If I didn't realize the idea of creating a guide to rummage stores in the East Bay was ludicrous at the outset, I soon came to understand the implausibility once I got started. Naturally I chose the rainiest days of the year -- so far -- to drive over 150 miles and still just barely scratch the surface of what's available in the quote East Bay unquote.
For one, how much of the East Bay, which people rightfully point out is "Beast" in pig Latin, was I prepared to bite off? It's a vast geographic region, which is one of the salient characteristics of what I found once I began to rummage. In striking contrast to San Francisco, the rummage/vintage/thrift stores I visited in the East Bay were characterized first by their large spaces, which led naturally to an ability to show and sell a much more diverse -- and less highly curated -- range of goods.
The other element that pops up in the East Bay is the necessity of actually rummaging. More space equals more stuff equals more digging, which also means more effort on the shopper's part can translate into more surprising discoveries at lower prices.
The East Bay has some pretty colossal spaces to start out in. First is the big daily flea market near the Oakland Coliseum, but you have to calculate exactly how much effort you want to put in -- and how much imported junk you are willing to dig through. More akin to San Francisco's Alemany Flea, are the Laney Flea Market, held every Sunday in the Laney College parking lot, and the Berkeley Flea Market, which runs every weekend outside the Ashby BART station. But once again, treasures can be found if one is willing to root about to find them.
The grandaddy of fleas, and the most fun with the most interesting stuff, is the high-falutin'-sounding Alameda Point Antiques Faire, which happens the first Sunday of each month. With over 800 dealers and a rule that items sold there need to be at least 20 years old, this is the place where you are most likely to encounter the vintage find you've been hankering after.
There is also the Oakland Museum of CA's annual White Elephant Sale, which is huge and involves buying advance tickets -- if you want to attend the preview and get while the gettin's still good.
On the other end of the spectrum is Urban Ore, a massive building materials recycling plant located right off Ashby on the south end of Berkeley. Sinks, tubs, windows, doors, electrical goo gaws (that is the technical term) -- you name it, you can probably find it inside or out of this gigantic warehouse, which is constantly replenishing its supply of materials culled from remodeled and demolished buildings.
Though this is hardly representative, I humbly give you my pick of eleven great places to scratch about in the East Bay. Please share your favorites in the comments below.
Collector's Choice Antiques
3574 Mt. Diablo Boulevard, Lafayette, CA
Former husband and wife team Kathy and Carl Himmelman opened Collector's Choice four years ago, after both retired. Carl has a background as a picker and buyer mostly in Manhattan. The two started small, renting space in another antique store and then slowly expanded into the 6,000 square foot building they inhabit today. Kathy is attracted to Bakelite from the 1930s, which shows up in the store as radios, handles on antique furniture and in a wide selection of jewelry. Carl's business in slot machines inhabits a sizable space in the store's ground floor, and, true to current trends in the roaring return of analog media, the Himmelmans are opening a listening room, where customers can try out vintage console record players and listen to vinyl the way it was meant to be heard.
The thing that Kathy enjoys most about spending her retirement in an antique store is the history lessons she witnesses daily. Parents bring their kids into the shop, or vice versa, and talk about the origins of the mysterious objects on view.
Found on Piedmont
4125 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CA
Marc Weber and brothers Mike and Ed Martinez opened Found last February next to the Martinezes' father's shop, Piedmont Lane Gallery, the second oldest business on the street. The two stores are a study in contrast. Found is clean and focused on creating a casual vibe, providing quality housewares and more at a good price point. Weber's tastes are eclectic, but he is hoping to provide good value to the folks in the neighborhood, while also creating a space for community activity. Found features new art shows each month and has a stage where local musicians play during openings, which align with the Piedmont Avenue Stroll the third Thursday of each month.
Next door, Marty Martinez's shop is a place built for serious rummaging. The store is piled high and requires some real effort -- the exact opposite of Found's clean curation. Martinez, who celebrated his 86th birthday last week, is a painter who graduated from CCAC -- California College of Art and Craft -- in 1951 (back before the school shed that final C). He raised 5 boys in the Piedmont neighborhood where his store has been located for 45 years. His interest in painting has led to a large (and somewhat unruly) collection of frames and canvases piled dozens deep. Martinez says that if you know what you're looking at, there is treasure to be found within.
1605 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA
I've never been inside Katz Modern, but I can say that, hands down, the place is full of the coolest items I saw in my adventures around the bay. Only open on Saturdays or by appointment, Katz specializes in mid-century modern furniture and art. The store has only been at its current location for four months, but Michael Katz has been around the block more than a few times. He says that he started collecting weird antiques about 25-30 years ago, when he was a self-described "dope fiend" with a shopping cart on the lookout for items he could trade or sell. Luckily he made friends along the way who helped guide him into rehab and onto his current path. He makes most of his sales online and at indoor modern furniture shows; most of his stuff ends up in L.A. and Manhattan.
Katz opens on Saturdays to "give the public a chance to maybe buy something." But he warns that he doesn't sell things for cheap. "You have to know what you're looking at in my store." And be willing to pay a fair price. What I saw through the building's picture windows was a whole lot of amazing stuff. Katz has come through his journey with a great eye and a strong focus.
On Saturdays he shares the store with his buddy, Rockabilly musician Chris Ford's Hercules Records, which sells vinyl and runs a country radio station out of the place.
Katz says, "I don't know anything about having a perfect business. I just kinda do what I like and it works." Yup.
Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles
2982 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA
I don't know anything about lace or textiles, but, while wandering around Berkeley, I spied a museum devoted to such and went in. The folks there have many great examples on sale and run classes in how to make different kinds of traditional laces and garments for yourself. Located at the intersection of Addison and Ashby -- also known as the Art and Antiques (district? intersection?) -- Lacis is located near a whole bunch of traditional antique stores.
The store has been around in one form or another since 1965, but incorporated as a museum in 2002. The museum part is in the space's back room and features exhibitions of needlework, historical costume and the like twice a year.
Lost and Found
5357 College Ave., Oakland, CA
This relatively new space, opened by local furniture designer Alison McLennan with a couple of friends, including vintage scavenger Erik Whittaker, was once a garage. Lost and Found features a large, interesting mix of styles; vintage finds blend nicely with McLennan's contemporary furniture designs and other handmade housewares. The space has a lived-in feeling, which was exactly what McLennan was looking to create -- after showing her furniture in galleries, she wanted to demonstrate how comfortably it might fit into a home.
6395 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, CA
The place that I actually enjoyed visiting most was Mixed Pickles. Started by Sharon Hoyle and Roger Williams, the collective of seven dealers has been around for about four years. I spoke with Zach Rossman, one of the seven, who was manning the store the day I visited. He's interested in Victorian science and natural history, which shows up in the shop as paper prints, anatomical charts and old medical books. Mixed Pickles specializes in unusual home décor, but there was also some trench art (art objects made out of old ammunition), costume jewelry and vintage clothing on display.
Overall, the space is really playful. Rossman says that people come in regularly just to see what's changed, treating the space like a gallery that is in constant flux. Whatever they are doing at Mixed Pickles totally works. The seven dealers have complimentary aesthetics and the staging looks a lot like installation art, but with everything for sale. If you are looking for an amazing unusual oddity, check out Mixed Pickles, and while you're there visit TEL (see below) next door.
4268 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CA
Niels Dahl-Jensen is the CEO of Montclair Estates, which got its start not on Pietmont, but in Oakland's Montclair district -- hence the name. Jensen's business began when he started doing Ebay sales for other people who didn't have the time or the interest in joining Ebay just to sell a few items. He still provides that service today. The store is kind of a mish mash, with lots of jewelry, a pretty hefty collection of vinyl and a whole mess of old camera equipment. Those last two collections come from the liquidation of a former record store and a camera shop.
2407 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA
I have been visiting Omega Salvage for years. It's kind of a welcome antidote after spending time at Urban Ore, which is just down the street. Where Urban Ore is piled full of things that need sorting, Omega Salvage, which like Urban Ore specializes in materials salvaged from remodels and demolitions, has already done the sorting for you. If you are looking for stained glass windows culled from an old church, go to Omega. I covet the 1930s era bathtubs that sit in the yard. There is also this deco tiling that I have lusted after for years, but one, I don't have anywhere to put it and two, yikes, it's really expensive! They have amazing rare items there -- mostly located on the west side of San Pablo Ave. and then things that are a little more common and affordable located in Omega's other lot on the east side of the street.
Omega has really good sorters, which results in drawers full of keys, hinges, door knobs, latches; they have rooms full of light fixtures, globes, chains, mounts, whatever. It's two buildings and two parking lots full of stuff. So, there's bound to be something of interest, no?
6371 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, CA
TEL stands for Total Estate Liquidation, which is what owner Kathy Pimpan has been doing for the last 14 years, when she took a break from writing her PhD dissertation (about what accumulation means to Americans) at Cal. Pimpan spends most of her time doing estate sales for others and has figured out a way to make her expertise contribute something back to the community while she's at it. She introduced the concept of estate sales to the Alameda County Public Guardian's Office and the Sheriff's Department as a way for elderly people who can no longer take care of themselves to come up with the funds needed for their own health care and nursing home expenses. Pimpan's a Virgo; I understand they are service oriented. "It really makes a difference knowing that you are helping, whether the people being helped know it or not," she says.
Pimpan also believes in karma, and applies this belief to her business, paying fair prices for the things she picks up for her store, which she describes as having a "hippie bohemian" vibe to it. When I asked her what she was attracted to most, or what she featured in her store, she first answered that the store didn't necessarily reflect her interests. Then she looked around and described what was there: Danish modern, teak and rosewood furniture; estate jewelry; 20th century abstract art; vintage clothing. "Hmm. I guess it does reflect what I am attracted to." Imagine.
1901 Broadway, Alameda, CA
Steve Ferguson opened Urban Island five years ago, after leaving a tech job and embracing the "frustrated designer" he had been suppressing for years. He has lived in Alameda for 16 years and when he decided to open a shop, he knew it should be in town. Ferguson found the perfect location, a U-shaped complex that houses an eclectic mix of furnishing, books, etc. The original section of the building was a lumberyard that dates to the late 1800s, according to Ferguson. The building later became a manufacturing complex for vinyl siding and roofing. Now it houses at least five rooms full of furniture and other items for the home.
When I asked him what kinds of objects attracted him, Ferguson said the first thing that had to go out the window when he started the business was his own personal taste. (He didn't specify, but apparently whatever he liked most wasn't what folks were buying.) Urban Island calls itself the "East Bay's largest consignment furniture store," which is infinitely believable given the size of the structure. They like to "stay on trend" at the store, but given the diverse architecture found throughout the East Bay, Urban Island finds success with a large variety of styles.