East Bay Vivarium partner Owen Maercks shows off Abe Lincoln, a 20-pound rhinoceros iguana, on Friday outside his West Berkeley reptile shop. “Last year was our best year in the 50-year history of the store,” Maercks says. Credit: Julia Betz

Manfred Kroening was pretty sure he was finished when the pandemic shuttered Bette’s Oceanview Diner last spring.

“I was crying, literally crying,” says Kroening, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Bette, and a friend on Fourth Street in 1982. “All the food that would rot in the walk-ins — milk, meat, bread, salmon, whatever you can imagine — I gave it to the staff and donated it and then I shut everything off. It felt like death, you know? No humming. And I was done, I was done with it. I said, ‘I will never go back to Fourth Street again.’”

Those who venture out to the West Berkeley business district, though, will find Kroening is actually not done with the street. After a period of extreme self-questioning, he followed the advice of his faithful customers and landlord and reopened Bette’s with reduced hours and outdoor seating. And as of May 1 he’s serving people indoors again, though at a much-reduced capacity.

“If you go by the rules, you can have nobody at the counter and you have to have tables 6 feet apart. That’s like 12 people out of normally 49 – it’s pathetic,” he says. “But people do come inside, and it does feel good. I have moments of happiness again.”

Signs of life are reemerging on Fourth Street after a year of darkness. Though retailers say business is still below baseline, the district and its larger neighborhood survived relatively unscathed. West Berkeley commercial spaces generated roughly $6 million in sales tax for the city in 2020, dwarfing other neighborhoods’ contributions, according to the Office of Economic Development.

Credit: Berkeley Office of Economic Development

It’s also done better at holding businesses through the pandemic.

Downtown Berkeley saw a doubling of commercial vacancy rates, from 5% in 2019 to 10% in 2020. And the Telegraph Avenue strip had commercial vacancies more than quadruple during the same period, from 4% to 17%.

But West Berkeley saw a 4% vacancy rate in 2020, which is somehow lower than its 6% rate the year before COVID. Several new businesses opened during the pandemic, including a plant shop and two swanky Danish furniture-and-design outlets.

“There are no empty stores. If you go to other neighborhoods like Fillmore and Hayes Valley, which are regional shopping areas [in San Francisco], they’re in big trouble,” says Denny Abrams, who helped create the Fourth Street business district decades ago and owns a number of buildings in the area.

“We managed to get through this by committing ourselves to helping our tenants get through the pandemic,” Abrams says. “And now we’re going to reap the benefits of that, which is an area which is functioning and wonderful to visit and experience and have a meal and maybe shop.”

Doing business in a pandemic

Several retail tenants interviewed for this story said their landlords provided financial support or helped them promote outdoor activities or build outdoor seating. But the key to the district’s survival has many parts. For Owen Maercks, it was reptiles.

Snakes are selling off the shelves at the East Bay Vivarium.

“For about three weeks, business went into the pooper,” says Maercks, a partner at the East Bay Vivarium, which bills itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest reptile store.” “And then everybody realized, ‘I’m at home with nothing to do,’ and they came and spent money. It’s been a boom ever since. Last year was our best year in the 50-year history of the store.”

Scaled and bumpy creatures were flying off the shelves so quickly the vivarium couldn’t keep anything in stock. For folks who don’t see the attraction of dropping $1,000 for a stoic-faced monitor lizard in pandemic times — rather than, say, a puppy you can cuddle — Maercks has some facts to lay down.

“Dogs and cats and birds and hamsters and things like that, those are substitute babies. I think we all can agree in a psychological sense that’s what they are, correct?” he says. “Well, reptiles aren’t that. What they do is invite you into their world, which is different from ours. And so anybody who has a slightly adventurous mind can be like, ‘Hey, right in my own home I can go into a different universe just by enjoying and understanding what this animal needs and how it works.’”

“Dogs and cats and birds and hamsters and things like that, those are substitute babies.”
—Owen Maercks, lizard and snake salesman

Consumers, it turns out, have been craving mental stimulation. The Stained Glass Garden is perhaps the oldest retail shop on Fourth, dating to the 1970s when the area was reportedly dirt roads passing by a goat farm. It kept afloat in 2020 by offering classes on Zoom and selling project kits folks could noodle with at home.

