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‘Good Life’ celebrates our consumer culture
By Dixie Reid   - 06/15/2008

The Sacramento Bee

More Info on This Book: The Good Life: Sacramento's Consumer Culture

Ah, the good life. We in Sacramento have enjoyed it for a long time.

So says historian and author Steven M. Avella, who grew up in the suburbs and fell in love with the heart of the city as a kid in the early '60s.

"My parents would let me take the bus alone downtown," he says. "I would get off at 11th and J streets. Country Maid was at the corner, and they had a glass case of pastries, and I would buy a doughnut for a nickel."

He would then walk down J Street to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and over to the Capitol. He ended his downtown adventures at Beers Books, a cool, magical retreat on summer afternoons. Once, to his parents' dismay, he ventured into Old Sacramento when it was a skid row.

Then it was back on the bus for the long ride home to Orangevale.

Avella is now 56 and a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He spends summers in Sacramento and is buying a home in Campus Commons, where he will retire. Meanwhile, he writes about his hometown.

Five years after the publication of "Sacramento: Indomitable City" comes the illustrated "The Good Life: Sacramento's Consumer Culture" (Arcadia, $19.99, 159 pages).

"The Good Life" is about shopping, Sacramento style.
Avella focuses primarily on where locals have bought cars, houses and groceries over the years, and he covers department stores and shopping malls.

"It's a slice of the Sacramento experience, how Sacramentans live their lives," he says. "They're citizens of the West and citizens of the capital of the largest state in the Union. Sacramentans of every generation also have been consumers. They need food, transportation, a place to buy manufactured goods. They need housing.

"There is more to be said than what's in this slender book, but I wanted to shine a spotlight on the history of something very mundane: How we buy."

Sacramento has been blessed with a healthy economy for many years, thanks to big employers such as state government, now-closed military installations (McClellan and Mather Air Force bases and the Army Signal Depot), Aerojet (which in the early 1960s had 20,000 workers) and, more recently, high-tech companies Intel and Hewlett-Packard.

Steady employment allowed many Sacramentans to own the big-ticket items: automobiles and houses. We have, for many years, bought vehicles "at very rapid rates – sometimes more extensively than any other part of California," he says. And the community has lived up to a slogan created long ago by civic boosters: "Sacramento: City of Homes."

Throughout the book, Avella name-drops locally owned businesses that helped shape Sacramento's consumer landscape. Arata Bros., for instance, may have introduced self-serve grocery shopping to Sacramento, and in its heyday, Breuner's was "the" place in town to buy furniture.

"The day-to-day life of citizens has a history, and how we've purchased and marketed goods and services has changed over time," Avella says by phone from Milwaukee. "In the 20th century, people had disposable incomes to buy these things. It's fun to see how people have shopped for groceries, for instance, when they had to go to different stores for meat and produce, to the supermarkets we have today."

Gary Kurutz, curator of the California State Library's special-collections archive where Avella did some of his research, says "The Good Life" offers a unique look at a city's past.

"We're all shoppers. Too often history is about either the enormously wealthy or the downtrodden but rarely those in the middle," he says.

Jim Henley, recently retired as the manager of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, says, "Steve is without a doubt the most professional researcher that I encountered in my 40 years at SAMCC. I think he's showing historians and the general public that there are new ways to look at our history."

Avella, who went to high school at St. Pius X Seminary in Galt, did his undergraduate work at Dominican College in Racine, Wis., and postgraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame.

He is a Catholic priest, and among his earlier books is "The Diocese of Sacramento: A Journey of Faith."
His hometown will be the setting of his next two books, as well. The scholarly "Capital City: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of Sacramento" will be published this fall, and he's writing a biography of C.K. McClatchy, editor of The Bee from 1883 to 1936.

"Sacramento is a wonderful microcosm to look at the California experience," says Avella. "While some good work has been done on Sacramento's history, the city still needs a lot of studying. Lots of areas of its life need to be examined, and I've devoted myself to doing that."

Buy It Now: The Good Life: Sacramento's Consumer Culture $19.99

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