Shop Talk: Meet the ‘plant queen’ of Southwest Berkeley and the fiddler hired as Ashkenaz’s new director

A plant lover turns her passion into a business on San Pablo Avenue. Catch up on this and other Berkeley retail and small business news.


Find out which stores have opened, closed or moved and what’s new in Berkeley’s small-business communities. If you have Berkeley business updates to share, send an email to editors@berkeleyside.org.

Open San Pablo Avenue

The ‘plant queen’ hopes to reign in Southwest Berkeley 

The partners behind The Plant Queen: Nichelle Queen Proctor and Thang Nguyen
Nichelle Queen Proctor and Thang Nguyen, the partners behind The Plant Queen. Credit: Joanne Furio

“There are so many plant queens,” says Nichelle Queen Proctor, which is why she had to distinguish herself from the others who also “have tons of plants.” 

She did that by making “queen” her unofficial middle name and calling herself “the official plant queen” on Instagram, where she attracts almost 3,000 followers. She apologizes for frequently using plant metaphors when describing her business, but “I can’t help it,” she says. Plants are her thing. 

“Giving someone a beautiful plant is like giving the gift of life and growth,” she says. 

With her new store, Nichelle Queen Proctor was able to turn her  penchant for plants into a business.
With her new store, Nichelle Queen Proctor was able to turn her penchant for plants into a business. Credit: Joanne Furio

Proctor spent a year-and-a-half selling plants as a vendor in the Bay Area and honing her brand online before opening a Southwest Berkeley store with her partner in life and in business, Thang Nguyen, on Nov. 20. For the 20-somethings, who met when both were students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, The Plant Queen is a bricks-and-mortar manifestation of a business philosophy that emphasizes collaboration over competition. 

“When people come in, we like to make them feel welcome,” Proctor says. 

Proctor, whom Nguyen calls “the face of the business,” grew up in a plant-filled household, but it wasn’t until 2017 that her sister ignited her interest in horticulture. At the time Proctor was majoring in fashion design at Sacramento State. 

Since August 2020, she’s sold all over the Bay Area, as a vendor in markets, in retail stores and on sidewalks, all the while contemplating the idea of a permanent space.

“We knew we wanted to be in Berkeley,” she says. “Thang is from Berkeley. I’m an Oakland native, but I went to Berkeley schools. … We were happy to be back in our community.”

The store’s white-washed interior features a large table of plants and accessories at its center, with larger plants, a small selection of trees and more shelves hugging the walls. The location attracts customers from nearby Kaiser Permanente, Far Leaves Tea, Third Culture Bakery, the restaurant Standard Fare and beyond. 

Flora includes such easy-care varieties as the snake plant and Alocasia “Polly,” which “is exotic, but not rare” and the wildly popular houseplant Ficus lyrata, commonly known as the fiddle-leaf fig, in tree form ($260). Rare species include a variegated monstera called Thai constellation (for an undisclosed price), Alocasia Lauterbachiana, a.k.a. purple sword Alocasia ($85), and black Anthurium ($30), an all-black version of a plant commonly seen with green foliage and a red flower.

There are also plant accessories like handmade baskets from the Philippines ($35) and Vietnam ($25-$30), ceramic vases ($12-$60) and macrame hangers ($12-$15), watering pails and misters. T-shirts imprinted with “Let’s Root for Each Other and Watch Each Other Grow” reflect the store’s slogan: “Let’s Grow Together.” That sums up the couple’s business philosophy, which makes use of the many connections they’ve made along the way. “We like to shine a spotlight on other small businesses,” Proctor says. 

Some of the store's many easy-care, rare and unusual horticultural offerings.
Some of the store’s many easy-care, rare and unusual horticultural offerings. Credit: Joanne Furio

Some of those businesses are now vendors in their store, like the Vallejo-based Penrose Apothecary’s candles, oils and sprays and San Jose-based PlantEd by Ivana, a line of concrete planters ($15-$30), both of which are Plant Queen exclusives. The store also hosts events featuring former collaborators. 

