The showroom in Joshua Tree Artisans Collective,which was destroyed by fire on April 12. Photo: Joshua Goldberg
The showroom in Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective, which was destroyed by a fire April 12. Photo: Joshua Goldberg
The showroom in Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective, which was destroyed by a fire April 12. Photo: Joshua Goldberg

By many accounts, the Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective was a special place to work.

Taking up two floors on a building on Second Street, the collective had individual spaces for woodworkers, metal fabricators, inventors, interior designers, furniture makers and mixed media artists to work. The craftsmen, though, were all free to use the communal hand tools and machines that had been assembled by Joshua Goldberg, some costing thousands of dollars.

“The atmosphere was very collaborative,” said Judith Garland, who runs Red Dog Woodcrafts. “I was the only female woodworker there. Sometimes being a female can be hard, especially in the traditional trades. But everybody was generous with their talent, with information. They are not hoarders. It is not a competitive environment.”

But the collaborative and creative environment created so carefully by Goldberg when he started Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective in 2005 is no more. A massive six-alarm fire on April 12 in West Berkeley destroyed the group’s building, as well as several others. The fire started accidentally in a space on second street rented by The Wooden Duck, according to fire officials.

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The fire burned up the fine furniture, both completed and in process, statues, metal work, portfolios and other work, as well as the machines they used. Most of the 15 full time artisans in the collective (there are also 10 drop-in members) did not have insurance, and many have not recovered financially or emotionally from the flames. Goldberg estimates he lost about $250,000 and other collective members lost an additional $250,000.

To help raise money to relocate the collective, buy new machines and help individuals better cope with their losses, The Wooden Duck (which lost a storeroom, but not the main store in the fire) is hosting a fundraiser Saturday, June 14, from 7-11 p.m. at 1823 Eastshore Highway. The party at the Wooden Duck will be in an outdoor patio and will feature food and drink, a silent auction and two stages. Lia Rose & Friends will perform on the main stage, DJ Elroy will spin, and an acoustic café hosting a variety of local talent. The suggested donation is $20 to $40.

The collective is also raising money on The goal is $50,000. So far, the Internet drive has raised more than $5,500.

A table and other pieces of furniture on display at Joshua Tree Artisans Collective. Photo: Joshua Goldberg
A table and other pieces of furniture on display at Joshua Tree Artisans Collective. Photo: Joshua Goldberg

Goldberg said the community support has been gratifying. Places that the artisans patronized like Truitt & White, The Wood Bank and MacBeath, have all stepped forward to help. Numerous community members have said they want to help.

There has been “a lot of sympathy, a lot of concern about us, a lot of generous well-wishing about us,” said Goldberg. “We’ve all been really happy with the offering of help, the offering of support, the offering of financial support.”

The Wooden Duck wasn’t insured either, and lost about $500,000 of finished furniture and lumber, said owner Eric Gellerman. But the loss was not of the scale of the collective, which lost its space, its machines and its work.

“It’s a huge hit but it’s not like a knock-out blow,” said Gellerman. “I am sure over time we will be fine.”

Goldberg has identified a temporary shop in West Oakland where interested members of the collective can work, possibly through the fall. He is touring prospective buildings with agents from Norheim & Yost.

Sign on the outside of the building. Photo: Joshua Goldberg
Sign on the outside of the building. Photo: Joshua Goldberg

The last two months have been extremely tough for many of the artisans.

Naomi Lee came to the U.S. in 1992 and set up an interior design studio at the Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective. She often had clients who wanted custom furniture, so it made sense to be close to artisans who could make what she needed.

The fire destroyed her entire business, her portfolio, business records and furniture ready to go to customers. She was not insured and had to refund deposits to customers waiting for furniture.

“After the fire I am having difficult concentration,” said Lee, who broke down in tears during her conversation with Berkeleyside. “Last two months I don’t make any money. It’s very hard, the situation right now.”

The shop after the April 12 fire. Photo: Ron Choy
The shop after the April 12 fire. Photo: Ron Choy

Damon Manni was at Joshua Tree the night the fire erupted. He works in the day as a software engineer so he often went to the shop at off hours. He was upstairs; Goldberg was downstairs when both noticed a haze in the air. They conferred and searched for the source; the air smelled strange but not like smoke, he said. Suddenly Goldberg ran upstairs and said, “The building is on fire, we have to get out.” They ran outside, ran back inside to grab a few things, and by the time they exited the roof was in flames. Soon the fire had engulfed the building and was visible from blocks around.

Manni had only been renting space at Joshua Tree Artisans’ Collective for a year but said it was one of the most collaborative places he had ever worked. The members were really skilled and Manni said his work vastly improved, even in that short period of time. It was a result of the atmosphere.  People would ask one another their opinions on how to make a joint or how to design something.

“We all became buddies,” said Manni, who is a woodworker.

Manni also liked the collective because it freed him from maintaining machinery, leaving more time to work. Goldberg and an apprentice took care of the hand tools and machines.

Goldberg has not been able to do any work in the last two months, as he has been too busy dealing with the fire department, insurance agencies, realtors and the collective’s future. He is determined to recreate the collective, but isn’t sure how much money he will have to make that happen. He is still waiting to hear how much The Wooden Duck’s insurance company will pay, as well as his own insurance company.

But he is looking forward to Saturday’s fundraiser as a new start. The Collective plans to premier a video of the group and its work, which they will place on the site.

“It’s tremendous how much people are sympathetic to our plight,” he said.

Berkeley warehouse fire started accidentally, Wooden Duck not insured (04.16.14)
After a West Berkeley blaze, praise for the firefighters (04.14.14)
West Berkeley fire causes $5 million in damage, destroys 20 artisan businesses (04.13.14)
Berkeley businesses damaged in 5-alarm warehouse fire (04.12.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...