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Bel Aire Plaza, Then and Now: Photos and Memories

"It used to be a dreary place," said Napa native Maddie Hoover of the Bel Aire Plaza shopping center in north Napa, where more changes are on the way. What Bel Aire businesses do you remember? Which ones do you miss?

“I love to see this old run-down shopping center bursting with life," said Maddie Hoover, pausing at Bel Aire Plaza in north Napa recently.

"It used to be a dreary place where I would just get what I needed and head back home,” added Hoover, a Napa native who has almost a half century of memories of the changes in her hometown.

“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss some of the old times. It was nice to be able to go to Montgomery Ward and get household stuff,” she said.

“But it wasn’t as fun as sitting here people watching in front of Peet’s Coffee and drinking this latté. The old had to give way to the new. It’s what most people want.” 

Craig Semmelmeyer, principal of Main Street Properties which manages Bel-Aire, remembers when the business took management of the plaza nine years ago.

“It certainly wasn’t anything like it is today. There were a number of independent retailers,” Semmelmeyer said.

“The only chain stores were Ralph’s (grocery,) Longs (drug store,) Montgomery Ward and JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts. There was also a fish (aquarium) store, the Vintage Bank, a couple of restaurants, Papa John’s pizza and a bowling alley.”

The only two sole-owner businesses that still remain today in Bel Aire are Villa Corona and Barber Shop of Napa Valley, which has been sold to Napa-based Headfeathers.

Orchard Supply Hardware is also a holdover from the old days when there was also a Blockbuster Video in Bel Aire.

The shopping center has had a major facelift and identity shift, with new tenants such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Target, Copperfield’s Books, Pharmaca, World Market (Cost Plus) and restaurants BarBersQ and Firewood Café.

There's also Pet Food Express, which is partnering with the Napa County Animal Shelter to open a cat adoption center Saturday, Oct. 27 at 11 a.m.

“It was a huge project when we took over,” Semmelmeyer said. “A lot of people forget and many don’t know how ugly this place used to be. We planned the project carefully selecting tenants we believed would thrive here and give shoppers what they want.”

Paul Elias, departing owner of Barber Shop of Napa Valley, remembers well the old-time plaza well.

“The old Bel Aire Plaza was a seedy shopping center when I came here 10 years ago. There were a lot of empty  stores. Almost all of the businesses were mom-and-pop operations,” Elias said.

“Most all of them had homemade business signs. There sure wasn’t anything professional about the center. Most of the owners had not done any upgrades.”

Elias was drawn to the center because he knew changes were on the horizon.

“The Montgomery Ward building was empty. I knew Target owned the property, so I figured a Target would mostly be coming to the center,” he said. “I also heard that Trader Joe’s was in the making. So I figured that would bring a lot of foot traffic going past my shop.”

What Elias didn’t count on was Main Street Properties taking over and setting down “guidelines,” he said.

“I understand why they have to do that, but for a sole proprietor, doing everything by the book can be costly.”

However, Elias has high praise for Main Street Properties.

“They have done a great job. Just look at the center, it’s busy and full of shoppers.”

Semmelmeyer said Main Street Properties is always looking for new ways to improve Bel-Aire.

“Our biggest headache is parking. I know we have traffic congestion,” he said. “We are looking at ways to expand the parking area.”

Larry Henry, 66, of Napa agrees.

“I really like this place. But it’s a pain in the butt to find parking,” he said.

“I know change is inevitable, but I miss the old stores, especially Montgomery Ward. Stores like Wards and Sears are almost an American tradition.

"Everyone went there for everything," Henry continued. "Remember when you were a kid getting the  Ward and Sears catalog at Christmas time. We spent hours going through the books picking out what we wanted for Christmas. Now it’s all done on the Internet.”  

What Bel Aire businesses do you remember? Which ones do you miss? Tell us in the comments.

Click the "Keep me posted" button for automatic updates when we publish news about Bel Aire Plaza. For more, please see:

  • Napa Copperfield's is Moving
  • Bel-Aire Plaza Undergoing More Changes
  • Bel Aire Mystery Solved: Chico's is Coming to Napa
  • Caffino Coffee Drive-Through Evicted in Napa
  • Bel Aire Barber Shop Changes Hands
  • Bel Aire Plaza Recruits New Tenants
  • What Do You Want to See at Bel Aire Plaza?