The Plant Queen, 2634 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 510-703-6334. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Connect via Instagram and theofficialplantqueen@gmail.com.

 Open South Berkeley

Ahmed Jirde’s mailbox store follows in his brother’s footsteps  

Owner Ahmed Jirde in his new store.
Owner Ahmed Jirde in his new store, Sacramento Mailbox. Credit: Joanne Furio

Ahmed Jirde is on career No. 2. In the 30 years he’s been in America, the Somali-born naturalized citizen graduated from North Dakota University and spent almost 20 years as an electrical engineer in Minnesota and California before switching hats. 

“I became an entrepreneur,” he said, joining his brother, who had two beauty supply stores and a mailbox business. 

After his brother died in 2004, Jirde looked for a mailbox store of his own. He wanted a location that didn’t have a post office nearby and wouldn’t compete with existing franchises already served by FedEx and UPS. 

When he found a 650-square-foot storefront at the corner of Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue, “I said WOW and jumped at this location,” he said. The nearest post office, FedEx and UPS were at least a mile away in each direction. He opened the store on Sept. 1.

Sacramento Mailbox offers shipping and packing, emailing and copying services, along with mailboxes and key duplicating. Since the business is a corporation, Jirde’s also putting out the call to potential investors.

He hopes residents there will need him as much as he needs them.

“Business is a risk,” he said, “But when I look at the community, I think maybe this is the right place, maybe I can make the American dream. They need this service, and I need their business.”

Sacramento Mailbox, 2991 Sacramento St. Phone: 510-705-1015. Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

In the Spotlight Gilman District

Ashkenaz hires fiddler as its new executive director

Sarah Travis, the new executive director at Ashkenaz, in front of the facade, now getting an earthquake retrofit.
Sarah Travis, the new executive director at Ashkenaz, in front of the building’s facade, which is now getting an earthquake retrofit. Credit: Joanne Furio

Ashkenaz, Berkeley’s legendary home for traditional and world music and dance, decided to use the forced downtime of the pandemic to address some long-needed repairs and fill an important vacancy. 

After shutting its doors in March 2020, the venue began work on an earthquake retrofit of its iconic, wood-panelled facade. Next was finding a replacement for Brandi Brandes, who left her role as executive director in 2019 to return to Wisconsin to be closer to family.  

“I’m so stoked to be part of a place as legendary as Ashkenaz,” says Sarah Travis, 29, who was hired by the nonprofit on Dec. 27. 

Travis is a performer of traditional music. She’s been playing the fiddle for more than 25 of her 29 years, specializing in blue grass, zydeco and honky-tonk, and is a vocalist. She has performed at Ashkenaz and been a patron there. When she lived in Berkeley from 2017-19, “Ashkenaz was one of the regular places I went every week,” Travis says. 

Before joining Ashkenaz, Travis founded Rapture Management, a Bay Area music business management firm in 2017. Rapture shuttered in 2020, when the pandemic put a stop to live music.

With her background in managing musicians, Travis plans to make changes in Ashkenaz’s booking process, using data to determine which acts are more popular and “what our audience really wants.”

She also plans to expand educational programming and work with the Berkeley Historical Society to archive material that is now just sitting in boxes. “I’m excited to work with archivers so this important piece of Berkeley stays around,” Travis says. 

Chris Ullsperger, Ashkenaz’s board president, says Travis “brings a lot of experience to the table working with musicians and music-centered non-profits. … We are delighted to have her on board in a leadership role, and we can’t wait to bring music and dancing from around the world back to Ashkenaz again.”

Ashkenaz was founded by David Nadel, in 1973, after he became interested in Eastern European Jewish music and dancing after watching the film Fiddler on the Roof. Ashkenaz’s 4,400-square-foot building was originally a warehouse dating to 1925. In late 1976, a new wooden facade was added, modeled after an 18th-century Polish synagogue the Nazis burned in World War II. The facade was “really showing its age,” Ullsperger says, “you could see daylight through holes in the planks.”

