This story is brought to you by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.
To claim that small business is the economic lifeblood of Berkeley is in no way hyperbolic — 99.98% of Berkeley businesses are small, according to city data.
But Berkeley’s small businesses do more than serve as its economic engine and biggest job creator. As we approach summer after two long years of COVID-19, they also offer opportunities for self-care, nurturing, and even indulgence.
While the nation pays tribute to America’s Main Street entrepreneurs during Small Business Week (May 1-7), why not take the opportunity to spoil yourself — or friends and family? For the city’s more than 4,000 small business owners, your treat will be their recovery.
Relaxation and retail converge at Bohemia
“I think it’s important for the public to know that the pandemic isn’t over for small business,” said Chloe Poulter, owner of Bohemia Skin & Body. “There are supply chain issues, inflation, a worker shortage. It will take years of us working collectively, with strong support from the community, for us to recover.”
Poulter should know. After sinking her life savings into refurbishing a storefront on Prince Street just off Claremont Avenue to open her own holistic spa, she learned — on the night she planned to hold her grand opening — that the City had called for all to stay at home.
This was her first stab at solo entrepreneurship. In addition to facials, massage and waxing services, she emphasized safe, clean, top-tier skin and body products. No heavy metals, carcinogens, sulfates, or chemicals. And yes on recyclable, sustainably produced, fair-trade certified — and, when possible, locally made products such as Berkeley skincare creator, Marie Veronique. “I wanted the highest standards, the best and safest products for people,” Poulter.
Instead, she had a closed shop with no timetable for when she could open.
As a new business with no operating budget or payroll history, Poulter did not qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. And she had exhausted her savings. After a few weeks she pivoted to retail, transforming her waiting room, a few blocks from the Elmwood shopping district, into a shop selling her hand-selected skin and body products.
For a bit of whimsy, she added some of her father’s handmade dollhouses and their hand-sewn mice inhabitants. “I certainly wasn’t thinking about sales when I put them in — they are just beautiful works of art, made by my dad,” she said. “But people loved them.”
· Indulge yourself with gifts or services from local businesses that accept Berkeley Bucks gift cards.
· Tell microbusiness owners (with fewer than five employees) impacted by COVID-19 about the opportunity to apply for Small Business Microenterprise Grants ($2,500) starting May 17.
· Visit Discovered in Berkeley to find more stories about innovative local businesses.
Between the retail shop and the dollhouses, she hung on for nearly a year. Then, in February 2021, she reopened the spa, this time revamped for the COVID-19 environment. She spent thousands of dollars buying PPE, face shields, air purifiers and medical-grade cleaning supplies. She tested herself weekly for COVID-19 and required proof of vaccination from clients. “I was desperate to show that my industry could be safe.”
Although business was initially slow, customers are now lining up for her services — so much so that some wait weeks for an appointment at the spa and she’s created a second treatment room. “Too much has happened to feel fully secure,” she said. “But I am so thankful for my neighbors, clients and support from the community. And I forever remain hopeful.”
Finding the ‘one right bottle’ in Northbrae
For businesses that were allowed to stay open, the past two years were marked by a dizzying cycle of pivots — to takeout, to web-only sales, to delivery-only models — plus having to paint distancing circles on floors, install hand-sanitizer stations, erect plastic barriers and update signs on masking and and proof of vaccination.
That was the case for Art Kinsey, owner of Northbrae Bottle Shop on Hopkins Street. Kinsey spent 18 months of the pandemic working by himself, six days a week, configuring and reconfiguring his store for optimum safety. “It was really hard,” he said. “In the beginning there was this emphasis on surfaces. If someone picked up a bottle of wine, just to look at the label, I immediately had to wipe it down. It was very nerve-wracking and time consuming.”
Still, he didn’t feel like he “had a choice.” His entire adult life was wrapped up in the neighborhood. He moved there a few months before his daughter was born — she’s now 27 — and used to run Gioia Pizzeria next door until he opened Northbrae Bottle Shop nine years ago. The intention of the shop was to offer a curated selection of local, rare and artisanal wines, beer and spirits, along with guidance on pairings, cocktail how-to’s and provenance.
“I recognize that people can get wine and beer at Costco and other places,” he said. “But I like to support our local brewers, distillers and vintners. I don’t use any national distributors. All the beers, with one or two exceptions, are produced within a 100-mile radius. It’s all about showcasing our remarkable West Coast craftship.”
It’s also about connecting that one customer with that one right bottle. Rather than pivot to curbside pickup or delivery, Kinsey opened every day as usual but restricted business to one customer at a time. “Of course, that meant there was always a line. And I always felt the pressure of the line.”
“People could have gone elsewhere, or gotten deliveries from a big box store,” he said. “But people came to me. They stood in line. They were patient. They kept me going. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.”
Nurturing life, the plant kind
Community is also what propelled Paraiso Plant Studio owner Maria Blum-Sullivan through the vagaries of the pandemic. “In the absence of being able to go out, there were small retail stores like mine that filled the need for community. People could come in and have a human interaction. They call this the Cheers of plant stores.”
But the difficulty of sustaining a Cheers-like environment in her previous location, the alley behind Jupiter downtown, became apparent early on in the pandemic. A one-person-at-a-time policy, resulted in hour-long lines “halfway down the block” and concerns about being able to serve everyone the way she wanted to. “It almost broke us,” she said.
Paraiso Plant Studio specializes in house plants for every person, whether that person lives in a studio apartment with limited sun or has a sunroom large enough to have a tropical garden. Online sales and deliveries helped them get through the worst of the pandemic, but maintaining an in-person community connection was most important. “There were so many pivots early on, and some that didn’t work,” she sighed. Then she got lucky: a space on Fourth Street opened up and Paraiso Plant Studio was replanted. “People I hadn’t seen in months began coming back.”
As a queer Latina, community is why she chose to plant her store in Berkeley in the first place. “I came from a really difficult experience and workplace, where being queer was something we had to be silent about,” she said. “People here are really excited to support a Latina-owned business and queer business.” (Her shop also prioritizes sourcing from minority-, women- and queer-owned businesses, including a vendor interest form on her website.)
People also seemed to instinctively understand the value of plants in a lockdown. “I fully understand how powerful and therapeutic nursing a plant can be. I had severe postpartum depression, and for me gardening was a way forward.”
As these businesses, and so many more, keep working their way forward, let’s support them by treating ourselves. There is no better way to honor the moms, dad and grads in our lives during upcoming holidays and celebrations than with gifts from unique Berkeley shops and specialists.
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. The office helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate — and become more sustainable. During the pandemic, OED staff are helping entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations maintain business continuity and plan for a brighter period ahead.