A family-run corner shop serving Fort Bragg since 1933
story by Anna Levy
photos by Mathew Caine
Several blocks inland from downtown Fort Bragg, Colombi Market and Deli stands out. Located at the intersection of Oak and Harold streets, the store’s sign—in vertical neon and advertising, among other things, groceries and sundries—harkens back to an earlier time. Inside, though the aisles are now lined with a variety of modern-day needs ranging from energy drinks to fresh cilantro, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine those same shelves holding the standards of past generations.
As it turns out, finding the history within Colombi’s isn’t that difficult considering that, not only has it occupied the same space for the last 85 years, but it is still owned by the family who founded it. It even has original fixtures within its walls, including those vintage shelves.
Now run by three grandchildren of the couple who created what was then called the Sun-Brite Market, Colombi’s has no doubt seen changes since it first opened its doors in 1933. Yet in talking with Jeanette and Marissa Colombi, two granddaughters tasked with carrying on the legacy that originated with their Italian-immigrant grandparents and passed down through their father, it becomes increasingly clear that the true beauty of this stalwart of the Fort Bragg community is that it’s not just a story of a business, or even of a single family. In many ways, the story of Colombi’s is a story of this country itself.
In the early 1900s, Emanuelle Colombi was an olive picker in Cittanova, Italy, looking for a way out of poverty and into a better life for his family. “At some point,” Marissa explains, “he just wanted to live the American dream.” He made his way to the United States, coming through New York before traveling across Canada and finding his way to California where, his granddaughter continues, “he discovered the redwoods.”
As this gorgeous land has affected so many, the young man was smitten with Northern California. He decided to build a life here, first serving for the United States in World War I to earn citizenship before returning to Italy to fetch his wife, Serafina, and son, Robert. When he did, he took evidence of his new home with him, planting redwoods from this area in Cittanova, where they still stand today as a visible connection between two small towns a world away from one another.
Once in Fort Bragg, the Colombi family quickly found their place. Though Emanuelle originally worked at a logging camp, the family moved to Whipple Street and opened the market in 1933. Mama Colombi, as Serafina was soon nicknamed, became an integral part of the Italian community in town, known for both her cooking and her lively personality. The couple hosted dinner parties, which served multiple purposes—a chance to enjoy a sense of family for those who had left their own relatives in Italy, and a moment of freedom from a world where “people used to speak down to those who spoke another language,” Marissa says.
Though the family never had much money, Emanuelle and Serafina “would let people charge, would give them groceries,” explains Jeanette. “They would do what they could to help people out,” partially because they knew what it was to be poor. As a result, the Colombis became a couple that locals turned to when they needed help. At times, that translated into friends and neighbors coming to them when they needed to move on from Fort Bragg, offering to sell their homes at an affordable price so that they could be on their way. “Grandmother encouraged buying properties,” Marissa explains.
“They truly saw this as the land of opportunity,” Jeanette adds of her grandparents, “and were willing to work so Colombi Market A family-run corner shop serving Fort Bragg since 1933 story by Anna Levy photos by Mathew Caine Serafina and Emanuelle Colombi A young customer helps himself. 40 Word of Mouth • Fall 2018 hard.” The market, which originally started as a full-service grocery store and meat shop—there are still butcher hooks in the deli area today—blossomed into a family business that took on a number of different roles.
“Our Dad sold his first pack of cigarettes at 9,” Jeanette remembers. “He had to stand on a box because he wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter.”
Over time, the business expanded, growing to include a motel across the street that was originally conceptualized as a place for traveling salesmen to stay. The family also turned a neighboring feed store into a laundromat that still operates today. The deli came along in the late 1980s.
Just as Emanuelle and Serafina became more deeply rooted in the community, so too did their children, all attending schools in Fort Bragg and finding balance as Americans whose family had recently immigrated. “[They] wanted to be as American as possible,” Marissa says, noting that though Italian was spoken in the home, her father and his siblings were all encouraged to speak English. When World War II broke out, the three sons all enlisted, returning home safely after the war.
After the war, the Colombis’ eldest son, Robert, took over the business, running it until his own children stepped in. As it remains, Colombi’s is truly a family business. Jeanette, for example, remembers that she started working in the market at 13, stocking shelves. Though Jeanette eventually left Fort Bragg to attend college, Marissa and their brother, Robert, remained, running the business. When Jeanette returned, she joined them. In the ensuing years, they’ve tried to expand their audience so that the market remains a place that locals go on a regular basis, while also appealing to visitors from outside the area. “We feel very blessed that we’ve been supported by local people,” Jeanette says, noting that they occasionally still hear stories about their family from people who have been coming to Colombi’s for generations.
It’s hard to imagine Emanuelle and Serafina could have envisioned that, all these years later, in a world so unrecognizable in some ways, their market would still be going strong. It is easy to wonder what they would make of their corner store now, with its gluten-free bread, vegetarian sandwiches, local mustard, and so much more. It is likely that they would be proud of their legacy, evident in both their business and in their family. “They could cook and they could sell food so that’s what they did,” says Jeanette. From humble beginnings, they created a place that has, somehow, both withstood and transcended the pressures of time.
A lot has changed since 1933. Colombi’s is, perhaps, a reminder that some things have remained the same—the joy associated with good food, the satisfaction of building a life somewhere new, and the importance of community. All have stood the test of time in countless places, including right here in Fort Bragg, at the intersection of Harold and Oak.
Photos—main photo: Serafina and Emanuelle Colombi, slideshow: Marissa Colombi and Jeanette Colombi, A young customer helps himself, Colombi Market opened in 1933.
Columbi’s Market | 647 E Oak St, Fort Bragg | (707) 964-9274
Open 7am–9pm Sun–Th | Open 7am–10pm Fri & Sat
Anna Levy writes, cooks, and plans travel of all sorts whenever she can. She lives on the Mendocino Coast with her husband and two dogs.