The retrofit involved adding plywood panels as shear walls and bolting the front wall to the foundation. Reclaimed redwood was chosen for the new exterior because of its longevity. Other improvements include improved wheelchair accessibility and updated bathrooms. 

“Otherwise, it will be pretty much like it was,” Ullsberger says, which means “‘quirky’ in the same way that so much of Berkeley is ‘quirky.’ It definitely wasn’t designed or built by a group of plastic-fingered investors.”

Ashkenaz plans to re-open in March. 

Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 510-525-5054. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

In the Spotlight Artisan District

When hippies threw clay: Celebrating the Berkeley Potters Guild’s 50th anniversary

Berkeley Potters Guild in the Artisan District.
Berkeley Potters Guild in the Artisan District. Courtesy: Berkeley Potters Guild

“1971 was a heady time in Berkeley,” said Pamela Zimmerman, president of the Berkeley Potters Guild. “Crafts were having a renaissance and a lot of young people wanted to do ceramics. They were looking for alternative ways to be in the world.” 

Twenty-five of those wannabe potters made their way to a cavernous, 8,000-square-foot building in what’s now called the Artisan District and founded the Berkeley Potters Guild, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Zimmerman has been the organization’s president since “forever,” she joked, and for 35 of the past 39 years she’s been a member. Her long tenure makes her the organization’s de facto historian. 

Originally, the potters rented the facility. But in 1981, many guild members formed an organization called Clayshares to buy the building. By 2000, some of those Clayshares members, now older and no longer doing pottery, wanted to sell. That’s when a new landlord, who wishes to remain anonymous, bought the building and offered the guild a 25-year-lease. “She did it because she wanted to do something for the arts in Berkeley,” Zimmerman said. 

Berkeley Pottery Studio is not a collective. Rather, all of its 20 members own their own equipment and run their own businesses. 

“But we do cooperate on maintaining the building,” Zimmerman said. The guild also comes together for its bi-annual sales, a two-weekend spring sale (this year the first two weekends in May), four-weekend holiday sale and weekly gallery that’s open to the public. 

The guild provides a place for both skilled professionals and developing artists to work independently and sell their work. Over the past 50 years, more than 124 people have worked there, including several potters who have received both national and regional notoriety, including the late Gary Holt, Diane Blacker, who sold her wares at the Asian Art Museum, and Cuog Ta, who sold at the De Young and Oakland museums. Another BPS alumna, Mavis McClure, created the large sculpture of a seated woman at the corner of Fourth Street and Hearst Avenue. Current member Kiyomi Koide sells her dinnerware to restaurants.  

What’s changed in a half century? Stoneware remains just as popular as it was 50 years ago, Zimmerman said, but more ceramicists are now doing larger, sculptural pieces using electric-fired rather than gas kilns. The electric kilns are one way the guild has become sustainable. It also recycles its clay and takes its glazes to the hazardous waste disposal. Says Zimmerman, “We want to be ecologically responsible.”

Berkeley Potters Guild, 731 Jones St., Berkeley. Phone: 510-524-7031. Hours: Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Connect on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter

Moved Downtown Berkeley

An insurance agent attracts more attention in a new building

Timothy W. Carter in front of his new Allstate office in Downtown Berkeley.
Timothy W. Carter in front of his new Allstate office in Downtown Berkeley. Credit: Joanne Furio

Timothy Carter, an Allstate insurance agent, was practically invisible in his previous location at 2717 San Pablo Ave.

“Even though I had the sign up, I would have people come in and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were here,’” he said. 

If Carter’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he ran unsuccessfully last year for a City Council seat. But he’s been around. His business was on San Pablo Avenue since 1999, when he became an insurance agent. 

When the sunny ground floor of a new building at the corner of Dwight and Martin Luther King Jr. Way opened up downtown, Carter moved his agency there on April 1, 2021. 

