Archive for Local Businesses

Small Businesses & Chain Stores

In my last post, I mentioned the upcoming closing of the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Shattuck. Some readers not from Berkeley may have been surprised that there was a large chain bookstore in Berkeley. In fact, Berkeley is not entirely devoid of larger chain stores. There is not Walmart or Costco, of course, but there are outlets of businesses such as Starbucks, Safeway, Longs Drugs, Walgreens, REI, and Orchard Supply Hardware. And yes, there are several fast food chains here as well. However, there are many independently owned businesses in Berkeley, including some of the businesses that seem to be disappearing elsewhere such as travel agents, shoe repair, and small appliance repair. And in this small city there are two stores devoted to typewriter sales and repair!

I am planning very soon to devote a post to topics related to the borders of Berkeley, but one point I want to touch upon now is the interesting phenomenon of chain stores right over the Berkeley border. One of Berkeley’s bordering cities is Emeryville, which was once industrial similar to West Berkeley. Now a large percentage of the city is loft spaces and shopping malls. Just about any chain store that you can thing of that exists in the Bay Area can be found in Emeryville. Between all of the shopping center entrances and the freeway on-ramps, Emeryville is not the easiest or most pleasant place for walking. Many of the same stores here in Emervyville, south of Berkeley, can be found to the north in El Cerrito. A year or so ago, a new Target store opened literally right over the Berkeley border in Albany. Generally visiting a chain store necessitates heading out of town to the north or south.

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Finding Books in Berkeley

On a recent trip to the library, I picked up Berkeley, A Literary Tribute, published in 1997 by Heyday Books. I am usually not a big fan of literary anthologies, but I had an interest in seeing what was included in the collection. Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I expected — it was a bit uneven in sections, but still included fiction and nonfiction set in different parts of town and a mix of writers that included Allen Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Bobby Seale. In Malcolm Margolin’s introdution to the book, he notes that Berkeley has over 50 bookstores. I wonder how many bookstores are here now, ten years after this was written? I have seen quite a few bookstores, but I just can’t believe that there are over 50 out there now.

But what about the bookstores that I have noted on walks? Well, there are some general bookstores that sell new books, and even a chain bookstore (Barnes & Noble), and also quite a few stores selling used and antiquarian books. But some of the most interesting bookstores I have stumbled across have been specialty stores. Some of these include University Press Books (selling, of course, all sorts of books from university presses), Builders Booksource (architecture and building), Comic Relief (comics and graphic novels), Dark Carnival (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery), Eastwind (Asian), Ecology Center (environmental), Revolution (radical politics), and Mrs. Dalloway’s (gardening).

Berkeley also has a large number of small publishers and presses, a number of which have small bookstores, such as Nolo Press (legal), Dharma Publishing (Buddhist), and North Atlantic Books (martial arts and metaphysics). The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library operates a bookstore just off of Telegraph, as well as one in the main library and mini-booksales at the branches. Although I am an avid reader, I am also somewhat of a minimalist, otherwise I might have to restrict my walks to the hours when most bookstores are closed! Literally (no pun intended) there is a bookstore or a place to buy books around every corner. But as if that were not enough, there are books on the streets. It’s not quite like New York, but there is a tradition in Berkeley of leaving unwanted items on the street for others to pick up for free (or, from another point of view, to junk up the streets and contribute to urban blight). On most walks I pass at least one box of books set out at the curbside, and have also seen a couple of what seem to be more permanent structures for sharing books and other items. But I also pass many recycling bins filled with cardboard boxes with the distinctive logo. Not a strange sight anywhere, but it does cause me to wonder whether there will really be 50 bookstores in Berkeley in another 10 years.