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Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Chico's, Gary! We covered this a couple of months back. There's a link to the article above.
Matthew Young October 26, 2012 at 04:07 PM
I used to love going to Bill's Drugs when I was a kid. Who can forget the old Albertsons grocery store that occupied the space where Whole Foods is today? I remember that near the southeast corner of the plaza there was a Crocker Bank and eventually it became First Interstate Bank. My Dad would go to the drive up teller and make a deposit through that vacuum tube that would shoot the envelope to the teller. That was fascinating to me as a child. Lastly, there never was a Papa John's Pizza in Bel Aire Plaza, it was a Papa Murphy's Take and Bake.
Burt October 26, 2012 at 04:09 PM
I like the center too. I also park over near OSH and walk so I don't have deal with traffic. Removing the bottle neck was just a suggested improvement. The new center is much better than the old one.
Chris October 26, 2012 at 05:14 PM
A & W, Wong's Chinese Restaurant and can't forget WARDS! Oh the memories!!!
Carol Y October 26, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Pharmaca not Pharmacia. The bottleneck entrance is a safety hazard and major traffic obstruction given the way drivers run the red light and then have no where to go & block traffic on Trancas. I do like the aesthetic improvement, but I also miss the mom & pop businesses.
Ed Rapp October 26, 2012 at 06:57 PM
I miss Bel Aire Bowl..There were some great leagues, Tournaments there..A great social spot..The 300 Club in it's heyday (70's 80's) was a great dance club...The last owner's son had a huge cocaine habit and ran it into the ground..I remember the original Owner, Jim Alonzi, having a daily "round table" Italian almost "Mafia" like meeting with other local Italian buisiness owners from the area...It was a great place....
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Thank you for spotting the typo, Carol, I've fixed it and for good measure added links to our business directory for the current businesses, in case anybody feels like leaving a review for their favorite(s).
tamie October 26, 2012 at 07:48 PM
What about the old-timers? Some can barely navigate the parking lot not alone parking in one spot and walking such a distance to continue their shopping between Target and TJ's.
tamie October 26, 2012 at 07:53 PM
I remember "Monkey Ward" (as my grandma called it). The place had some tacky stuff but it was somewhere to shop on the north side of Napa (affordable, too). If I had a nickle for every hour I spent in the drapery and appliance departments I wouldn't be sitting here right now..I'd be on a beach somewhere. :)
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 08:31 PM
Bel Aire event note: Pet Food Express is partnering with the Napa County Animal Shelter to open a cat adoption center and the grand opening is this Saturday, Oct. 27 at 11 a.m. See you there!
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 08:32 PM
http://napavalley.patch.com/events/grand-opening-cat-adoption-center-at-pet-food-express - Thank you PFE and NCAS for using our calendar to get the word out.
DBell October 26, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Wow, where to begin? I had a youth bowling team at Bel Air sponsored Zanardi's 300 club (he paid for the shirts and always bought us hot dogs during the league!). Could you imagine a youth team today sponsored by something such as a bar, no way PC liberals today would allow that (anyway I digress), How bout Aqua World? I remember my mother and I running into Johnny Miller there! Monkey Wards, Roberts Variety, Alpha Beta!! And there was a short lived burger joint I really enjoyed as a kid, Great American Burger. Man so many memories
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 10:38 PM
I once interviewed Lou Zanardi, the accordionist who played at his uncle's club in Bel Aire back in those days. Did you ever hear him there with his group? In later years he played solo at Ristorante Alegria downtown.
Mary Ellen October 26, 2012 at 10:54 PM
I believe that is where Chico's will be setting up shop.
Jamie Clemons October 27, 2012 at 04:28 AM
I just remember passing it each time I went to elementary school @ Bel Aire Park.. Then every so often I know I remember about few stores up there.. My parents worked at Montgomery Wards, its how they meet. I hear story's to this day on what use to be in Bel Aire Shopping center.. I kinda wish sometimes the old stores where there not these new ones...
vocal-de-local October 27, 2012 at 08:28 AM
Glenroy? Have you actually made it over to the Patch? Can we nickname you Glenroy of Patch? LOL!
vocal-de-local October 27, 2012 at 08:42 AM