“It’s a more visible space. You can’t beat it,” he says. “People are driving by all the time, dropping their kids off.” Berkeley High is three blocks away.

Because the building is only two years old, Carter had the 1,100-square-foot space built out to his specifications. With large ground-floor windows in two directions, the sunny, whitewashed interiors contain offices for each of his three employees and himself. 

So far, the new location has paid off. Carter has noticed a 14% increase compared with this period in his previous location. Some of his new business has been pandemic-related: with more people working at home, they seek an endorsement, or rider, on their homeowner’s policy.  

Because of the pandemic, “life insurance was on everybody’s mind,” Carter says, though such concerns did not result in more policies. “Most people think life insurance is more expensive than it really is.” 

Timothy W. Carter Agency, Allstate Insurance Company, 2489 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. Phone: 510-649-3870. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Connect via Facebook

In the Spotlight West Berkeley 

A 20,000-square-foot immersive art experience at Ciel Creative Space 

A visitor on the opening night of the exhibition Homebody at Ciel Creative Space.
A visitor on the opening night of the exhibition Homebody at Ciel Creative Space. Credit: Vishesh Vikram Singh

Isolation. Alienation. Existing together, but apart. What happens when we are forced to stay at home and face ourselves? 

These pandemic-inspired themes are explored by the Oakland artist known as Hueman in a large-scale, immersive art experience called Homebody now on view in the cavernous interiors of Ciel Creative Space. The exhibition, which opened Jan. 28 and runs through Feb. 20, takes up more than 20,000 square feet, half of Ciel’s massive studio space, and includes a hallway and atrium. 

Homebody combines art and technology, highlighting original murals, portraits and sculptures through state-of-the-art projection mapping across massive white walls and augmented reality. The 360-degree experience is enhanced by original, immersive audio and lighting intended to “bring your consciousness into a new dimension,” according to a press release.

Hueman, a.k.a. Allison Torneros, is a multidisciplinary Filipina-American artist who lives in Oakland. Her subject matter often involves the human condition, which she conveys in brilliant coloring in a style she calls “etherealism,” a blending of the ethereal and the realistic. Her layered works can be seen on public streets and in galleries worldwide, including a recent painting and NFT in Sotheby’s, and in the private collections of Stephen Curry, Ava Duvernay, Usher and Pink. 

Special programming to complement the exhibition includes community pop-ups with live musical performances by Yuna, Goapele, Ruby Ibarra and others, art classes, private group tours and a partnership with Hack the Hood to support local access to art and technology. 

Homebody is a homegrown community project funded by Ciel, along with Endeavors Oakland, San Francisco’s Mirus Gallery and Epson Projectors

Homebody, Ciel Creative Space, 935 Carleton St., Berkeley. Tickets are $50, or $35 for students, seniors, military and children 5-16, for a one-hour, 15-minute time slot. 

In the Spotlight 

How the supply chain crisis is affecting Berkeley furniture stores

Owner Yo Akino at her Gilman District store, which sells imported teak furniture and home furnishings.
Owner Yo Akino at her Gilman District store, which sells imported teak furniture and home furnishings. With her cost per item up 50%, Akino has implemented a 15% price increase on teak furniture. Credit: Joanne Furio

Soaring shipping prices, clogged supply chains and increased demand are all being felt by Berkeley furniture stores. The result?  Longer than anticipated waits for foreign-made couches and, in some cases, higher prices for customers. 

An arrangement of its contemporary Danish furniture at BoConcept.
Fourth Street’s BoConcept has always provided one of four loaner sofas for customers while their sofas are being constructed. It now has nine that are all on loan. Courtesy: BoConcept

BoConcept on Fourth Street — a Danish contemporary furniture company with 300 locations around the world, including three in the Bay Area — is particularly susceptible because it’s known for its highly customized high-end European-made sofas that rely on a global supply chain and international shipping. 