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Worker Cooperatives

In past entries I have made brief mentions of the UC Berkeley housing cooperatives and the cooperative grocery that is in the planning stages. Berkeley is also home to a number of worker cooperatives — businesses that are owned by their workers. A few that I have spotted on my walks include:

  • The famous Cheeseboard Collective, which has been around since the late 1960s and is know for their selection of (of course) cheese, bread and baked goods, and pizzas.
  • Nearby, on Vine Street, is the Juice Bar Collective, a tiny shop that sells juices, sandwiches, desserts, and other take-out vegetarian food.
  • Inkworks Press, which prints exclusively on 100% recycled paper and uses vegetable oil inks. It has been fun to stop and look at some examples of their work, which up in the windows of their storefront in West Berkeley.
  • 924 Gilman, the music venue. I did a brief write-up about this venue awhile back, but one thing I did not mention is that you might pass by 924 Gilman without knowing what goes on there unless you are familiar with the venue or happened to go by there on the night of a show. Not much signage, and it just looks like a run-down unused building from the front.
  • La Pena Cultural Center, which hosts music and other performances from a variety of cultural traditions. A very colorful mural decorates the outside of the building.
  • The Berkeley Massage and Self-Healing Center. I walked by this place on University Ave. many times, but did not realize it was a collective until I grabbed one of their brochures one day. It has been around since 1969, and was restructured as a collective in 1988.
  • Pedal Express, the bicycle messenger service. Well, I haven’t actually seen their business location, but have spotted the bicycles around town on a couple of occasions.
  • The Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, which sells bicycles and offers free bike repair classes.

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Local Businesses: Coffee Roasters

In some of my posts about west Berkeley, I talked about some of the historical businesses in Berkeley. But what about more recent history? As I have continued my walking, I have found that there is quite a bit of territory to cover in the area of companies from Berkeley or that got their start in Berkeley. Perhaps one of the best-known Berkeley companies is Peets Coffee. Peets was nothing new to me before moving to Berkeley; when I was living in San Francisco in the mid-to-late ’80s I was well-supplied with Peets coffee thanks to various roommates and friends who worked there. But, I had never been to the original Peets location on Vine Street. Now Peets is all over the Bay Area, elsewhere in California and other states, and available in grocery stores. Definitely not huge on the scale of Starbucks, but it does seem like the number of stores is growing. One interesting thing about Peets in Berkeley is that there is a store/cafe in most of the neighborhoods: Downtown Berkeley, North Shattuck/Gourmet Ghetto, Solano Avenue, West Berkeley, Claremont/Elmwood, and (most recently) Telegraph Avenue. I thought it might be interesting sometime to do an all-day walk that stops at each of the Peets locations to compare all of them (building, customers, surrounding area, etc.) It would be one way to get a feel for Berkeley and its neighborhoods.

Of course Peets isn’t the only game in town for coffee, both in terms of cafes (more on this in a later post) and roasters. Over in West Berkeley, Uncommon Grounds roasts beans and supplies organic and fair-trade coffee to lots of local cafes and restaurants. Around the back of their Seventh St. roasting facility is their cafe that sells beans and brewed coffee and food. Blue Bottle Coffee is Oakland-based, but its retail start was a stand at the Berkeley farmers market. It is still available at the Tuesday and Saturday markets, and some of the microroaster’s early restaurant customers (such as Tacubaya and Sketch) were in Berkeley.

While doing some research on coffee I ran into a very interesting company from Ontario, Canada, called Cameron’s. Their list of environmental initiatives is pretty impressive: solar-dried coffee, biodiesel company car, incorporation of roasting byproducts in other applications, roasters run on photovoltaic power, etc., and apparently they use a bicycle grinder for some products at their farmer’s market booth. It made me wonder if this type of coffee business will eventually exist in Berkeley.

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Indian Businesses

On a couple of instances when I first moved to Berkeley, I was stopped near the North Berkeley BART station by confused people who wanted to know how to get to the “shopping district.” I had to inquire further because I was not sure whether they meant Fourth Street, downtown Berkeley, or Telegraph Avenue, or one of some of the other shopping areas around town. In fact, it was none of these; in both cases, the inquiring parties were looking for the shops that sell Indian music, food, saris, and other items. There are quite a few businesses in Berkeley specializing in items from India, and a large concentration can be found along University Avenue from the freeway and several blocks east of there (a short walk from North Berkeley BART). In West Berkeley, Viks Distributors operates a warehouse with Indian spices and staples and the popular Viks Chaat House. Several other Indian restaurants and cafes serving chaat (savory snacks) can be found throughout town.

