Just south of downtown San Jose and a stone’s throw from the Los Gatos Creek you’ll find a shop with a big, maroon façade that could be easily mistaken for a saloon. The building’s Western lettering and giant horse statue in the parking lot contrast starkly with the modern-looking apartment complex, gym and vintage clothing shop that dot West San Carlos Street.
Inside the store you’ll find Sam Blackford, co-owner of Sam’s Downtown Feed & Pet Supply with his wife Lisa. And he’s proud of it, too. His family has been in the agricultural business in San Jose since 1860 – and he’s owned his business since 1986. Walking in, you’d think it was still the ’80s, since Blackfords to digitize his business – he doesn’t refuse to have a single computer on the premises. We sat down with Blackford to talk about the feed business, why it’s important to him and how the pandemic has affected the industry.
Q Your family has a storied history here in the city. Tell me about that.
A I don’t want to seem immodest. I’m very proud of our heritage. My mother is Canadian. My father’s family came to San Jose in 1860. They were part of the agriculture draw. My paternal grandfather was in agriculture, and so he brought it sort of with him from the Midwest. (He grew)prunes, I believe, (and) apricots… but prunes were the biggest thing then.
Q And so is your family’s history how you ended up getting into the agricultural business, too?
A My dad’s family had a feed mill here in town. Like other children, I left and went into something totally different. I did radio here in town, and then through another broadcasting job, I got to CBS in Los Angeles and I worked there for a while. And then the entertainment thing got kind of shaky and I decided that it was fun for a 20-something but wouldn’t be great for a 40-something. And so I grew up in (the agricultural business) because of my dad’s thing. And it was just osmosis.
Q So when did you open up your feed shop? And what is a feed store?
A We opened this in ’86. When we started it, it was a feed store for livestock animals. Cows horses sheep pigs chickens that sort of thing. And over the years, as the neighborhood has developed and the city has developed, more and more urban pets came to be. And so it’s not so much now a feed store, but it’s an urban pet supply store. But we still sell hay and grain and those things.
Q What sort of folks are coming through the front doors?
A (A) broad spectrum. They’re original folks who are twice my age. There are people who have just moved here to the area. There are second and third-generation people. We now have people whose parents brought them in here when they were kids and they’re now adults.
Q What’s the weirdest animal that you’ve supplied food for?
A I don’t know about weird. Well, the local zoo is one of our best customers. So antiaters and all kinds of stuff. But backyard animals, I couldn’t tell you. And a lot of it, people wouldn’t want to know about because it’s not legal.
Q How has the pandemic affected your business?
A We (initially) had an increase in business because people were staying home with their animals. So we saw an influx of business. Over time, it has sort of flattened out a bit. And here’s another thing. Transportation issues. We have had a lot of empty shelves and we get worried that our clientele or customers would think that we weren’t doing our job because the sales were empty. Well, it was because of availability and distribution.
Q Is there anything that’s really hard to get right now?
A Sunflower seeds. (And) believe it or not, oystershell. Oystershell is used for calcium for chickens. Clams produce oyster shells. Tomales Bay is the main clam resource. No oyster shell this season.
Q What do you like about the feed business?
A I like the smell of the building in the morning. The majority of the people that we trade with are nice, down to Earth people. It is still fairly non-stressful. It’s not like the computer business or some others. It is what you make it. And I don’t make it stressful. That’s probably why we don’t have computers. If we had computers, we’d be online all the time and checking stuff out. And I didn’t need that. We wanted to be a neighborhood feed store.
Q You don’t have a computer in the entire store?
A Not a computer. We don’t email, we don’t text.
Q What do people not know about this business that you think would surprise them?
A Most people who keep animals are very diligent. They’re very compassionate. A lot of people would give themselves before they give their animals. And we see that when we get to know customers for eight or ten or twelve years, we get to know their animals by name. Say, “So, how’s Spicy doing? We lost her. She died. We had her put to sleep last week.” So we share those things. We get Christmas cards. We send out sympathy cards for animals who passed away. Well, and these are all a variety, but some of them are sympathy cards. [Points to a card stand by the register.] There’s some specific pet sympathy ones here. Animals, in my opinion, are part of the family. And as you can probably relate, different members of the family get treated (in) different ways. There are some who are… the right word is coveted. You know, they’re everything. And then like some family members, they could do without them.
About Sam Blackford
Title: Co-owner of Sam’s Downtown Feed & Pet Supply along with his wife Lisa.
Residence: San Jose.
Past experience: Radio broadcasting in San Jose. Former employee at James Grain, a business that his cousin owned in the early ’80s.
Pets: Just “a handful of cats” right now. Has owned steers, dogs and geckos in the past.
Five things about Sam
- San Jose’s Blackford Avenue and Lane, as well as Blackford Elementary (and the now shuttered high school) are named after Sam’s family who came to the region in the 1860’s.
- In his office, Sam keeps a bunch of old memorabilia, like a cash register from the ’20s or ’30s that was used until the ’80s. He also keeps old grain sacks from now defunct companies hanging around his store.
- Sam’s store is in a building that is over 100 years old and its first use was as a car dealership.
- The bricks came from a brickyard where San Jose’s Del Mar High School is located.
- Sam refuses to digitize the sign that shows all of the grain prices in his store – from wheat bran to gamebird vita mix to Purina show rabbit grain. The sign is old school, with snap-in numbers and letters.