First there's the aroma from the bales of hay stacked in the parking lot. Then you get a whiff of the leather boots and saddles when you walk through the front door.
Whether you grew up on a ranch or just watch a lot of Western movies, Mary's Tack and Feed store will bring a rush of nostalgia.
This is a place where you can outfit yourself for riding to the hounds, take a saunter through the Old West--or just look around at what may be the best collection of leathers, brass, jodhpurs and blue jeans anywhere in the world.
Mary Hammond started the store in 1963 in a former hamburger stand. Then, 14 years ago, she sold it to Mike and Saleta Mosley. Ever since, the small store at Via De La Valle and El Camino Real on the edge of Del Mar has grown with the North County population. In 1985, the Mosleys built a new and larger store across the street from the original tack shop.
Today, Mary's is believed to be one of the largest tack and feed stores in the country, attracting customers from all over the U.S. as well as Mexico and South America. Because of the large volume of business, including telephone and mail orders, the Mosleys are computerizing the business and creating a catalogue division.
The store is in an area that was part of Del Mar's first ranch; for years farmers grew beans on the land. Today, the area is a hub for everything equestrian. The Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club is across the street, All Creatures animal hospital is next door, and the recently completed Showpark Riding Club borders to the south.
But you don't have to own a horse or like riding to get a kick out of this mercantile establishment. It's full of gadgets and special equipment, live farm animals and pet supplies, books, pictures and video tapes. Blankets hang from the rafters, reins are draped on the walls, and finches and cockatiels chatter busily in an alcove.
Melanie Klika, who manages the store, points out that there is both rhyme and reason to the store's layout. Outside are the roomy pipe and wire cages for dog runs, keeping exotic birds outside, and sheltering other critters. That's also where the big trucks pull up to deliver hay, grain, straw and other bulk supplies for stables. Those big plastic tubs, explained one worker, actually are watering troughs.
There are always a lot of kids around Mary's--probably because of the collection of exotic animals. Black Polish roosters with white ruffled headdress prance around a shaded cage while next door geese tend a nest of eggs in a mound of straw.
"We used to have a lot more animals," Mike Mosley explained, "but people don't buy them anymore. People don't keep chickens (or peacocks or goats) in the back yard."
Also, Mosley said, the outer yard of the store isn't fenced, and the animals become easy pickings. One night several expensive wood ducks disappeared, probably to become a gourmet dinner somewhere.
Nevertheless, Klika said, the store is browser-friendly, and the bulletin board by the front door proves it. There, people list saddles, horse blankets, horses and pups and other goods for sale.
The interior of the store would seem like a jumble of merchandise, if it weren't for Klika's guiding hand. The downstairs is devoted to English riding supplies, including everything for jumping, show horses and polo riding. That's where riders get fitted for tall black boots and little velvet-covered safety helmets. Upstairs is the realm of the Western rider, where supplies even include silver saddle and bridle decorations to dress a pony for a parade.
Outfitting a new horse with basic riding gear can be as exciting as buying a new personal wardrobe, and costs about the same. For the basics, including a saddle, the minimum expenditure is about $750, Klika said. But the higher possibilities are almost limitless.
"A new saddle may be $400," she said, "but then you can go as high as you want, on up to $2,000."
Though Mary's is only about a mile from the Del Mar Race Track, the store doesn't cater to the racing trade at all. "The suppliers travel with the race circuit," Mosley said. "They have trailers with supplies for racing, and when Del Mar is done, they move on to another race track."
The 32 employees at Mary's must be knowledgeable about such things as how to tighten a stirrup and which crop is appropriate for riding and which is used in the exercise ring. Klika tries to hire people who have had experience with horsemanship and husbandry, but even so, training is necessary to keep up with the latest products and technology.
Klika herself has been at the store for almost nine years. Formerly, she worked as an assistant news photographer at Channel 8. She'd always loved riding and horses, and decided to make a career change into something related to her hobby. Since that time, Klika has gradually moved from living in the city to her own ranch in Julian.
She doesn't mind the commute to her job, though.
Both she and Mosley say the best part of the business is not the horses but the people--customers who have been coming to the store since the start of the business and have become friends. "I've seen kids grow up with the shop," Klika said.