For 72 years, three generations of Accorneros have fixed watches, repaired jewelry and helped customers pick out their engagement and wedding rings at Oaks Jewelers, at 1783 Solano Ave. Henry Accornero and his half-brother, Bob Zavattaro, opened the store in 1948. At that time, the brothers also sold toasters, shavers, lighters, small appliances and silver pieces for wedding gifts in a shop half the size of the store today. Henry’s wife, Angie, later joined the team to work at the store and the couple eventually had four children.
Oldest son Don was the first to work at Oaks Jewelers. He was later joined by the youngest son, Jeff, who has owned the store since Don’s retirement. Daughter Cheryl Accornero-Myers still works there part-time, as she has for 40 years. Their sister, Sandy Quintana, did not work at the family store, but owns Today’s Rave hair salon, next door. Now a third-generation Accornero, Jeff’s daughter, Melissa Accornero-Macchi, works with her father as the store’s business manager.
Jewelry as a symbol of love and family
Oaks Jewelers has been an intimate part of many Berkeley residents’ lives, including couples who bought their treasured wedding rings at the same store where their grandparents did the same.
John Kistner, an insurance agent who grew up in Berkeley and El Cerrito, remembers one Christmas morning after he and his eight brothers and sisters unwrapped their presents, his father pulled out a small box and handed it to his mother. In it was a ring that Henry Accornero had helped him design, featuring the birthstones of all their children. Years later, when Kistner fell in love with his wife-to-be, Loria, he panicked. Then he remembered Oaks. Jeff helped him pick out an engagement ring he could afford and promised that if Loria didn’t like it, they would tweak it. (She loved it.) When the time came to choose a wedding ring, the couple returned and Jeff fashioned a band that fit around one side of that ring.
Years later, Jeff also helped the couple chose another band to fit around the other side and soldered them all together. Shortly before the pandemic hit, Kistner lost his own wedding band and when Oaks reopened, he emailed photos to Melissa. She found several similar styles. They narrowed it down and Kistner was able to pick up his new ring. “Jewelry is often a symbol of love and family,” he said. “They understand. They listen to customers and take care of them without being pushy. They have your best interests in mind, not theirs.”
A role in the origins of the Solano Stroll
Back in the 1970s, as a member of the Thousand Oaks Merchants Association, Henry Accornero was instrumental in starting the tradition of the Solano Stroll to increase the neighbors’ awareness of the businesses on the Avenue. Cheryl remembers that the first year it was a much smaller event than the throng of 300,000 it became.
“It was a Friday night in 1974, and we stayed open till maybe 8 p.m. and served cookies and drinks, “ she said. “It started from the top of Solano and just went to the Albany line. In the beginning, 60 or so people would come in and browse and sometimes we would offer little specials. Eventually, we could not participate anymore because of the type of business we had. Our insurance company would never have let hordes of people come through a jewelry store.”
In 2013, the Solano Stroll honored the Accornero family and Henry was named grand marshal.
“He was very proud and happy that day, “ says Cheryl, “and he was always proud of his family coming into the business with him.”
Italian heritage meant relocation during WW2
Both of Henry’s parents — mother, Angiolina and father, Guillermo — were immigrants from Italy. Proud of their Italian heritage, they celebrated all the holidays with large family dinners and Angiolina had a big room just for making pasta. They would travel to Italy and receive Italian relatives in California, to keep up their family connections. “Henry could speak Italian, but was shy about it,” recalls Cheryl.
After graduating high school, Henry enlisted in the US Coast Guard and served during World War 2 between 1942 and 1946. When the war broke out, however, Italian immigrants who didn’t have their American citizenship, like his mother, were considered “aliens” and potential traitors. In a less well-known action than the Japanese internments, they were removed from their homes and relocated. But they didn’t go far.
“They picked up my grandmother [Henry’s mother] from her house in Albany,” said Cheryl and took her to live in a house in Oakland. She couldn’t see her family, but the kids could visit on the weekends. (Her grandfather had already gotten his citizenship.)
“It was upsetting in a ridiculous way,” she said, “but the family didn’t talk about it much because they had a lot of Japanese friends who owned the nurseries, for example, and they knew what was going on with the Japanese was much worse.”
After he got out of the service with the GI Bill, Henry went to watchmaking school. His older half-brother was already a watchmaker and they started the business together.
Growing up, Cheryl remembers that Henry would always come home for dinner and then go back to the store with his brother and work until late at night. The type of exacting work with tiny pieces required complete attention, which they could not give while they were greeting and helping customers. Henry and Angie were married for 72 years. In 2020, they passed away only a few weeks apart, at the age of 95 and 92.
