Scroll down to see an update with photos of the completed flower stall, as well as a comment from the property owners that came in after publication.
March 31 was likely Ana da Silva’s busiest Sunday in 17 years of owning a flower and gift shop on Gilman Street, at least workwise. Because it was her last Sunday of owning that particular flower and gift shop.
“We’re going to get out of here,” da Silva said, as she and three friends packed up the baskets, knick-knacks and keepsakes scattered all over her once-tidy shop, Ana Flowers and Gifts at 1302 Gilman St. The counter that sat two-thirds of the way into the store was gone. She had about 12 hours to move everything she could into a rented storage space. One of the packers commented it better be a large storage space. They ended up leaving things behind.
Da Silva’s landlords, Larry and Carl and Linda Lasagna, (who also own the Westbrae Biergarten) asked her to vacate her store as the bike store next door is expanding into her old space, she said. But the date da Silva had to leave by was not clear to her, and in the end, she had to scramble to get out in time.
“The community is against this,” said da Silva, who immigrated from Brazil in 1995. “But I have the community. I have the love.”
That’s one signal she’s received loud and clear. The Albany resident has been a neighborhood institution since opening the shop in 2002. She’s also the sole caretaker of husband Roy Bleiweiss, a former publishing attorney who has Alzheimer’s. As he has grown sicker, da Silva has found it increasingly difficult to care for him and work enough in the store to afford the rent.
Da Silva is moving into a much smaller space. Which is OK, because it’s a gift.
Todd Jersey is a Berkeley architect who heard da Silva was closing her doors, looked down Gilman Street, and came up with an idea. A block east, under the elevated BART tracks and across the street, sat the burned-out husk of a former kiosk, at Gilman, Santa Fe and Masonic. It was destroyed by fire in the early 2000s.
Jersey went to work Sunday refurbishing the kiosk with two friends, while da Silva hurried to get out of her space up the street. The goal – for which they’re looking for additional volunteers – is to spend the next five Saturdays rebuilding the 120-square-feet kiosk into a place where da Silva can continue her business.
Jersey not only has the blessing of the property owner to refurbish the kiosk. He also got him to waive da Silva’s rent for two years, so she can get back on her feet.
“This was Heidi’s Flowers,” said Jersey about the previous tenant as he took a break from stripping charred wood and wiping off years-old black ash from his hands and forearms. “She was Persian. Urban myth says someone firebombed it after 9/11. When Ana had to leave, I thought ‘Why don’t we redo the shed?’ (Owner Robert Kelso) gave her two years of free rent. That’s Berkeley. There’s no rapacious developer involved.”
Sunday’s work crew was three strong, which they hope will increase. A question about the structure’s size drew quizzical looks.
“I don’t know,” said Jersey, grabbing a tape measure. “Let’s find out.”
The verdict was about 120-square feet, which may or may not require city involvement, according to an ensuing conversation between Jersey and crew members Kent Sparling and Chris Delphey. “We needed to fast track the process since Ana is being kicked out of her old spot,” Jersey said. “We are almost done with drawings and submitting for permit for recladding the building soon.”
Jersey and Sparling became friends as regulars at Coffee Conscious, two doors down from da Silva’s former space. “There’s a beautiful community around that coffee shop,” said Sparling.
They aren’t building a fully functioning store, per se. “The idea is it’s not a livable situation,” Sparling said. “We’re just making a really nice shed. We hope to mostly have it sided today. We could use some volunteers.”
“Hopefully it inspires others to help their neighbors and help each other, especially in these tough times,” said Susan Andres, Jersey’s wife, who was taking lunch orders. “We can inspire and elevate everybody’s quality of life.”
The packing continued a block east, where Rose DePerez, her husband Scott Zimmerman, and Jane Tanton helped da Silva pack. DePerez said da Silva let DePerez’s daughter “work” in her shop one day a week in seventh grade as part of a school project teaching kids customer service skills.
“That’s when our friendship started,” said DePerez. “Ana gave her that opportunity, which paid off. Now she’s 19 and last year got her first job at Target in customer service. She got her eyes opened to how to work with the public.”
“I’ve been here every day since March,” said Zimmerman. “I retired and immediately came here to start working (to pack up the store).”
It hasn’t been an easy transition. Blue Heron Bikes, da Silva’s recent next door neighbor, is expanding into her former space. While she said they’ve been cooperative, they already started moving things at the back of the space, which has limited her access to the restroom. It also hasn’t been easy managing Bleiweiss, who was very attached to da Silva as she tried working. The couple met at a Berkeley art gallery nearly 22 years ago and married five months later. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015 – around the same time he had quadruple bypass surgery.
At the end of the day, da Silva had to leave behind some belongings, including at least two large antique cabinets. “They’re beautiful. But I couldn’t take them home and couldn’t pay for the storage”
She still has some work to do to while her new digs are taking shape, and will try to do some floral work from home. “I think it will be at least two months (before re-opening),” she said. “I hope to have Mother’s Day there. If it could be open the week before, that would be great. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll try to get through it. I’m so blessed to have all these wonderful people behind me.”
Friends have started a GoFundMe campaign for da Silva and Bleiweiss, which stood at $5,083 of its $8,000 goal, as of Monday afternoon.
Update April 4: Berkeleyside finally reached the Lasagna family, da Silva’s landlords, on April 4. They said they have a lot of admiration for her and Linda and Carl Lasagna donated $250 to da Silva’s GoFundMe page. The Lasagnas said they helped Jersey secure a dump truck to carry away debris from the new site.
“She does wonderful things — we just love her,” said Linda Lasagna, whose husband’s family has owned the property for more than 80 years. “The rent hasn’t been raised in a number of years. It’s been nice and stable. But we have to make money too.”
Lasagna said as Bleiweiss’ illness progressed it became clear late last year da Silva’s store needed re-configuring to save rent. Initially, the idea was for Blue Heron to take over half the shop. “Sadly, that didn’t work out,” she said.
By December, Lasagna said a “come to Jesus” meeting with da Silva became necessary.
“I knew she was so overwhelmed,” Lasagna said. “My heart goes out to her. She’s clearly had her hands more than full.”
Blue Heron Bikes owner Rob Allen said he began storing things in the back of da Silva’s shop in January, resulting in her rent being lowered. He said he offered his neighbors use of his bathroom. “Since Ana can no longer occupy that space, we decided to.”
Update, May 15: The community fundraising campaign raised a total of $8,455 and construction of new kiosk was completed in time for Mother’s Day, on Sunday May 12, when Ana da Silva held a grand opening for the business.