Sonoma Stories: For 50 years, Western Farm Center has been a good neighbor

Brisk-stepping Bob Bertolini strode, for the umpteenth time of the day, across the parking lot at Western Farm Center in the heart of Santa Rosa. He had plenty of work to do.

But spotting a shopper loading the last of her purchases into her car, the 72-year-old Bertolini channeled his deceased big brothers. Adjusting his trajectory, he stepped to the woman to ask if he might return her empty cart to the store.

Such acts of retail neighborliness have been routine at the Bertolini family’s ranch-and-feed store since the late Larry Bertolini founded it 50 years ago with a partner, the late Bill Paganetti, and it became integral to the West End/Railroad Square district and a fountainhead of community philanthropy.

Bob Bertolini many times heard Larry, his eldest brother, say, and then second-eldest brother Lou repeat, “Take care of the customers and they’ll come back.”

Among the most notable aspects of Western Farm Center as it marks its first half-century are the green-shirted employees often posted at the door to offer shoppers a hand lugging items to their vehicles, and the caring the Bertolinis have extended to many who’ve never stepped foot into the emporium that long specialized in ranch-and-farm supplies and now sells mostly food and paraphernalia for dogs and suburban backyard chickens.

Larry Bertolini, the public face of the operation until his death in 2012 at age 85, invested WFC profits in a range of community endeavors and causes.

Most visible was his support of the Sonoma County Fair and Santa Rosa Junior College. He served for 17 years on the JC’s board of trustees and for the entire second half of the 20th century was the primary announcer of the school’s football and basketball games.

The $40 million Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center stands as a tribute to his decades of contributions to the college. Its annual open house, which he co-founded, is called the Larry Bertolini Day Under the Oaks.

“Western Farm Center and the Bertolinis…

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