Their youngest son, Jeff Accornero, didn’t plan to go into the family business. After high school, he started taking business courses but realized that that wasn’t what he wanted.
“I ended up talking to my dad, but he didn’t push me at all to be in the business,” he said. “And I wasn’t much into the watches, I was more interested in the jewelry side, so I went to a school in Santa Monica, the Gemological Institute of America. There I learned goldsmithing and jewelry. Then I brought more jewelry into the store and worked more on that end than the watch end. My brother Don and I were partners and, when he retired, I bought him out.”
“Back in the day,” said Jeff, “my father and uncle used to make the watches and watch parts, but nowadays we just repair them. People still bring in those old watches, mechanical windup pocket watches and wrist watches, but we can’t do as much repair on them now, because the parts just aren’t available anymore.”
“When my father passed, he had tons of old pocket watches from 1800s and 1900s, old American companies that aren’t around anymore, like Elgin. And they still worked. We used to have one showcase in the front with all his old stuff and antiques. He also had a lot of Civil War stuff. Guns and swords and handwritten letters, memorabilia. My Uncle was the big Civil War buff, but my dad was into it too.”
Like her father Jeff, Melissa Accornero-Macchi, had other career ideas.
“When I was in high school, I would hang out in the store, and at Christmas time, my grandpa would have us come in and do the Christmas wrapping for gifts,” she said. “But I didn’t plan to be here either.” She attended UC Santa Barbara and worked as an acquisitions editor for an academic publishing company, but got burned-out on that job. When she was unsure what to do next, her father invited her to work at the store until she figured out what she wanted to do. “That was eight or nine years ago,” said Melissa. “I ended up really liking it. I didn’t expect to stay here, but that became my path.”
“It was very old school here. When I started working here, it still operated much as it had in 1948,” Melissa recalls. “We still handwrote receipts, and all of our books were on paper. Slowly, I’ve been updating the systems. We still handwrite receipts, but we also have a credit-card machine. We’re a hybrid of old school and new school, slowly transitioning into more modern times. It’s been fun, and I got to work with my grandpa for several years before he officially retired.”
Henry and his brother started as renters and eventually were able to buy the whole building, which includes what is now Payn’s Stationery, Today’s Rave Hair Salon, Ensler Lighting and F.E. Forbes (another third-generation family business that is currently celebrating its 100th year).
“We are very fortunate that my grandpa owned the building,” said Melissa, “because during all the economic hard times, truthfully, if we had to pay regular rent to another landlord, probably we wouldn’t have been here as long.”
“As a landlord, my dad was so good to all the shops on this block,” said Jeff. “He loved all those guys and used to keep their rents low. Then, if something went wrong in a building, most of them knew they weren’t paying that much in rent, so they would pay to fix it themselves. That’s what my dad wanted. Keep the rent low and keep the tenants there and he never got a lot of repairs he had to do. So it was a two-way street and worked out well. Most of same businesses from here to Forbes have been here many, many years.”
Two doors down, Sonny Han of Payn’s Stationery has rented from the Accorneros for over 20 years. He remembers the first day when he and his father signed the lease with Henry. “I get emotional when I remember Henry,” he says. “He was always like an uncle to me, especially after my dad passed. I am so grateful to him for keeping the rent cost manageable.”
An endearing resistance to change
Henry was still coming in and working in the shop until he was 92.
“One of the most endearing qualities about my grandpa,” said Melissa,” was his resistance to change. Even in the final years of working at the store, he often would charge customers a price that was more consistent with the pricing from decades ago. For example, he’d do a small repair for a customer that we would normally charge $10 for, but when a customer would ask what they owe, he’d always say ‘Oh, I don’t know… how about $2.’ We’d often have to gently remind him that prices have gone up, but he would chuckle it off and usually continue with making up prices on the fly.”
Another of Melissa’s favorite memories is how much their customers loved her grandfather, and how patient they were with him in his final years at the store.
“When he reached his 90s repairs that used to take him a couple minutes often took him 15-20 minutes to complete,” she said. “Customers would get so excited when they happened to come in on a day that he was working, and would patiently wait the extended time for him to finish their watch battery, repair, etc. Even though his dexterity had diminished over time, it still brought him great joy to complete these small repairs for the customers he loved. And what was most amazing about him is that, although his physical abilities reflected his age, his mind stayed sharp as a tack until the day he died He could always remember customers’ names, what they did, and who their family members were.”