Custom sofas that used to take two to three months are now taking three to five months. BoConcept recently hired a customer service representative to help clients track the status of their orders. And though the store has always provided one of four loaner sofas for customers while their sofas are being constructed, it now has nine that are all on loan and it’s expanded that program into tables and beds.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people were getting frustrated,” said Virgile Machenaud, the brand’s Bay Area retail director, who also oversees a Hayward warehouse. “Now it’s the norm.” 

At Mid Century Moebler in West Berkeley’s Ashby Plaza, there has been a slight delay in the shipping of the store’s vintage mid-century Danish pieces, but orders of new furniture have been harder hit. Orders that before took four to five weeks are now taking four to five months.

Owner Julian Goldklang in from of Mid Century Moebler's wall of chairs.
Julian Goldklang, owner of Mid Century Moebler. Credit: Joanne Furio

“Because clients don’t want to wait that long for new furniture, we have seen a large increase in sales of our vintage items, which we have in stock and for the most part ready to ship,” said owner-founder Julian Goldklang. 

At Uchi in the Gilman District, owner Yo Akino sent an email to customers on Jan. 17, warning about price hikes due to container shipping costs that have doubled and tripled over the past year. 

Uchi specializes in indoor and outdoor teak furniture from Indonesia, which ships out of China. Though the cost per item has gone up 50%, Akino has implemented a 15% increase on teak furniture “to share the burden of the increase with you, our customers,” she wrote in the email. The new pricing went into effect on Feb. 1. 

“I’ve been waiting it out over the past year to see if prices would stabilize or go down, but this year I had to raise my prices,” Akino said. “There’s nothing else I can do. I’m trying not to lose too much money.”  

Fenton MacLaren Home Furnishings, in Northwest Berkeley, meanwhile, has not been as affected by rising shipping costs since it specializes in American-made hardwood furniture crafted in small workshops. Instead, the San Pablo Avenue store warns of wait times that have doubled due to increased demand. Pre-pandemic, the wait for furniture has gone from three months to six months — or more.  

“We do deal with a small number of domestic manufacturers that are having more of that classic supply chain problem where they can’t get a lot of component parts,” said Sean Parker, who partners in the business with his brother, Keith. “For us that’s a small part of our business, so it hasn’t been too bad.”

Across Berkeley, furniture dealers are urging way-in-advance planning. 

“If you need a sofa in June, start thinking about it now and shop early,” Machenaud of Bo Concepts said. 

Opened THE Elmwood

Clothing with a conscience at Barge North

Co-owner Kristen Young of Barge North.
Kristen Young, co-owner of Barge North.

Like so many young retailer brands, Barge North, which opened its third NorCal location in Elmwood in November, puts its “slow fashion” mission front and center in the hopes of attracting a socially conscious clientele. 

“We only carry lines in our shop that are ethically made,” that have “less of an impact environmentally” and that provide “safe working environments and fair wages,” the website states. Most of those garments are also made in the U.S.

The store emphasizes women’s and men’s clothing, most of which are made from natural fibers like hemp, tencel, modal and organic cotton. The aesthetic is young, chill and casual, as reflected in the mostly loose-fitting, unstructured silhouettes and comfy fabrics. 

Rounding out the mix are natural skincare products, accessories like hats and scarves, a small assortment of footwear and kids’ clothing, plus home goods like baskets and candles. 

Barge North is a family business run by Kristen Young and Ford Norris. They opened their first location in Mendocino in 2017, followed by a Sebastopol store two years later. 

Barge North, 2924 College Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 510-647-9263. Hours: Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Open South Berkeley

Bank of America opens tellerless location

Bank of America's newest branch doesn't have tellers, but it does have video conferencing.
Bank of America’s newest branch doesn’t have tellers, but it does have video conferencing. Credit: Joanne Furio

When the Bank of Italy opened its headquarters in San Francisco’s Financial District in 1908, it boasted marble counters and bronze teller cages. Since then, the Bank of Italy has morphed into the Bank of America and the idea of a bank as an opulent fortress has gone the way of the deposit slip. Banking has become an increasingly mobile and paperless affair, and institutions are rethinking their relationship to real estate. 

