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In the Spotlight 

A nursery stays rooted in the Westbrae as workers take over ownership

The Westbrae Nursery, a mainstay in the neighborhood since the 1930s, is now under employee ownership. Courtesy: Westbrae Nursery

On April 23, Westbrae Nursery joined Bette’s Oceanview Diner, the Local Butcher Shop, Alchemy Collective Cafe & Roaster and Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative in becoming yet another worker-owned business in Berkeley. Instead of one owner, it now has seven. 

The process started about two years ago, when owner Jeff Eckart announced at a company meeting that he was going to retire and suggested that workers consider taking over the business. He also spoke individually with employees.

“He got all of our consent and input,” says Emily Verrinder, who had been working at the nursery as a horticulturist for a few months when Eckart made his announcement. Once employees were on board, Eckart elicited the help of Project Equity, an Oakland-based national nonprofit that’s received some city funding to help companies transition to employee ownership. It most recently helped Bette’s Oceanview Diner make the switch. 

Westbrae Nursery has deep roots in the community, operating as a nursery since the 1930s, when it was founded by members of the Lasagna family, which still owns other property in the Berkeley area. Eckart bought the nursery 20 years ago. About eight years ago, Eckart bought a former deli next door to the nursery, on the corner of Santa Fe Avenue, turning half the 1,000-square-foot storefront into a home for the nursery’s indoor plants and pottery. 

As one of Bekeley’s smaller nurseries, on a quarter of an acre in a mostly residential neighborhood with a small commercial strip, Westbrae has become the neighborhood’s go-to gardening supplier, popular with many longtime customers. Its size happens to be one of its benefits, according to its new owners.  

“Because they’re not going to a big nursery that is super busy, customers get to have a more personalized experience here,” said Verrinder, now president of the nursery’s board.  

“Typically, they come to us first,” said Josh Hincks, himself a third-generation customer before becoming an employee.

When he was interviewed for the job a year ago, learning that the nursery was transitioning to worker-owned was a “big plus.” 

“I’d always dreamed of owning a nursery,” he said. “Being a part owner of something means a lot to me.”

In addition to the guidance offered by Project Equity, what aided the transition was the expertise of several long-time employees — like Pedro Campos, the nursery manager, who’s been at the nursery for at least 25 years. 

“They had a lot of experience running it already,” said Verrinder. “So we had a lot of guidance on how the business would function.”

Once the transition took place, Hincks felt a sense of pride. Verrinder felt a responsibility. 

“We really need to lean on each other for all the work that goes into running this place,” she said. “Even more than before, we need to be team players.”

Westbrae Nursery, 1272 Gilman St., Berkeley. Phone 510-526-5517. Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Connect via Instagram

Open Solano Avenue

Berkeley real estate agent for cloud-based firm still places value in physical office

The new KAI Real Estate storefront on Solano Avenue. Credit: Joanne Furio
Jodi Nishimura of KAI Real Estate. Courtesy: KAI Real Estate

eXp is a cloud-based brokerage firm that promotes itself as a place where brokers make higher commissions because it has done away with the bricks-and-mortar office and layers of staff in a traditional real-estate office. 

So it’s surprising — and unusual — that Jodi Nishimura, an agent who recently signed up with eXp after 15 years in traditional real estate firms in Berkeley, decided to open a bricks-and-mortar office for her new company, creating a hybrid. 

“We’re combining a boutique agency with a cloud-based model, which is the best of both worlds,” Nishimura said. 

In March she opened KAI Real Estate on Solano Avenue with a staff of six. The agency is preparing for a grand opening from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on May 28.

Nishimura, a 12-year Berkeley resident, cited a number of reasons for signing on with eXp. It’s agent-owned, publicly traded and offers agents a “more attractive commission structure,” she said. “Yet it lacked something very important to me: a physical presence.”

She wanted a physical space to be able to meet with clients and so agents could gather and exchange news and market information and build camaraderie.  