It somewhat surprised me to find so many Indian businesses here in Berkeley. The Bay Area has a large Indian American population, but I had always thought of those population centers as being in the southern East Bay and Silicon Valley cities of Fremont, Milpitas, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and surrounding areas. According to the 2000 Census, Asian Indians make up 1.7% of the Berkeley population, while those numbers are 10.2% in Fremont and 10% in Sunnyvale. It will be interesting to see what the breakdown is when we get to the next Census in 2010, and to know how popular over time Berkeley has been as a shopping destination for Indian imports, and what effect (if any) online shops have had on such businesses.

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Grocery Stores

So much has already been written about food in Berkeley that I have put off writing about it here for a long time. And — unlike many other topics related to walking in Berkeley — I find it very difficult to see anything food-related without letting all of the other information I have work into my impartial observations. I do have some thoughts to share, though, so I will start with grocery stores. Unlike parts of Oakland to south, Berkeley has a fair number of grocery stores in most neighborhoods. Most stores are concentrated in the flatland areas throughout central and south Berkeley. No grocery stores exist in the Berkeley hills, a part of town that is pretty much devoid of businesses. The stairways and pathways would make it a little easier to carry groceries up the hill, but this part of town does not seem to be the easiest place to walk with heavy bags or packages.

There are currently no standard grocery stores in West Berkeley, although there is a Grocery Outlet (with dented, overstocked, almost-expired items) and several ethnic markets on San Pablo Avenue. Fourth Street has small gourmet pasta and meat markets. A second Berkeley Bowl store is planned for southwest Berkeley, and has been the subject of controversy throughout the time since I moved to Berkeley and started this walking project. The current Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, in South Berkeley, is very well known in the Bay Area, mostly for its large selection of inexpensive produce. The feelings about the store from those who have shopped there often fall into the extreme ranges of the love-hate spectrum. A good way to get an idea of what I mean, if you are not familiar with Berkeley Bowl, is to read the Yelp reviews for the store.

Elsewhere throughout town, the grocery stores include Safeway, Andronico’s (a local chain), Whole Foods Market and Berkeley Natural Grocery (natural food stores), Monterey Market (similar to Berkeley Bowl but smaller), and many smaller specialty stores (Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, cheese, meat, fish, bread, and many more). In addition to Berkeley Bowl, a recently-approved Trader Joe’s in central Berkeley has sparked a fair amount of controversy particularly due to concerns about parking and traffic in residential neighborhoods. On one walk past the planned site of the Trader Joe’s, I noticed that the posted public notice was scrawled with notes expressing concern that a store that sells alcohol would be so close to the Berkeley campus.

Along with my observations about the locations of grocery stores, I have two other major observations resulting from my walks. First is that grocery store parking lots have generated some of the biggest dangers for me as a walker, especially on walks at peak shopping hours. Walks near Berkeley Bowl have been particularly hazardous, with Whole Foods following closely behind. I think this is mainly due to Berkeley being somewhere in-between a dense urban area and a spread-out suburb. Stores in large cities often have no parking lot at all, whereas those in outlying areas often have enormous lots with plenty of parking spaces. The lots at most Berkeley stores are fairly small, and on many walks I have seen lines of cars backed out of parking lots waiting for a spot to open up and other cars circling the surrounding neighborhoods looking for a spot on the street.

Based on what I have seen on walks, I have also been thinking about the overall picture of food availability in Berkeley. So far I have concluded that the range of food available here is very wide, and it would be very easy to get pretty much any food ingredient that one needed without leaving town. This all seems good from perspective of a walker. On the other hand, there appears to be much more in the way of choices for those who have plenty of money to spend on food. There is a huge emphasis here on “sustainable food,” which can include organic, locally-grown or produced, fair trade, minimally packaged, and other qualities in food. I have been wondering just how possible it would be to eat sustainably on a more modest budget, and partially as a result of observations on my walks — I have been pondering some sort of project to test this out. This will have to wait until I finish walking every street in Berkeley, but in the meantime I did have one experience that did somewhat confirm my thoughts that there is the desire for reasonably priced food in Berkeley. A group of people are attempting to start a cooperative grocery in Berkeley, modeled after the Park Slope Cooperative Grocery in Brooklyn. A cooperative grocery did exist and ultimately fail in Berkeley under a much different model. What Happened to the Berkeley Co-op? (available at the Berkeley Public Library), proved to be an interesting read, and provided quite a bit of insight into the history of the old co-op. I went to a crowded introductory meeting for the cooperative, and one of the first things that happened at the meeting was for everyone to say why they were interested in the cooperative. The majority of people who attended, who were mostly from Berkeley, were very interested in a source for high-quality, sustainable, but affordable food. As of this writing, the cooperative has over 300 members, and I imagine based on my experience at the meeting and my observations on walks that there may be room for more affordable grocery shopping options.

