel. Interview by author, 2003.
Friedman, Rachel. Interview by author, New Year’s Eve 2009.
Thanks to Lauren Ellsworth for assistance with interview and Paula Amen Judah for editorial guidance.