Restocking boxes of ballet, jazz and tap shoes has become a challenge for Erna Bonetto, owner and operator of the Sunnyside Department Store in southeast Fresno for the last 28 years.
The red-haired 78-year-old isn’t as limber as she was in her square dancing days. Stretching for items high on a shelf and bending over to pick things up from the floor is tough. Long days on her feet are doing a number on her knee.
“It’s getting too hard for me,” Bonetto said with a chuckle. “I have more aches and pains than I would like to have.”
Bonetto, who has sold dance shoes, leotards and leggings to generations of dancers across the central San Joaquin Valley, is ready to retire. She wants to sell the inventory or the 66-year-old business that her mother-in-law started for more relaxing days with her four grandchildren. The store will be open until August or September. There is no closing date yet.
“I feel in my heart it is time,” Bonetto said as she choked back tears. “There comes a time in your life when you have to do what you have to do.”
I feel in my heart it is time. There comes a time in your life when you have to do what you have to do.
Erna Bonetto, owner of Sunnyside Department Store
The store is the last of about 10 family-owned businesses that operated on Butler Avenue, between Orange Avenue and Hazelwood Boulevard, during the early years, Bonetto said. The others included Mello’s Ice Cream, an Armenian bakery, a grocery store and a furniture store.
Bonetto’s mother-in-law, Mable Bonetto, opened the store in 1950 selling children’s clothing brands like Buster Brown, Playtex and Levi’s. Bonetto started working at the store in 1959, one day after arriving in the United States from Germany, where she met her husband, David Bonetto, who was in the service.
Erna Bonetto jokes that she didn’t have to apply because of her retail experience. She started working at 13 in small family-owned cigar, cigarette and wine shops in Aschaffenburg, southeast of Frankfurt, then moved up to a big department store the size of Gottschalks.
The couple, who inherited the business in 1988, shared a love of square dancing, which led the family to specialize more in dancewear and less in children’s clothing and household trinkets. When their competition, Fresno Dancewear, closed years ago, Bonetto’s store became the go-to place for dance shoes and has been one of the few businesses serving dancers over the years.
Today, there is no children’s clothing in the store, but Christmas decorations, Beanie Babies and other knickknacks sit on shelves around racks of dance skirts, booty shorts and leggings. David Bonetto died in 2011, leaving his wife to run the business. Other than that, the store hasn’t changed much, Bonetto said.
First-time shopper Brianne Gomes, 19, of Fresno visited on a recent afternoon to buy jazz shoes. She was referred to Sunnyside by a friend. Gomes, like many dancers these days, shops online for dance gear, but it’s hard to do if you need the item right away, she said. “I don’t have time to wait.”
Erna Bonetto’s business etiquette: Greet people; be patient, friendly and courteous; try to help customers; if you don’t have an item, order it and call the customer when it comes in.
Having the inventory and personal contact with people is what makes a specialty shop successful, Bonetto said. She rambles off a list of business etiquette: Greet people when they walk through the door; be patient with customers; be friendly and courteous; try to help them; if you don’t have it, then order it and make sure you call the customer when it comes in.
“This is what is important,” Bonetto said.
Location was never an issue for the Bonettos. Conversations about moving north as Fresno grew popped up 10 times over the years, Bonetto said. But her husband always asked, “Why?” The Butler Avenue store has front parking and it’s easy to get to, Bonetto said.
The Sunnyside Department Store has been a staple in the southeast Fresno neighborhood, said Fresno City Councilman Sal Quintero, who represents the area.
“If you needed a gift to buy somebody, you go there,” Quintero said. “The store provided a lot of good products for the neighborhood … a card for somebody, a little flower arrangement, dance shoes. People would come from all over to buy (the shoes).”
Bonetto’s son, David Bonetto, grew up in the store. He walked home from Winchell Elementary School every afternoon to do homework in the shop and helped decorate the windows, which developed his love of merchandising. David is founder of Danceworks Unlimited and directs New Wrinkles, a senior music revue at Fresno City College.
He said the family, which includes brother Maurice Bonetto, questioned the sale of the business, because they wondered what their mother would do to keep herself occupied.
“She’s been going to work to the same place six days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 57 years,” David said. “How many people have a job for 57 years at the same place every single day?”
But, she has grandkids, David said. And “we have enough projects for her to do.”
That generation has such a different work ethic than today’s generation. It inspired me, for my whole adult life, to have a work ethic and the passion that my parents both had.
David Bonetto, Erna Bonetto’s son
He credits his mother’s work ethic for the success of the business and for influencing him to work as hard. “That generation has such a different work ethic than today’s generation,” David said. “It inspired me for my whole adult life to have a work ethic and the passion that my parents both had.”
Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed, costume designer for Good Company Players at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in the Tower District, sends actors to the store for fishnet stockings and character shoes, high-heeled dance shoes with a slender buckle strap. Sometimes, Erna Bonetto will deliver merchandise to the theater, telling Lewis-Reed that she was on her way home. In fact, Bonetto lives a few streets down from the store.
“That’s the kind of business owner she is, going that extra mile,” Lewis-Reed said.
Other times, Bonetto, a supporter of local theater, will bring actors a pair of shoes for free if she doesn’t like the way it looks on stage, Lewis-Reed said. Actors like their shoes to be worn in, but they can look ratty.
“Hopefully somebody decides to do something with (the store),” Lewis-Reed said. “It’s OK if it has to end, too. Life goes on. Things end, and something else will be there to serve the purpose of the area. It’s going to be sad, but without her, I’m not sure there is a business there. It’s so Erna.”
Sunnyside Department Store
3554 E. Butler Ave., Fresno