By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma  Correspondent

How can a small, family-owned chicken farm-turned furniture store stay in the black when Petaluma mom and pop operations are falling like trees under the economic buzzsaw?

Ask Paul Praetzel, 69, the kindly face behind Praetzel’s Fine Furniture. From the store on the western edge of Petaluma, he is carrying on his mother’s legacy, selling high-end and custom made furniture in one building and putting the rest of the property to work as space for off-the-grid retailers, artists and small business owners.

Since long before zoning laws restricted the designated use of Sonoma County parcels, Praetzel’s family has had the freedom to make their ranch work for them, any way they could. They made full use of it, constantly changing its uses to survive economic ups and downs.

It started in 1870 when Praetzel’s grandfather, John King, bought the 40-acre Petaluma spread at what is now 3820 Bodega Ave.

The ranch had been part of Rancho de la Miseria, one of four major Spanish land grants in the Petaluma area. King purchased it with money he earned by working in the Argonaut gold mine in Jackson, Calif., and he decided to do what everyone else in the area did in those years — raise chickens.

An aerial photo showing Praetzel's Fine Furniture and the rest of the family's property. Bodega Avenue is in the foreground.

More than 140 years later, the family still owns 10 of those original 40 acres and has used them to host an amazing array of tenants.

The Praetzel’s fine-furniture showroom is foremost today, with a licensed Montessori day care facility and artists’ studios in the outbuildings. In past year, tenants have included an RV storage facility, recording studios and music practice rooms, an international children’s clothing importer and a weekly Men’s Christian Fellowship group.

The family is a mixture of Portuguese and German-Irish. Praetzel remembers his mother Bertha, or Bert as her friends called her, as the one with the business savvy. She also had a Portuguese stubborn streak and the foresight responsible for turning that original chicken ranch into a surviving business.

Praetzel tells the story of the property’s strange evolution.

His father, John King Jr., invented the “Whirl-a-Way” egg cleaner that enjoyed a 2½-year money-making ride. By 1947 Petaluma’s egg industry was in full decline, so when money got tight, his mother made $34 by selling a mattress and box spring with a newspaper ad.

That tiny success prompted her to travel to Butterfield’s Auction House in downtown San Francisco, and with $40 borrowed from her eldest son, she bought a few pieces of furniture to resell. Her next purchase was an entire box-trailer’s worth of pieces. It took Praetzel’s father nine trips to haul the items back to the ranch, where they turned the chicken coop into a furniture showroom.

Still new at the game, Bert discovered that she could increase her profit margin by buying furniture at wholesale prices from the factory. She made a North Carolina connection, named her new venture The Ranch Storehouse, and she was off and running. By 1965 Bert had replaced the chicken coop showroom with a new custom-designed showroom set closer to Bodega Avenue.

Praetzel started his career as an 8-year-old, washing eggs by hand for a neighboring farmer. After a young adulthood on the farm, he spent 1962-1965 in the U.S. Army and then registered for business courses at Santa Rosa Junior College.

For six years, he learned salesmanship and customer service skills at an East Los Angeles mattress company called Aireloom. He brought that acumen back to the Petaluma ranch and has been selling furniture there ever since.

Praetzel credits the store’s loyal customer base to his “old-school” customer service skills, and he traces that mind-set to his mother’s penchant for “old-world” hospitality.

“In the Depression, tourists motoring to the coast could be sure they would be offered food, water, directions and a smile at the ranch,” he said. “The hospitality that was so much a part of my upbringing is the main reason for the store’s longevity.”

Now called Praetzel’s Fine Furniture, the store has been operating at a profit for the past 18 months, he said, “which is amazing given all the local companies that have gone out of business, some who had been around since 1947.”

Since his mother’s retirement in 1975, Praetzel has been doing business his way and still lifts the occasional heavy piece in or out of his showroom. He has no plans to retire, nor does Judy, his wife of 44 years who oversees the rest of the ranch.

But, he says, “The only change in my near future is to spend more time with our children and grandchildren.”