Life Along Berkeley's San Pablo Avenue, Through the Lens of 6 Small Businesses

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person walking away from camera on sunny day down sidewalk carrying large balloons including unicorn-shaped ones
Jed Brown, a customer of the Paper Plus Party Store, carries balloons down San Pablo Avenue for his daughter's birthday party. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

A version of this story was originally published in Berkeleyside.

Tall, leafy trees line the section of San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley between University Avenue and Cedar Street. Chain-link fences box in empty lots, and brightly colored murals feature a desert oasis and a creature with crescent-shaped eyes and a long tail. People walk in and out of cafes, bakeries, auto body shops and a lighting store overflowing with lamps.

Storefronts like these make up our everyday landscape, and the people who run these local establishments are our neighbors. But how often do we get off autopilot and take the time to get to know the people behind the buildings?

Reporter Noah Baustin did just that on this small stretch of San Pablo Avenue, and found that everyone has a story to tell, as long as someone is willing to ask.

Reporter Noah Baustin got the personal stories behind six businesses on the stretch of San Pablo Avenue between University Avenue and Cedar Street in Berkeley. (Datawrapper/Berkeleyside)


Paper Plus Party Store: Ronny Carrillo

man sits at desk in store surrounded by cornucopia of inflated hearts, animals
Ronny Carrillo, balloon decorator at Paper Plus Party Store, has worked at the store for 20 years. He says he wants his legacy to be defined as having a positive influence on the people in his life. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The Paper Plus Party Store, on San Pablo Avenue just south of Cedar Street, is overflowing with supplies for just about every celebration you can imagine.

Michele Schurman, who’s run the store for nearly 40 years, walked through the narrow rows pointing to products stuffed on shelves and ticking off occasions as she went. There’s Mardi Gras, Pride, baby showers, christenings and bar mitzvahs.

“In fact, we do all the Jewish holidays up big,” Schurman said.

But with her work so tied up in every season’s celebrations, Schurman has trouble tapping into the holiday spirit when she goes home at the end of the day.

“I actually don’t even do holidays much anymore,” she said. “It’s kind of like coal is to Newcastle.”

Ronny Carrillo, the store’s balloon decorator, is typically found surrounded by a cornucopia of inflated hearts, animals and crowns.

Carrillo has worked at Party Plus for 20 years and said he wants his legacy to be defined as having a positive influence on the people in his life. He shared how deeply moved he was when an older customer returned to the shop years after the death of her grandson and asked to buy a yellow balloon, just like she used to get with the boy. “She told me, ‘Can I give you a hug?’” he said.

With no children of his own, Carrillo cherishes his role as an uncle and considers himself his nephew’s mentor.

“One thing that I taught him since he was a kid is every time, any moment, you try to invent your happiness, create your happiness,” Carrillo said.

Silvera Jewelry School: Anat and Joe Silvera

Couple stand behind worktable in well-lit workshop, facing camera
Anat and Joe Silvera at their Silvera Jewelry School, on Virginia Street just off San Pablo Avenue. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

Anat Silvera of the Silvera Jewelry School — located on Virginia Street just off San Pablo Avenue — remembered the first piece of jewelry that ever dazzled her: a sterling silver and enamel tiepin worn by her grandfather, a door-to-door insurance salesman.

“That was something that was just so beautiful for me,” she said.

Anat and Joe Silvera met at an arts event in Oakland. They were the only two jewelers in the room.

“We started talking and all of our friends quietly disappeared,” Joe Silvera said. The two felt an instant connection. “It's like all of a sudden you had something with which to measure how different everybody else you dated was,” he said.

Nine months later, the pair got married.

The Silveras went on to open their jewelry school together, where they offer jewelry-making classes to all — but committing to a career in the arts came with risk, and their families were worried about that uncertainty.

“They work the nine-to-five and get the really good pension, but at a job they were never happy with,” Anat Silvera reflected.

“I'm really glad that I took that chance and, you know, didn't give up,” she said.

Albatross Pub: Andrew McGee

Bearded man sitting in a chair on a patio at night lighted by overhead string of lights
Andrew McGee and his fellow co-owner of the Albatross Pub made the difficult decision to close the bar in late 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The Albatross Pub used to have brass plaques inlaid in the wood of the bar. The plaques memorialized regulars who had passed away since the watering hole opened in 1964.

Despite surviving decades of change in Berkeley, the beloved bar faced an insurmountable challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic shut its doors for months on end.

“When it was December of 2020 and there was still no end in sight, we still had to pay rent for everything,” said Andrew McGee, who began working at the bar in 2004 and later stepped in as a co-owner of the business. “We didn't have unlimited money.”

