1941 – January 17, 2002
Letter from Sambra’s former business partner, Susan Druding:
If you had written me a few weeks ago I would have known less than I do now. I’ve been doing a lot of searching in the Web trying to find Sambra off and on the last few years. Sadly, I found out about her a couple weeks ago. She died in January 17, 2002, apparently from lung cancer. I first found a death certificate on a site of statistics for Sambra N. Mitchell, born in 1941 in Virginia. (Mitchell was her married name). Then, knowing that she had had a diagnosis of Lupus in the 1980s I searched on Sambra + lupus on Google and found her messages she had written on a “Crone” message forum in late 2001 (prior to and after 9/11). [See bottom of my message with links to both these.] It was eerie reading her writing, knowing she was gone. She mentioned she was having pneumonia problems, but then her last message at the end of Sept 2001 said her “pneumonia” turned out to be lung cancer and she was beginning chemo. That was the last message. I still remember watching her roll her own cigarettes from a blue Bugle tobacco can when we lived together in Oakland.
As you probably found her on my Straw Into Gold website you’ll know that she and I started the business together in 1971. She was the spinner and I was the weaver and we taught each other. I was just finishing my M.A. in Textiles at UC Berkeley. We met in a private dyeing class and both had a dream of starting a spinning-weaving shop. Sambra had been apprenticed to the wife of one of the only spinning wheel makers in the USA, Cardarelle. The wife taught dyeing. We also had shared a house for a year or so, she used to make her wonderful lemon-chicken soup from a Turkish recipe and would make Turkish coffee for us, too. I had a lot of fiber sources and she had $1350 saved from the Peace Corps to put in. We did a slim bootstrap beginning and put all our personal items into the store and somehow it made it. (We each worked half time at real jobs, Sam at X-ray tech for a heart doc and me for AFSCME union organizing the white collar workers at UC Berkeley – and each half time at Straw. We worked alternate days and were together in the store on Saturdays.)
When we first began working on our business, she lived in a funny little rabbit warren type place in Oakland. Then we rented a lovely old house together with a friend on Vicente St in No. Oakland not far from the first place. Then she and I both got married (it was about 1967-68) and she moved with Buck Mitchell (her husband) and baby Hannah to Ruby St. She was living there when we did our final writing of the mail order catalog for Straw Into Gold early in 1971. I used to take my baby son to her house while we edited and wrote. Hannah was a toddler then. We opened Straw on Oct 3, 1971 in a tiny 500 sq ft place in the 5500 block of College Ave. just south of Rockridge BART (the area was DEAD then, BART was just being started and the block had many dead businesses – we were one of the first to move in as a new wave of hipper businesses began. We got a lot of early customers from CCAC – Calif. College of Arts and Crafts up the street from us). Our rent was $125 a month, no heat, no hot water, shelves were orange crates and boards – we barely squeaked by the first 6-8 months.
Did you know that all her wonderful rugs she had bought (Kurdish) in Turkey before she left, using most of her PC money were stolen from her house about then? There was a local druggie guy and the belief was that he sold them at a flea market – it was the saddest loss I ever saw her deal with – worse than her later divorce, I think.
Buck was working at the time on a How To Play Bottle Neck Guitar book – he was selling it at local music stores around the Bay Area, but had stopped truck driving. Sam could play 12-string guitar quite well, you may recall that?
She also was incredibly good at Turkish style ethnic embroidery and needlepoint and did some wonderful work. We both were weaving and spinning a lot then. She had wonderful tales of learning to spin in Turkey!
When we started the store in 1971 I had a 14 month old son and Sambra had a 2+ year old girl, Hannah. She had one more child a little boy, Teddy, about then.
After we had had the store for about 18 months, her grandmother died and she inherited money enough to finance her longtime dream of “back to the land”. She asked to take me out to lunch and talk. (unusual) She told me she had decided to leave our business and California and buy a farm in Oregon. It was a big blow since the shop was not making money and we had to decide to close it or I had to buy her out and go solo. I borrowed $3500 from my mother and bought out Sambra’s half (we had built the inventory up to $7000 and she just asked half to buy her out).
We sort of stayed in touch after she left – she wound up in Bandon, Oregon on the coast. She had a small farm and worked at the Historical Museum and some kind of restaurant in town. We visited her once (Buck had left, they divorced). She then got together with a guy, Terry whose last name I forget, who was an incredible drawing artist (he did illustrations of Mayan ruins and artifacts for Nat’l Geo magazines in Guatemala) and had been doing illustrations for the Bandon Historic Museum of old ships and things. They came down to the Bay Area again to live for a while and she actually worked for a year or so at Straw Into Gold again as sort of manager (I had built the business up a lot in the years she had been gone! It was now in a large building in Berkeley and selling the full range of textile things – knitting included). After a year or so they went back to Oregon and we fell out of touch.
I know Sam had been in touch with a couple of her Turkey Peace Corps friends, one (Opie?) had a rug studio and wrote books and lived in this area. We had a lost person ask for help one day and he turned out to be Turkish and suddenly Sam found she could remember how to speak Turkish and had a nice conversation with him. I finally got a chance to go to Turkey for a month about 8 years ago, I drove all over the western and Medit. areas of the country with 2 rug weavers, ancient history buff friends and we had a wonderful time. I tried to find Sam to tell her about it but couldn’t locate her in Oregon.
So, this is more than you wanted to know, but I thought I’d give you some details. I think I had seen your comment on that Peace Corps message board when I was looking for Sam in the past and our shop was mentioned as I had her name in my little history section of our web site.
We had our business in Berkeley (corner of Ashby and San Pablo) for 20 years (it’s now a Discount Fabric store) and when we lost our lease we moved to Richmond. We are now doing wholesale only of knitting yarns and related supplies. No more weaving and spinning – we turned that over to a former employee who took that part of the business to Bainbridge Is, WA.
I wish I had had better news about Sambra for you – I’d have loved to have been in touch with her over the past decade and a half!
Susan C. Druding
Crystal Palace Yarns – Straw Into Gold, Inc.
160 23rd Street, Richmond, CA 94804