Thank you Craig S., for improving Bel Aire and for making it possible for Whole Foods to locate here. Interestingly, i had coincidentally contacted the Whole Foods Real Estate/location agent on the exact same day he visited Bel Aire. I had been scheming on getting Whole Foods to Napa for a long time prior to this. I called them with my grand idea of using two Vallerga stores which were up for sale to split a Whole Foods into one tourist focused store and one general Whole Foods store. The agent was taken aback because he received my email on the exact same day he visited Bel Aire. Needless to say, I am very connected to Whole Foods and happy that they located in Napa. I was tired of driving to Santa Rosa's Whole Foods! Whole Foods was the catalyst for just about everything that followed. Bel Aire has great energy. Love it there but wish the traffic at the entry could be fixed, which i think will happen once cars can no longer take a left or right turn into the parking lot for about the first 200 feet or so.
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 27, 2012 at 02:29 PM
As moderator, I rejected the "LIBS" comment, as it contributed absolutely nothing to this thread. We don't need random screaming.
Chris O October 27, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Picture this! Target = Montgomery Wards Orchard Supply thru Pet Express = Undeveloped Land BarBerQ thru Firewood outdoor patio = Bel Aire Bowl Firewood thru Nail salon = Millhouse Realty, Hilton & Marianga Travel, Uniform Shop, Offices of Bill Norton & Gus Souza who developed Bel Aire shopping center and 85% of the homes that exist in the area known as Bel Aire and part owners of the Oakland Raiders. Whole Foods = A&W Root Beer, The Wig Tree, Wong's Restaurant, Shoe Store, P&X Market, Levinson's Owl Rexall Drugs. Barber Shop thru Chico's = Alfredo's House of Pizza, Bel Aire Barber Shop, Bel Aire Cleaners, Robert's Variety Store, Beauty Shop, Coffee Shop, Aquatic World, El Dorado State Bank. Pharmaca = Parking Before all of this = Prune orchards. Chris O
Dave C October 27, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Old days, new days, one thing hasn't changed.... Terrible traffic. And the developer's refusal to fix it.
Belle (Orchid Lady) October 27, 2012 at 10:55 PM
LOL, NO vocal! I gave that title to Mark! :) With a happy face, and he gladly accepted!
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) October 28, 2012 at 01:13 AM
A big hand for Chris O and his long memory! Thanks, Chris.
bucket October 28, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Wards, was so busy long ago...it was a great store. At Christmas Santa would come in a Helicopter and sit in his royal chair for all us kids....Life was different back then and I sure do miss it. There wasn't a lot of traffic nor crime like there is today. Oh yes, we have come a long way but those of us that can remember understand it came at a huge price.
bucket October 28, 2012 at 06:43 PM
Anyone remember when Alfredo's Pizza was in the Plaza? Get place and the best ever Pizza! Then they built a new building across the street where Verizon is now and closed some 10 years or so later....Darn. miss their pizza!
bucket October 28, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Oops...the above should have read....."Great place and the best ever Pizza"!
Jeffrey Wright October 28, 2012 at 07:06 PM
I remember nickel beer night ..... Somewhat !!
Glenn Ellen Smith October 28, 2012 at 10:05 PM
In the late 60's I worked in Bel Aire as the telephone company had an engineering office behind the above mentioned hamburger spot. But, I noticed that no one mentioned the nice little womens wear shop "San Francisco Expressions" or the jewelry store "Creations by You". So many changes, but not all for the better. I loved Roberts Variety and Long's Drugs. And I guess I must like tacky, as I shopped at Wards frequently. It was sad to see an American icon corporation go by the wayside. Target is good for a lot of things, but clothes are not one of them. Maybe it's my age or my taste that makes me skip the clothes department. Here since 1951.
Sandy L. October 29, 2012 at 02:58 AM
P & X Foods, Rexall Drug Store, Alfredo's Pizza, Roberts Bel Aire Variety and don't forget the trampolines that were built in ground!
Bill McGuire October 30, 2012 at 08:12 PM
I would like to see the far right hand lane of westbound Trancas become a right hand turn only lane to reduce the long waits at the stoplight. If this was done, there would still be two lanes for traffic proceeding westbound.
Daniel Sorenson July 28, 2013 at 03:42 PM
Yes I do think about the old Bel Air Center from time to time. When I do go threw the traffic mess up with all the stops and small parking spaces. I was wide open when new and loads of space top in the 50 and 60 easy to go to P & X Foods, Rexall Drug Store, Alfredo's Pizza, Roberts Bel Aire Variety and don't forget the trampolines that were built in ground! Before MW was built. I grew up in Bel Air and went to Bel Air school in 1957 1958 Just a short walk to the Plaza from Palomar Street.. Dan Wurdig I also in the 70 tys went to the A & W or was the the 1960 tys late ok will a long time ago...

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