By Lisa Britton
For the Baker City Herald
Beverly Calder wanted to make a life in Baker City, so she created a business niche for herself andndash; a wine shop she called Bella.
Eighteen years later, Bella is about much more than wine.
Calder's stores - the original in Baker City, and since 2010 one in La Grande - are stocked with kitchen gadgets, cookware, bakeware, linens, dishes, specialty food items, local garlic, coffee, tea, local meat and chocolate.
But the wine is still there, too - the shelves are stocked with bottles from about 2,000 different producers.
"I have to appeal to everybody," Calder says. "There has to be a little bit of everything."
She's planning an 18th birthday bash at her Baker City store from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 14. Her vendors have sent merchandise for giveaways, and there will be product demonstrations all afternoon and drawings every 15 minutes for gadgets, bakeware, cookware, appliances, gift baskets and gift certificates.
Calder arrived in Baker City in 1993 from Portland, traveling here with Barbara Sidway, who came to see about restoring the Geiser Grand Hotel (which then was a mustard-colored run-down building).
"I remember turning on to Main Street," Calder says. "The buildings were covered with plaster but it was still breathtaking."
It would be four years before Bella opened - that time involving some life changes and renovation of Calder's house, which was built in 1895.
"That's what I did for four years. I restored the house," she says.
Calder admits she nearly went back to Portland to stay. But Baker City had caught her heart.
Plus, Tabor Clarke, a Baker City jeweler, had handed her a list of locals who enjoyed wine. It was Calder's first mailing list.
She'd been working at For All Seasons, which was housed in the McCord building on Resort Street. To start the next chapter of her life, she wrote a business plan, rented the building attached to For All Seasons, and opened Bella on May 14, 1997.
(Her first Bella store was in McMinnville. She chose the name by opening an Italian dictionary, and "Bella" which means "beautiful," was the first word she saw. "It was perfect and captured everything I wanted my adventure to be," Calder says. "It had magic, it was fun to say and it was very, very Italian!")
This first location in Baker City was a cozy space.
"It was itsy-bitsy," Calder says.
She had room for the wine, then she filled the space with her own pottery and antique furniture. She baked pastries, held high teas and hosted a beer garden in the yard.
"I did everything I could to get attention," she says.
Within two months she hired her first employee.
She remembers when her confidence soared about her business venture.
"We sold 10 pounds of parmesan reggiano in a few weeks and I thought, 'This is going to work!' " she recalls. "People in Baker knew good food."
Her mentor is a man named Guido, who owned a neighborhood grocery store named Checkerboard Grocery in Price, Utah, where Calder would spend weekends at her grandma's house. She remembers trips to that small shop, which was open every day.
When Bella had been open for four years, Calder went to visit Guido, whom she hadn't seen for 25 years. She told him about her own store.
He didn't think it was quite perfect.
"He wagged his finger at me and said 'you have to be open seven days a week. You need to be there when people need you.' "
So she extended her operating days to seven.
"Seven days rocks," she says. "We get thanked every day."
(The checkerboard part of the Bella logo pays homage to Checkerboard Grocery and to Guido.)
As for all the wine selections she carries, don't worry if you need help choosing the perfect one.
"That's why we're here," she says.
Calder has been in the wine industry since the mid-1980s, when Oregon had 10 or 12 wineries as compared with more than 300 today.
She's worked in restaurants, resorts and a shop called Burgundy and Bleu, always striving to bring good wine to the communities where she lived.
"I have been in very lucky places in my life," she says.
Needing More Space
Calder hadn't been running her store for long in Baker City when she realized Bella needed more room. In 1998 she moved into the Mint building on the east side of Main Street. There she had enough room to put the wine in a separate room, and to add housewares to her inventory.
"We were growing by leaps and bounds," she says.
Wedding registries also helped.
"People still get married, even in down times," she says.
Eventually she needed even more space. Her goal was to move across Main Street, to the Osborn building, near the corner of Main and Broadway, that once housed The Idea Shop.
"A really good friend helped me buy the building. And that's what made Bella," she says.
That was in June 2003. She went from 1,000 square feet to 4,000.
"We have, over the last 12 years, filled the space," Calder says.
The store layout creates pockets of space - kitchen gadgets, cookware and utensils, housewares, food and, of course, wine. She added the grocery component after Albertson's moved from Resort Street, near downtown, out to East Campbell near the freeway.
"You've got to be able to buy bread, milk and eggs downtown," Calder says. (She was thankful when the Baker Co-op moved downtown to also fill this niche.)
She also stocks "the best pasta in the world" and locally made products, such as Triple S barbecue sauce.
"We've sold every Baker food product that's been produced," Calder says. "We've helped people build markets. You have to help other people take the same leap you did. This community has been so good to me."
And she gives back, supporting the town that has supported her. In addition to small contributions, Bella has a "365 Community Grant" fund. Calder said she and her employees pick 20 projects each year that directly benefit women and children in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, and donate $365 to each.
Bella is also a sponsor of the Baker City Cycling Classic. Now in it's 14th year, the race brings about 300 bicycle riders to town every June.
"I've loved the race from the beginning," Calder says.
When, in the event's early years, she heard about the disparity in prize money between men and women, she began providing $100 cash premiums for the women's Criterium stage in downtown Baker City.
Now the prize purse is equal for men and women. It was the first bike race in the country to do this, as well as have the exact same routes and distances for all participants.
Expanding To La Grande
Five years ago Calder expanded Bella again.
This time she opened a second shop, 45 miles away in La Grande.
This idea came about after gas prices jumped to $4 per gallon and Bella's business dropped off.
"Fifty percent of our business drove over 50 miles," Calder says.
She opened Bella La Grande on April Fool's Day, 2010.
"This town was starving for something fun," she says.
Although both stores carry the same merchandise, she's noticed that some items sell better in La Grande, while others appeal more to Baker City shoppers.
"Both towns have very different markets," she says.
But both shops carry wine, and the Bella staff helps customers choose the perfect bottle, and can even share the stories behind the labels, such as one that comes from a small vineyard in Italy where a woman took over the business after her father died.
"There were no women in the wine business," Calder says. "Her wines are amazing."
Wine, she says, is the chance to enjoy life just a little more - especially when paired with good food and shared with friends.
"Wine is part of slow. Life is fast enough," she says. "I love selling great wine that people will enjoy tonight."
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