McGee and his fellow co-owner then made the tough decision to close the bar for good. McGee is determined to reopen the bar in another location one day, but he acutely feels the loss of the San Pablo space that was a mainstay of Berkeley nightlife for over 50 years.

Even worse than losing the bar and its brass memorials is losing the community of regulars that called the Albatross home.

“There’s tons of people who I wish I had their phone number. I just always saw them there,” he said.

Auto Doctor: Joe Ahmadieh

man sits inside car with window down, with car dealership signs in background
Joe Ahmadieh has been running the Auto Doctor dealership on San Pablo Avenue for 32 years. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

Joe Ahmadieh immigrated from Iran with dreams of becoming a doctor.

As he studied biology at Santa Clara University, he bought and sold used cars to pay his way through school. After undergrad, he kept on flipping cars, and this side job blossomed into a full-blown business. When the letter arrived from the California College of Podiatric Medicine notifying him that it was time to register for classes, he didn’t go. Instead, he poured himself into his used-car business.

Ahmadieh has been running the Auto Doctor dealership for 32 years. Recently, he reflected on his decision to pass up medical school.

“Now I’m regretting every day,” Ahmadieh said. He’s excelled in the used-car business, but that’s the only area where he feels he has been successful.

“For example, I don’t have any children,” Ahmadieh said. “I was married for 15 years, I got divorced.”

Ahmadieh believes his commitment to the dealership spurred his wife to leave him. When asked if he’s dating now, Ahmadieh laughed and shook his head "no."

“I’m dating my business,” he said. “Every day, six days a week.”

Sacred Rose Tattoo: Karen Roze

woman wearing jeans and plaid shirt smiles sitting in her tattoo shop, with neon sign in background
Karen Roze, owner of Sacred Rose Tattoo on San Pablo Avenue near University in Berkeley. (Ximena Natera/Courtesy of Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

It took Karen Roze an entire year to find a tattoo apprenticeship when she first tried to break into the industry three decades ago.

“Nobody taught women how to tattoo back then, ever,” Roze said. “So it's pretty remarkable that I weaseled my way in, and I had to fight to stay there, too.”

In her first tattooing jobs, Roze dealt with serious sexual harassment and intimidation from men who wanted to muscle her out of the business. But she pushed through.

“You just have to say, ‘I deserve this,’” Roze said. “And one of those things you deserve is respect.”

Roze went on to open her own tattoo shop, Sacred Rose Tattoo, and today she says that getting a tattoo can be very empowering, especially for women.

“Everyone your whole life tells you how you're supposed to look and everything,” Roze said. “When you get a tattoo, you're basically telling the whole world, ‘I don’t care what you think about how I look.’”

Everett & Jones Barbeque: Shamar Cotton

Man sits at table with pensive expression outside front glass windows of his bbq restaurant
Shamar Cotton reflects on his mother’s legacy at Everett & Jones Barbeque, and on the weight of stepping up as the third generation in his family to run the restaurant. (Noah Baustin/Berkeleyside)

Mary Everett used to greet customers in the front of her restaurant wearing an Everett & Jones Barbeque visor hat and a pair of sunglasses.

“If you said, ‘I’ve never had the barbeque,’ she’d be like, ‘Where have you been? I’ve only been here for 35 years, so you’re missing some of the best barbeque out there,” said Shamar Cotton, Everett’s son.

Cotton knew that one day, he, along with his brother and sister, would be the third generation in his family to run the famed restaurant, which is one of the longest-running Black-owned barbeque joints in the Bay Area. He explained what it’s like to grow up with your mother as your boss.

“You get to learn all the secrets and you get to carry the torch,” he said.

But the moment of passing the torch arrived faster than he ever imagined. His mother died last year at 65 years old after contracting COVID-19.

On the day of her passing, daily operations continued at the restaurant. Cotton went to Everett & Jones and sat outside, trying to take it in.

“‘My mom’s not here, I’ve got to take care of the restaurant, I’ve got to keep this going,’” Cotton recalled thinking that day.

Cotton has seen plenty of other family businesses collapse after the matriarch passes away. In the wake of his mother’s death, he’s determined to uphold the family legacy.

He grew up with the restaurant and now he’s using the lessons that were passed down to him. He lives by the phrase his grandmother always repeated: “KISS: Keep it simple, stupid.”

Noah Baustin is a journalist and audio producer based in Berkeley, currently working for The San Francisco Standard as a data reporter. This audio project was his senior thesis at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism and was first published by Berkeleyside.