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It had been awhile since I was at the very southern Berkeley border on San Pablo, so I was surprised to find that the Twin Castle Express that resides there had closed and was soon to be demolished. Having not eaten a hot dog or any other meat in a number of years, I was not particularly saddened about not being able to order the burgers, fries, soft-serve cones and other items this stand offered, but I did enjoy the (It think) 1950s signage at the restaurant. Where will the signs go, I wonder? I’m not ready to jump the fence and grab these signs for myself (although if it was anthropomorphic carrot instead of a hot dog on the sign pictured below, I might have had to consider it.

Most interesting was the fact that I could find no talk in the local papers and elsewhere online about anyone wanting to save this building. Is there no contingent in Berkeley interested in classic roadside architecture or old-fashioned burger and hot dog stands? Is it the location (San Pablo Avenue, which doesn’t seem to get as much attention as other places in terms of development concerns)? Are there just too many places to get an inexpensive old-fashioned hot dog or hamburger, in Berkeley? There is Top Dog on Durant, Oscar’s on Shattuck, and the Doggie High across from Berkeley High School, Foster’s Freeze further north on San Pablo from where Twin Castle used to be, plus others I probably haven’t noticed yet. Who knows. But one thing I do know for sure — you can’t know everything about the place you live by reading the newspapers. You have to get out there and keep your eyes open for changes.

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Converted Storefronts

In my last post I mentioned storefronts that have been converted to private residences, and subsequent uses of the windows for personal displays. One person commenting on this post has some good thoughts about how these storefronts could be put back into use as small grocery stores or other businesses. I wonder about this possibility myself, although (aside from any zoning issues) I think only certain businesses would be approved by the homeowners in the area. Most people do not want any store that promotes people hanging out on the corner. Some of the corner markets still in existence that do not sell alcohol still sometimes attract hordes of teenagers in the afternoons and early evenings (so much so that some have signs that say “Only 3 students in store at a time.” Any businesses emanating smells (such as hair and nail salons) would be an issue as well. I have seen some professional offices, such as small architecture firms and law offices, on neighborhoods streets. These are generally quiet and only open during the day, of course.

What I have often imagined when walking by these old storefronts is more neighborhood cafes. They provide a place for people to hold meetings, run into neighbors, and catch a bite to eat near their homes. From my observations on walks, there seems to be no shortage of interest in more cafes. The new ones that have opened since I moved here have immediately become popular spots. Caffe Trieste, for example, opened at the corner of San Pablo and Dwight in a small strip that includes a few vintage clothing and antique stores and other small boutiques. Right away it seemed to be packed with people, day and night — eating and drinking, talking, reading, knitting, and working. The coffee was likely an attraction in and of itself (the original Caffe Trieste in San Francisco’s North Beach is known for its authentic espresso), but more importantly a cafe was greatly welcomed in this southwest Berkeley area where there are liquor stores, fast food restaurants, auto repair shops, and not too many gathering spots. While I think more cafes could be opened successfully throughout Berkeley, most of the converted storefronts would probably not work for this use unless the cafes had very limited hours. Most of the storefronts are not on commercial strips like San Pablo, and so the noise would probably not be acceptable to neighbors. In addition to the question of what would work in these storefronts, I have wondered why certain cities (such as New York and San Francisco) can have businesses interspersed with housing in neighborhoods, and yet it doesn’t work in other places. It may have something to do with people’s perception of whether they live in an urban or a suburban area, and so therefore what they expect of the environment in which they live. Whether Berkeley is urban or suburban or both is not a topic I am ready to tackle at this point. I’ll leave that for another day, or perhaps not at all (I wonder it anyone really cares about discussions like this beyond academia).

