Ellen and Bob Lasher's electronics store was deemed seismically unsafe in 1991. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Ellen and Bob Lasher’s father Al opened his electronics store in 1960. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Ellen and Bob Lasher’s father Al opened his electronics store in 1960. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Al Lasher’s Electronics may be on the brink of closing after 56 years at 1734 University Ave.

The city of Berkeley deemed the building, near McGee Avenue, seismically unsafe in 1991, requiring the owners to retrofit the property by 1997. Lasher’s was one of 587 buildings to receive this mandate under the city’s seismic hazard mitigation program for unreinforced masonry buildings. Twenty-five years later, it is one of eight that remain on the list.

The city issued the owners, siblings Bob and Ellen Lasher, numerous notices and citations over the years. A final 2015 notice, which the Lashers appealed, warned the shop owners of the city’s intent to put a lien of $3,125 — the amount of recent outstanding citations — on the property. At its Dec. 15 meeting, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to halt fees and defer filing the lien, giving the owners 90 days to apply for a building permit for the retrofit and one year to pull the permit.

The Lashers say they are unsure they can afford to retrofit and stay open. They have received bids to do the retrofitting work ranging from $150,000-$300,000, Bob Lasher said. The retrofit would also require Lasher’s to close for at least two months, which would be a blow to business, he added.

Over the years, the Lashers have looked into selling the building and renting in a new location, but high rents and the possibility of losing customers make that an unappealing option, they said. The siblings and another brother, who is no longer an owner, inherited the business and building from their father in 2003. They currently have one employee, Bob’s daughter Melissa Lasher.

At the December council meeting, members of the public spoke in support of Lasher’s, calling it an institution that needs to be preserved.

“You can take your broken whatever it is to Al Lasher’s and they’ll tell you what to do,” one woman said.

The building that houses Lasher's was deemed seismically unsafe in 1991. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The building that houses Lasher’s was deemed seismically unsafe in 1991. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The building that houses Lasher’s was deemed seismically unsafe in 1991. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent Saturday afternoon, right before closing, a dozen customers were still in the store, perusing the crowded shelves and seeking the Lashers’ expertise. Among them was a father-daughter pair from Alameda looking for materials for an art project, and a woman from San Francisco who said she began coming to the shop 25 years ago for guitar repair parts. The Burning Man crowd also frequents the store for LEDs, and teachers and students come for science project parts. The city has also bought from Lasher’s for years, the siblings said.

Alongside the regulars on Saturday was first-time customer Ashley Gaulding, who came to the shop on RadioShack’s recommendation.

“I just moved here and it’s exciting to see an actual electronics store,” she said. “I’m from Philly and there aren’t many stores like this where you can go in and pick up any miscellaneous component.”

The store has evolved tremendously since Al Lasher opened it in 1960 as a shop for television and radio dealers. Now Lasher’s does everything except repairs — which they help you do on your own.

“Basically, we were green when green was only a Crayola color,” Ellen said. “That’s what this store is all about. You can fix your own stuff.”

Burners like Lasher's. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Burners like Lasher’s. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Burners like Lasher’s. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Even with the loyal customer base, business has declined rapidly in the past 15 years. The first threat was big-box electronics stores, followed by Amazon and its convenient deliveries. Many of the Lashers’ tech industry customers switched from hardware to software, or moved to Silicon Valley.

The shop once had 10 employees and often made 120 sales a day, but the recent Saturday brought in a little over $1,000 from 55 sales.

“It’s enough to keep a couple people going, but it’s always a concern,” said Bob Lasher, who grew up helping his father in the store and has never worked elsewhere.

At the December meeting, members of council said they wanted the city to do what it could to keep Lasher’s in business.

“This is a very old family business and it’s very valued,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio. “This is exactly the kind of business that we want to help save.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington said he supported deferring the lien but said a deadline should be enforced.

“Notices have been sent to the business since [1991], and it’s 2015,” he said.

“We’re letting them off the hook,” Mayor Tom Bates said. “I’m not too wild about that but I’ll support this.”

The other remaining unreinforced masonry (typically brick) buildings have received notices warning that the city will put liens on the properties. Two have since pulled building permits, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

The city intensified its efforts to mandate seismic improvements of unreinforced masonry buildings in 2014, when a vacant staff position in the planning department was filled, Chakko said. The city also began requiring owners of soft-story buildings to retrofit their properties at that time.

“The vast majority of property owners have understood how critical it is to retrofit,” Chakko said. “And the city as a whole is safer.”

Shortly after Berkeley redoubled its efforts in 2014, a magnitude-6.0 earthquake damaged hundreds of buildings and homes in nearby Napa. The oldest structures, including several unreinforced masonry buildings, fared the worst, with the destruction serving as a call to action to other California cities.

Berkeley’s Old City Hall, where council usually holds its meetings, would be at risk in an earthquake. Since 2011, council has been looking for a new location. In June, council asked to use the Berkeley Unified School District’s meeting room at 2020 Bonar St. for a three-month trial period. There has been no decision on that front since the request was made.

Ellen Lasher helps Jessie Brawer with her broken stereo amp and computer. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Ellen Lasher helps Jessie Brawer with her broken stereo amp and computer. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Over the past year the city has also conducted evaluations of six city-run community and senior centers, which put the total estimated cost of necessary seismic upgrades at $9.7 million. Council will hold a special work session to discuss the upgrades Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 5:30 p.m. at Longfellow Middle School at 1500 Derby St. (Meetings last week were canceled at Old City Hall due to an elevator malfunction; it’s not known how long repairs will take to the type of parts that are needed.)

The city has some programs in place to help property owners retrofit their buildings, including PACE financing. Borrowers make payments through a special assessment on their property tax bills. The loans are attached to the property, meaning future owners inherit the balance.

A city staff member met with the Lashers last week to discuss financing options, Chakko said.

The siblings have considered selling the business, but said there is not a big market for electronics stores.

“It’s not a real saleable type of business because you have to sink so much money into inventory,” said Ellen Lasher. She has watched many other electronics stores shutter for good.

The Lashers have until mid-March to apply for a building permit.

City Council seeks to move meetings to West Berkeley (09.02.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
Magnitude-6 earthquake rattles Berkeley in early hours (08.24.14)
Berkeley unites for earthquake safety (04.29.13)

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...