A secure room for video conferencing inside the new Bank of America branch on  Telegraph Avenue.
A secure room for video conferencing is located to the left of the ATMs inside the new Bank of America branch on Telegraph Avenue. Credit: Joanne Furio

That trend can be seen in Bank of America’s newest location in the Bateman neighborhood on the ground floor of the Telegraph Garden Building, in what used to be a Starbucks. The branch, which opened on Jan. 11, is a hybrid: a tellerless location where customers can conference with a banking associate via video.

Customers enter the 2,400-square-foot storefront using their Bank of America debit or credit card, where there are two ATMs lining the back wall. Video conferencing takes place in one of two secure rooms, also accessed via debit or credit card. 

Is this how Bank of America envisions the future of banking? Not quite. “The new center complements our traditional financial centers, such as Berkeley Main,” says spokesperson Betty Riess. “There will always be a human component to our relationship with our clients.” 

In other Bank of America news: No date has yet been announced for when the bank’s Berkeley main branch will move from its temporary offices at 2151 Shattuck into the newly opened Residence Inn at 2121 Center Street or when the re-imagined 1536 Shattuck Avenue Financial Center in North Berkeley will reopen. Both locations will include both bankers and tellers. 

Bank of America, 3001 Telegraph Ave., at Ashby, Berkeley. Open 24 hours. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Moved Downtown Berkeley

Citibank leaves building steeped in Berkeley banking history 

Around 6 p.m. on Jan. 28, about a half-dozen Citibank employees carrying boxes crossed the street from their former home at 2000 Shattuck Ave. to their new home diagonally across the street at 2101 University Ave., where they were greeted with waves and smiles. Earlier that day, the blue Citibank sign was removed from its former home and construction workers put the finishing touches on the new space, the recently completed mixed-use building known as Acheson Commons, in preparation for its grand opening Feb. 1. The move is yet another example of how banks are re-envisioning their spaces and, in this case, downsizing. 

According to Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the former Citibank has always been a bank. It was originally a Bank of America, in a 1927 building designed by the San Francisco architect Henry A. Minton. Masten, Hurd, & Gwathney Architects, also of San Francisco, remodeled the building in 1964-65 for San Francisco Federal Savings, creating a new facade with rows of arched windows spanning almost the height of the building, creating airy interiors, a statement of mid-century modernity. The bank occupied almost the entire 11,000-square-foot building (part is occupied by Asha Tea House) and included a second-floor loft with an open staircase that could be seen from the street. 

The new branch, in contrast, is 2,800 square feet. It includes a lobby with two ATMs, two teller stations, “bankers & partners workstations,” appointment banking, business banking, a wealth advisor and Citigold relationship manager (both by appointment), private briefing rooms and digital interactive marketing, a.k.a. screens promoting all sorts of banking services. 

Citibank, 2101 University Ave., Phone: 510-356-0278. Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Reopened West Berkeley

Wells Fargo back up and running on University Avenue

Wells Fargo closed its West Berkeley branch at 1095 University Ave. (at San Pablo) in December due to “staffing constraints.” Such constraints have been resolved, the bank said. The branch re-opened on Jan. 31. 

Wells Fargo, 1095 University Ave. Phone: 510-647-0282. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

Closed Southside

So long, So-So Supermarket

This vintage clothing retailer lasted a few months before closing on Telegraph Avenue.
This vintage clothing retailer lasted a few months before closing on Telegraph Avenue. Credit: Joanne Furio

So-So Supermarket closed during the first week or two of January, according to nearby shopkeepers. It opened in September, offering a rotating array of vintage clothing vendors and a Y2K theme. Though the store’s physical presence may be gone, a note on the window urges customers to keep following on Instagram.  

So-So Supermarket, 2333 Telegraph Ave. Connect via Instagram. 

Joanne Furio moved to Berkeley because it has sidewalks. She specializes in design in all its incarnations, innovation and the arts.