Molly Leary of Squash Blossom Vintage at her home in Auburn, California
To get to country singer and vintage dealer Molly Leary’s unique rural oasis, you drive towards the serene mountain vistas of California’s historic Gold Country. Perfectly perched on a grassy hillside, it overlooks a quiet canyon. The mostly redwood house was built in 1978 and is famed as being one of the first passive solar homes in California.
Kismet is the only way to describe Molly’s family ending up on this land. A few years back Molly decided to leave Austin’s rich music scene and relocate her family and her vintage business to her childhood stomping grounds. Molly’s two young girls, Susannah and Louise, are on the Autism spectrum. The resources and schools in California are much better than what is available in Texas and returning to California meant they would grow up with their grandma and aunt nearby.
Molly accidentally stumbled on the house on Zillow while looking for available rentals near her mother’s home in Auburn, CA. She wasn’t looking to buy a place but when she clicked through the photos she couldn’t shake the feeling this home was meant for her and her girls. After an in-person tour she knew she had to find a way to make it hers. It was a cash deal and she couldn’t get a loan because it was in need of serious repairs. Her agent said it was likely to be torn down for new development.
It felt like divine intervention when her community rallied together to help her get the house. Molly’s real estate agent worked with another agent to buy the house in cash and their friend who owned a construction company made the necessary repairs so that Molly could get a conventional loan.
Since moving in 2017, Molly has continued to breathe new life into the place. She built a thriving year-round garden that she tends with her girls. She had a magic circle window and window seat installed in her daughters’ room. She got the original deck hot tub back in working order. It will be a never ending list of projects but she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Molly runs her business, Squash Blossom Vintage, out of her home. Every Tuesday at 10:30am PT she lists her weekly gems on Instagram. She sells out within hours. Having been in the vintage game for the last 14 years, her business has evolved and grown organically over time. Molly has built a loyal customer following by expertly sourcing unique pieces, mostly from the 60s-70s. She briefly had a storefront in Austin, but realized after a short while that it made the most sense to sell online. She sold through her website until last year when she began exclusively listing items for sale in her IG stories.
Running her business from home allows her to spend ample time with her daughters. They spend their days cooking together, gardening, and doing art projects. A favorite family activity is piling into Molly's Ford Ranger and driving up to a magic mountain vista to have a picnic and a nap. Molly envisions living the length of her days here. She imagines growing old with her girls, if they decide to stay. This home, this canyon, this land feels very much meant to be.
Q & A
CORONAVIRUS INTERVIEW follow-up
How have you been coping through this very difficult and scary time?
Being home with my girls all the time has helped keep me centered and positive. I spend my nights preparing art and simple school lessons for the next day which gets my mind off of what’s happening outside of my control and back to making things as beautiful and weightless as possible for my daughters who don’t know what’s happening other than that their routine has changed and they are home all the time now. I wake up each morning and squeeze in some form of exercise before they get up which has always helped to keep anxiety at bay. I feel so grateful for FaceTime too and being able to connect with loved ones at night. We play records all day and I play my guitar at night- music has always been an escape for me and a beautiful place to go to.
What hopeful things have you witnessed during this pandemic?
The overall solidarity I see of people in neighborhoods, communities, areas then extending to states and the country... and worldwide. I can’t think of anything in my lifetime which connects all humans in such an acute and real way. There seems to be a general belief that working together is our best chance for surviving this pandemic and there is a strange beauty in that to me.
You have been doing some really great activities with your girls, what advice for parents with little ones to keep their hands and minds occupied with positive activities?
I’ve always shared what I love with my girls and try to involve them however possible in all I do. I’ve seen how empowering this is over the past several weeks at home in many ways. They help to make our lunch every day and set the table. We bake cakes and breads and muffins and the joy and pride they take knowing they helped make it gives them so much happiness. When I plan art activities I try to make things as tactile as possible and set spaces up so they can be free to explore and make messes. I love projects that have several parts to them. This week, for example, our neighbor gave us clay and we made tons of beads that we will fire in a kiln. Then we will spend time learning how to glaze pottery. Later we can string them into necklaces and give them to people we love. We also spend loads of time in our garden. We plant seeds into the beds and mark down what is in each row. Every day we go peek and see if anything has sprouted and water our seedlings. In later spring we will make lunch with what we’ve grown. Most of our activities are life skills that I want them to know and be confident in.