“A lot of people actually picked up stained glass on their own during lockdown,” says gallery manager Julie Orchard. “We always say, ‘Stained glass is the best therapy in town, and the cheapest therapy in town.’”

George Kiskaddon and his wife, Sally, run the Builders Booksource, which tailors to construction-and-design crowds with titles like The Tiny House Handbook and How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar. They maintained a trickle of business selling books to professional contractors and DIY homemakers and peddling jigsaw puzzles to bored homebodies. More importantly, George expanded a side hustle fulfilling book-related orders to California state agencies and the prison system. “That did pretty well,” he says. “We were able to keep our heads above water and pay our bills.”

Though sales aren’t nearly what they were before COVID, he’s looking forward to celebrating the store’s 40th anniversary next year. “Every second or third customer says, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to be in a bookstore again!’ So we’re optimistic we’ll get back to where we were.”

New shops sprout up

Who would want to open a brick-and-mortar store during a pandemic? 

Quite a few people. “In general, entrepreneurship tends to increase during economic downturns,” says Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting, a Berkeley and New York-based consultancy for real estate and retail planning.

“If you think of Fourth Street, it’s not like spaces open up all that often, and when they do the property owners are discriminating and drive a hard bargain. But when there’s a pandemic or any sort of economic downturn, suddenly with those locations there’s a little bit more give.”

Online shopping, which many retailers turned to during lockdown, isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – and that includes the sellers who offer it. “I just think with the cost of shipping, marketing and customer acquisition and returns, e-commerce is a big money loser,” says Berne. “The only way businesses can make the whole equation positive is by opening stores. That’s why so many digitally native retailers, who once swore they would never open stores, have been doing just that.” (Exhibit A: Amazon’s 4-Star Store on Fourth Street, which opened in 2018.)

María Blum-Sullivan debuted the second location of her Paraíso Plant Studio on Fourth Street in November. Courtesy of María Blum-Sullivan

Last November, María Blum-Sullivan debuted the second location of her Paraíso Plant Studio on Fourth (the original is downtown), offering boutique-yet-affordable plants and supplies when barely anyone was on the street. 

“I think it goes back to human connection and wanting to create a physical space for people to experience different things and interact in different ways,” she says. “When you think about the pandemic and everything that has happened, we realize that’s an even-more essential part of life than we thought.”

Blum-Sullivan has since gone from having one employee to six. “Taking risk and incurring risk has been really important for our growth,” she says. “But it’s also calculated risk. Fourth Street in terms of Berkeley is really good for foot traffic, as much as it’s probably down during the pandemic.”

Two other retail establishments also opened just down the block: BoConcept, a Copenhagen-based furniture-and-design company with about 300 outlets worldwide, and HAY, a Danish brand and a subsidiary of the design conglomerate Herman Miller Group. 

“The Fourth Street district is synonymous with being a destination-shopping location for home and design in the community,” says Debbie Propst, president of Herman Miller Group Retail. “This, as well as the community’s appreciation for innovation and good design, are precisely why we found it to be a natural fit.”

Herman Miller’s noticed a recent surge in customers wanting to shop for home decor in person, says Propst. “Many of these intentional shoppers have browsed the site and done their research, but want to come in to test-drive a sofa or see a shelving unit in person before committing to a sizable investment. While our digital channels will continue to be a key piece of the customer’s journey, the experience of buying furnishings for our homes has always been, and will continue to be, physical.”

The Danish invasion elevates Fourth Street’s status as a burgeoning furniture district and – with Apple, Lululemon, Sephora and others – its reputation as a hall of retail giants in small business-loving Berkeley. That’s left a few locals a bit miffed.

“The fact there’s more chain furniture stores coming in does kind of change the landscape of Berkeley,” says Lawrence Grown, executive director of the West Berkeley Design Loop. “But that style of Danish Modern is very popular and maybe there’s not enough of that available locally, although I know there is some. It’ll probably be a direct competitor to some people who are around there like KCC Modern Living, the [Bay Home Consignment Furniture] shop, possibly even The Gardener.”

“I don’t think it’s old-fashioned Berkeley at all,” says the bookshop’s Kiskaddon. “But if two years ago you would’ve asked me is Fourth Street becoming Makeup Central and now, what do we have now, five makeup stores on the block? I don’t understand that at all.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...