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Telegraph Now & Then

The recent closing of Cody’s Books on Telegraph Ave. sparked a flurry of responses about the commercial strip going downhill and opinons about what should be done to improve the area. One of the topics of discussion has been what to do about the numerous homeless youth who hang out on the street. Right after Cody’s closed, I went for a walk down Telegraph with a woman (I refer to her as J. througout this post in the interest of her privacy) who had come to Telegraph Ave. in 1970, as a runaway teenager. She gave me some newspaper clippings from the time, one of which (Berkeley Daily Gazette, July 17, 1970) carried the headline “Police Begin Crackdown on City’s Summer Runaways.” Much as today’s articles have stated, this article mentions the city’s desire to get a handle on “transient-caused problems.”

Our walk started at the student union building at Sproul Plaza at the edge of the U.C. Berkeley campus, which is where J. first met up with a young man who helped her and some of the many other young people who came to Berkeley during this time period. As we walked south on Telegraph from the campus, J. pointed out where the many craft-oriented businesses existed on Telegraph at the time, many more than the few tables along the sidewalks now (some of which sell bumper stickers and other non-handmade items).

We stopped around the corner from this photo supply store on Telegraph, where a door to what was once a separate part of this building has now been closed off. At the time that J. arrived on Telegraph, this door was the entrance to the Berkeley Free Church, which got involved in the political issues of the time and helped people living on the streets. She still had a copy of one of the group’s newsletters from the time, which I looked through. The Graduate Theological Union at U.C. Berkeley holds a substantial collection of materials from the Berkeley Free Church, which I hope to get over to see one of these days.

When J. arrived on Telegraph, her new friend took her down Telegraph to a house that, at the the time, was abandoned. She and a number of other youth lived there for a time, until the police eventually raided the house. J. was not at the house at the time, but some of her belongings were there. A letter she had written to her parents and not yet mailed was taken by the police and released to the newspaper. Her letter, which tells her parents that she made it safely to Berkeley and describes her new puppy and her friends, was printed in the Gazette. Eventually, J. was persuaded to leave Berkeley and head up to one of the communities in Occidental, in Sonoma County. She has since lived in Berkeley at other times (a story related to another of her residences will appear in a future post), and was packing up to leave town at the time of our walk. The house still stands in the same location today, but is neat and painted and appears to have been split into a couple of residences sometime since then time that J. lived there. J. left some flowers at the house, as she had done several times in the past, and we made our way back on Telegraph.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 2: Mundane Journeys

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

San Francisco, being a popular tourist destination, has inspired all sorts of guidebooks. Most of them cover at least some of the popular landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and the Transamerica Pyramid. Kate Pocrass’ book Mundane Journeys does not mention any of these places. This tiny book of tours (which all start with “Walk, bike, or public transit to…”) suggests ways to look beyond the obvious and find interesting details in ordinary places. On a trip to the popular tourist area of North Beach, for example, you will play hopscotch on a playground and look at dot patterns on a sidewalk. In other locations, you will look at garage doors, apartment buildings, sidewalk patterns, window displays, and more. These ideas can be applied wherever you are walking, and can inspire thought and questions. In the photo posted here, for example, the building number appears three times on the front of this Berkeley apartment building (at this size it is hard to tell, but the number is also on the glass front door). This amused me greatly, and I wondered why three times and in what order and under what circumstances was each set of numbers installed on the building.

The other emphasis of Mundane Journeys is interacting with people in shops and businesses. Some of the stops on her journeys having you entering small businesses and asking questions or considering getting something interesting to eat or drink (such as a Cuban soft drink or coconut mochi). I find this more difficult to do. Often I will say hello to people in residential neighborhoods who are pruning their roses or weeding their gardens, but I have hesitated to walk into many of the businesses. Recently, though, I was walking on Telegraph Ave., and had two nice interactions with business owners. I used to avoid this, thinking I was bothering people unnecessarily, but there is a difference between wasting someone’s time and being genuinely interested in their small business. Even if I am not there to purchase an item or service now, I will remember it in the future or recommend it to someone else who needs the service. Also, many people who have small businesses (especially those offerering a service) just seem to enjoy talking with other people. It is unrealistic to think that one could have the same experience in a large urban area as in a small town, but there is often still the opportunity to create some connection with the people who live and work there.

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