How have you been managing co-parenting?
What I value most about my co-parenting relationship is our flexibility, compassion and commitment to our girls which has made this difficult time we are all going through much more manageable.
How has gold country rallied together during this time? Do you feel even more grateful to be in this community and on this land?
The gold country has always had a collectivist spirit and that feels even more amplified during this time. Our neighbor is amazing and we walk down the hill to play with her chickens and pick wildflowers on the mountain. There are farmers markets, CSA boxes and farm deliveries keeping folks afloat. People here are self-sufficient but always willing to lend a hand too. The rivers and canyons and Sierra Nevada mountains make space seem limitless and there’s a feeling of freedom and space which has helped so much during the quarantine.
Have you wrapped your head around the potential lasting effects? How do you envision our society, our world, and our communities changing after this is over?
There’s an inevitability of evolution that exists during any time of adversity. I feel this experience may be encouraging us to think of more creative ways to survive and perhaps it will bring us to a less polarized and more harmonious place in the world.
What advice do you have for people in the city and suburbs who want to start growing their own food and/or becoming more self-sufficient?
I’d say to start small. It’s easy to get derailed and discouraged when you make any change or shift in life that begins too grand. Get a sprouting jar and some seeds and start there. Pickle some cucumbers from the farmer’s market and if you like that make some jam when berries are in season. If that’s fun learn to can and preserve them for times they are out of season. And you keep going and going. When this sort of lifestyle is organic and natural for you it’s quite easy to take the steps to the next thing because it will be exciting and not scary at all.
Have you noticed a shift in what you value and deem important?
I don’t feel like my core values have shifted at all from this pandemic. I feel if anything they’re becoming stronger.
Do you think this pandemic will inspire more people to begin learning more self-sufficiency skills?
I do. I hope people learn the joy or living in a supportive community and get involved in what’s happening around them.
Do you think more people will migrate from urban areas after this has ended?
I think this crisis could be nurturing a state of mind where living with uncertainty is normalized. People are having to reassess their living situations now more based on survival than preference or desire. This may lead many to our more rural areas solely based on their affordability but I’m sure many people are allured by the idea of living off the land during these crazy times.
Have you had to change the way you operate/run Squash Blossom Vintage since this virus? What advice do you have for other small business owners who are trying to find a way to weather this?
it’s hard, no way to sugar coat it. Not only am I homeschooling my two daughters but the world has gotten the wind knocked out of its sails both financially and emotionally. I operate my business much the same but have been listing about half as many items as usual until things level out. I don’t expect to make what I usually do and have budgeted accordingly. My advice is to try. It’s not insensitive or in poor taste to try. We need to live and survive and so we try and we do our best to provide for ourselves and our families. That’s all we can do right now. I’ve had so many of my regular customers reach out to let me know they are here and will be back as soon as things level out and that’s so sweet to hear. I remind myself each day that this too shall pass and I keep on trying.
What motivated you to leave the Austin and move to Gold Country?
I grew up down the hill from here and wanted to raise my girls close to my mom and sisters.
Did you consider a lot of other locations before moving here? What made you decide to settle in this particular community and area?
I knew we would be in Northern California but auburn is a town I’ve loved since I was a little girl. It’s historic and beautiful but has a realness and grit to it that most towns around these parts don’t have.
What initially was the hardest part about making the transition from city to rural? What challenges came later?
I first moved “to the country” soon after moving to Austin about 15 years ago. Bought an old 1905 farmhouse in a tiny town 20 minutes east of Austin called Elgin. The hardest part back then was playing gigs all week in Austin and having to stay sober to drive home! Auburn is so close to Lake Tahoe and San Francisco is just a few hours away so I never feel deprived of city life if I need that at any time.
Have you been able to foster more friendships and meaningful relationships here or do you feel more isolated socially?
