At top left are some of the key players at the new Mill Valley Lumber Yard. They include, from left. Front row: Makers Market owner Suzy Ekman, Bloomingayles owner Gayle Nicoletti, MVLY co-owner Jan Mathews; 2nd row: Ambatalia owner Molly de Vries, Makers Market manager Heath Owen, author Karen Benke, artist Victoria Mimiaga, educational therapist Maeve Burke, MVLY co-owner Matt Mathews, Restoration Hardware founder Stephen Gordon; Back row: Watershed chef Kyle Swain, Watershed owner Ged Robertson, architect Chris Dorman, Red Crow co-founder Jerry Harrison, Flour Craft Bakery co-owners Heather Hardcastle and Rick Perko and Red Crow co-founder Brian Smith.

Story & photos by Jim Welte
As any good yarn should, the story of the rebirth of the historic Mill Valley Lumber Yard began with a hankering for a bag of popcorn.

PictureMatt & Jan Mathews.

​Matt Mathews went to Tamalpais Paint & Color on Miller Ave. on a Friday morning in 2012 to grab some paint for one of his family’s buildings in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Since he was in the area, he swung by the then-Mill Valley Lumber Co. at 129 Miller Ave. to see if they had any good deals on tools – but mostly to grab a bag of the shop’s free, delicious popcorn.

As he waited in line, Mathews heard co-owner Dan Cerri tell a customer that they were unable to sell the hardware business and had put the historic, nearly one-acre up for sale as developable land. Mathews shuddered.

“Couldn’t imagine those buildings being torn down,” he says of the property lumber magnate Robert Dollar built in 1892.

“It couldn’t have been a quicker decision – we just jumped in,” adds his wife Jan Mathews.

​Flash forward six years. It’s midday on a Wednesday. The new Miller Valley Lumber Yard is absolutely abuzz with activity.

Heather Hardcastle and Rick Perko and hustling around to serve up their Flour Craft Bakery gluten-free treats and sandwiches to a plethora of customers. Molly de Vries, owner of Ambatalia, a shop that showcases “modern ecological textiles to support a non-disposable life,” is beaming.

PictureSuzy Ekman and Heath Owen of Makers Market.

​“It can’t get any better than this,” she says.

Gayle Nicoletti’s Bloomingayles, a floral design shop, is busier than it’s ever been since she opened it nearly five years ago in an old shipping container she shares with de Vries’ Ambatalia.

Stephen Gordon, who founded Restoration Hardware nearly 40 years ago, has the look of a man who’s seeing the payoff on a bet he placed in 2013. That’s when he made the Lumber Yard the home of the flagship store of his then-fledgling Guideboat Co., which is inspired by the classic wooden boats from upstate New York where he grew up.

Suzy Ekman and Heath Owen, owner and operations manager of the new Makers Market retail shop, are standing in the middle of the yard, almost in awe at that vibrancy they’re seeing on a weekday afternoon at a property that is months away from full fruition, with Ged Robertson’s new  Watershed eatery on the way later this year and a few other vacant spaces.

“This is incredible,” Ekman says.

One momentous decision in summer 2012 ignited it all.


​Since 1995, Matt and Jan Mathews, who met while working at real estate giant Grubb & Ellis in the mid-1980s, have run a family business that buys properties, leverages Matt’s background in construction and renovates them. They lease the properties out and manage each themselves, and had just finished an arduous renovation of a historic building in the City of Sonoma. They were ready to “just hit cruise control for a bit,” Mathews says.

But the prospect of losing those Lumber Co. buildings straddling the creek at 129 Miller gnawed at them, especially in the town where they’ve lived since 1990. They inquired, and found out bids were due in less than 72 hours. A frantic weekend ensued, and they placed their bid. And then they waited. And then came a counter offer, with a note that the Cerri family, which had owned the property for 14 years, appreciated their plan to keep the buildings.

PictureFlour Craft Bakery owners Heather Hardcastle and Rick Perko.

​Needless to say, it was one of many “what exactly did we just do?” moments for the couple, who had two girls at college at the time and “plenty to keep us very busy for a long time,” says Jan Mathews, noting that their hopes to recruit a Bay Area hardware store tenant were met with disinterest.

Through a friend in Matt’s hometown of Eureka, they met Gordon, who was readying a new chapter with Guideboat. He’d briefly eyed the property himself but passed. The trio hit it off, inking a lease to open a flagship store at what became the Mill Valley Lumber Yard.

Nicoletti and de Vries followed soon after, and the Mathews dove into the planning process for the 42,500-square-foot site.

Given the historic nature of the project, the complications that come with renovating buildings that are more than 120 years old, the property’s proximity to dense residential neighborhoods and the then-impending 18-month Miller Avenue project, it was by far the most difficult project the couple had ever endured.

“It was complicated, integrating steel and wood while so close to the road,” Matt Mathews says.

PictureAmbatalia owner Molly de Vries.

​And in the midst of all of it, a massive health scare befell Matt Mathews, one that would take him a full year to fend off.

“It sure added to my motivation to get it done – I knew I didn’t want to leave it for Jan to deal with all by herself,” he says with a chuckle.

“That time really solidified our connections to the community,” Jan Mathews says. “There was so much support. It really helped us get through it.”

As the excitement builds, Matt and Jan Mathews are mindful of their journey.

“Having (Guideboat, Ambatalia and Bloomingayles) stick with us through all of this has been really great,” Jan Mathews says. “And everyone here embodies what we look for. They’re creators, innovators and authentic.”

That includes artists and small businesses renting the small offices at the Lumber Yard, from authors and artists to the equity crowdfunding site co-founded by legendary local musician Jerry Harrison. Most tenants walk or bike to work each day.

“They all feed off of each other,” Jan Mathews says.

PictureBloomingayles owner Gayle Nicoletti.

​Nicoletti is still processing it all.

“I’m seeing people all of a sudden who I haven’t seen in years, and others who had no idea what was happening here,” she says. “It’s so exhilarating to meet people who are coming here for the first time and to see how excited they are to be here.”
“After all these years and hard work, Matt and Jan’s vision has come true, instantly, and the community has gravitated here,” adds de Vries. “It’s amazing.”

“There are few people who could have accomplished what Matt and Jan have done here,” Gordon says. “That’s a testament to their integrity and their respect for the property and respect for the neighbors and their community. They deserve every ounce of the kudos they’re getting for what they’ve done here.”

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