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With its roots anchored in agriculture and old-style customer service, Sam’s Downtown Feed & Pet Supply has served San Jose for more than 30 years.
Advertised as “feeding anteaters to zebras,” the store provides livestock and chicken feed, beekeeping supplies, grain, hay and zoological feed. In addition to feeding llamas, alpacas and flamingos, it also sells pet food and supplies for dogs, cats, rats, rabbits and birds.
Owner Sam Blackford, 66, operates the store out of a 100-year-old building at 759 W. San Carlos St. that resembles a barn, with its wooden cross beams, pictures of cows, a tractor and hay bales. Blackford said the family atmosphere and the wholesomeness of feed, grain and livestock bring him joy, while the sweet smells evoke memories of his feed mill days.
“It takes me back,” he told San José Spotlight. “We’re closed on Sundays. When I open the door Monday morning, I love the aroma. People of my generation and older who come in say they haven’t experienced that smell since they were kids.”
Blackford said it’s the people, atmosphere and storied agricultural past that makes the business worthwhile. He loves children and gives them coloring sheets when they visit the store. He and his wife Lisa have two children of their own and five grandchildren.
“Kids and animals usually go together,” he said. “When a child comes in with a new puppy or bunny rabbit it warms my heart.”
The family business
Blackford’s great grandfather came to San Jose from Pennsylvania in 1860 and was known locally for his apricot and prune orchards. The family’s last name graces an elementary school, high school and local streets. Blackford worked in his father Walter’s feed mill and recalls visiting Emma Prusch Farm Park when it was a dairy. Today, the farm park and Happy Hollow Park & Zoo are Blackford’s customers.
But Blackford wasn’t always involved in this line of work. After attending Willow Glen High School and West Valley College, he worked as a DJ at a local radio station and at The Circle Star Theater, a former supper club in San Carlos. He worked at CBS in Los Angeles before returning to radio in the Bay Area.
His life changed when he and his cousin, Conrad Leedom, took jobs at James Grain Warehouse. They loved working in agriculture and in 1986, partnered to open Sam’s Downtown Feed & Pet Supply.
Now the sweet smell of hay, an old farm truck and a horse statue outside the store are all reminders of a far-gentler pre-pandemic world.
The post-pandemic environment has caused supply chain problems, including issues with oyster shell deliveries from Tomales Bay, canned pet food and livestock hardware from overseas and grain products and fertilizer from the Ukraine. In addition, many of Blackford’s hay suppliers can’t get enough water to grow crops.
“It’s very frustrating,” Blackford said. “We’re having to compromise and let customers down a bit. It’s character building.”
But he’s persevering, thanks to the uniqueness of his daily life running an old-fashioned feed store.
Employee Paul Lavrischeff said people are dependent on the store’s wide selection of hay and feed. The store carries rice straw for chicken nests and sweet-smelling alfalfa hay for goats, tortoises, rabbits and horses. People also buy its grass hay and oats for horses and alfalfa and oat hay for cows.
“It’s nice to see,” Lavrischeff told San José Spotlight. “It makes you feel like you’re part of the community.”
For customers, feed they can’t find elsewhere and a trip down memory lane are what the store is all about.
Long-time customer Sue Hodge appreciates the variety of seed bins for wild and domestic birds. She feeds doves, pigeons and zebra finches.
“Even the big ranches have to come here because there’s nowhere else to go,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’d be horrified if he ever closes or retires.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].
Sam’s Downtown Feed & Pet Supply keeps customers coming back