I have. I actually found or people found me through Instagram and I’ve become very involved in projects with the city and have had the opportunity to meet a lot of incredible artists and musicians through them.
Do you feel like you have more creative opportunities in the country or less?
Much more. For me, I’ve always felt more creatively charged when I’m not over stimulated and have space to breathe and think.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here for you and your little ones?
I finally have the sense that this is my forever place. There’s no longing to roam. Something always seems not quite the right fit in the past and this really feels like home and where we all belong.
Have you noticed a change in your girls since moving here?
They were so little when we moved to California and all they knew was country in Texas too so not really.
Can you tell us a bit more about this house. How did you find it? What is its history?
It is a crazy story really. I was looking for a rental home until we found the right spot and after visiting a beautiful neighborhood on the American river canyon one afternoon I went back to my mom’s house where we were staying down the hill and got in one of those house finder website that I thought showed rentals. I scrolled around the area on the map and clicked in this house and gasped. I went and looked at it the next day- it was a cash only deal and was likely going to be torn down and redeveloped. The house wasn't lendable for several reasons including the need for an expensive city water meter and water main to the house and various dry rot areas. I told the realtor this was my hone and I didn’t know how but that I was going to get it and she believed me.
It was built in 1978 and was one of the first passive solar homes in California. It’s primarily redwood and has many Japanese influences tied in like a small soaking tub in the bedroom and sliding wood windows. The architect would go to the nearby commune to get his work crew and they would meditate every day before building this home amongst the trees. One day the listing agent called me (after I had visited the home a few more times) and told me to come up that Sunday. When I arrived she introduced me to another realtor and his friend who is a contractor. I told them this was my home and why it was the best place to reside my girls and the next day the agent called me to say they had paid cash for it and were going to fix everything to make it lendable so that I could get a traditional loan for it and sure enough they did! Angels all around. With a lucky investment from my way-back-in-the-day job after college and some dang good luck I got the home.
How has your professional life changed since moving away from the city?
Really not at all. I sell entirely on the internet with the rare occasional pop up in SF or LA
Tell us about Squash Blossom Vintage. When did you start your business? How has it evolved since its inception?
I started officially about 15 years ago when I got to Austin though I worked in vintage for long before then. I’ve always been into flea markets and antique stores and thrifting since childhood and it organically grew into what it is today. I really believe if you do what you love and what’s natural people are going to respond to that. I sell the style of clothing I wear which is easy sensual pieces in natural fabrics from late 60s through 70s. I think staying authentic and not caring about trends has helped my business too.
How did you/do you overcome any feelings of uncertainty and fear when it comes to making decisions and taking risks?
I have never been scared of risks and have had real luck in life with trusting my gut. The very few times I haven’t listened to it it has majorly backfired on me so I’m pretty solid with my own vibration now at my age.
Where do your draw your creative inspiration from?
Music has always been the biggest influence for me.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
Really, no, I don’t.
Would you ever consider moving back to a city?
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
I think to be happy further out you really need to like you. Really like YOU! I always hear people saying things like “I just live that I can walk downtown the street to get my cup of coffee” and for me I’m much happier making a coffee in a pottery pour-over and drinking it while listening to records, burning some incense and hanging with my girls.
How did your friends and family respond to your move? Have you convinced any to follow in your footsteps?
They all love visiting so no biggie. Not many have moved further out to be honest. It’s just harder for some folks to make the change. It is not for everyone.
Do you notice a trend of people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
I think a lot of people my generation and the one after me resonate with the whole “back to the earth” movement that was so new and big in the early 70s. The space and breathing room is hard to leave once you get a taste of it.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I have heard people speculate that people live out in the country because the city is too expensive. Or that (particularly in Texas) country folks aren’t as sharp as city people and I really couldn’t disagree more. I have met some of the most brilliant artists and poets and some live like recluses and some just don’t have a need to go into the big city because they are able to sustain life on their land - and that’s something most scholars couldn’t dream of doing.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Keep restoring this home and keep growing my business in a slow organic way that makes sense for us.