“We just had an office meeting,” she said. “There’s so much important information that gets exchanged between agents. All of that information is so valuable to us as we serve our clients.”

Nishimura plans to build community by donating the space once a month during off hours to nonprofits, makers and artists for pop-ups. She’s also in the process of creating a nonprofit KAI Foundation “so a portion of our commissions go back to the community in another way,” she said. 

KAI Real Estate, 1820 Solano Ave. STE B-2, (at Colusa Avenue) Berkeley. Phone: 510-225-9834. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and weekends by appointment. Connect via Instagram and Facebook.

Open South Berkeley

Maxine Kincora outside her MAXimimum Gallery on 66th Street. Courtesy: Maxine Kincora

It all started during the pandemic when Maxine Kincora found an old oak medicine cabinet on the street in her neighborhood. Kincora, who “COVID-retired” as she put it, after 12 years as a preschool art teacher, thought it was beautiful. She put it back together and made a gallery out of it.

In the tradition of Little Libraries, the MAXimum Gallery “is small. It’s on the street. It’s available for anyone to view,” she said. “You won’t be able to take the art, but you can contact me to purchase the art.”

MAXimum Gallery is similar to another tiny gallery started by Andrea Scharff in the Berkeley Hills, outside her 1907 Bernard Maybeck home at 1321 Bay View Place. Though Scharff’s gallery is basically the top shelf of an existing Little Library, just 5 inches deep, 3 inches high and a little over a foot wide, Kincora’s is devoted entirely to art, encompassing three shelves in the former medicine cabinet, about 1-foot wide by 2-feet high. 

The gallery’s official opening will take place from 5-7 p.m. Friday with a reception for a solo exhibition featuring the work of Revital Katznelson, a retired Oakland scientist who photographs microscopic crystals. 

The reception will take place on the sidewalk. Katznelson will have more images on hand for purchase. Kincora will serve “cubes of cheese and tiny glasses of wine befitting a tiny gallery.”

MAXimum Gallery, 1333 66th St., Berkeley. Phone: 510-697-2284. 

In the spotlight Solano Avenue

No duel for the spotlight: Chummy owners of rival Berkeley lighting shops swap parts with pleasure

Non-competitive business neighbors Ed Mahl and Sue Johnson sharing a moment in Johnson’s Solano Avenue shop. Credit: Joanne Furio

Like the longtime neighbors they are, Sue Johnson and Ed Mahl often find themselves walking the 350 feet between their lighting stores to do the equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar. 

“At least once every two weeks, I walk down there looking for a part,” said Mahl, who’s owned Ensler Lighting on Solano Avenue for the past nine-and-a-half years, six doors up from Sue Johnson Custom Lamps & Shades. Both shops repair vintage lighting, one of a few areas in which their lighting businesses intersect. 

“There’s never any money that passes between us,” said Johnson. “We help each other out that way.”

The shopkeepers see each other as complementary rather than competitive businesses and often refer customers to each other. 

“We send people back-and-forth to each other all the time,” Mahl added.

Though Johnson and Mahl both repair vintage fixtures and sell new lamps and shades, “we do it differently,” Mahl explained. 

Johnson, who has a master’s degree in interior design, creates one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted custom lamps and lampshades often made of mica, fabric or parchment and often inspired by nature. “When I’m making shades for me, there’s absolutely no rules,” she said. “I’m having an absolutely wonderful time with shapes and color. It just flows.” Many of her creations were not intentionally designed in the Arts & Crafts style, yet because of their materials and linear design “look great in the Maybecks and the Julia Morgans,” Johnson said. 

Mahl’s business, meanwhile, has become one of the Bay Area’s largest sellers of manufactured shades, which come in about 500 variations, mostly in silk and linen, and styles ranging from traditional to mid-century modern. He also sells restored lighting fixtures. Before buying the lighting store from the Ensler family, Mahl was a pediatrician for 35 years. “When I retired I realized I still wanted people to seek consultation,” he said, “only the stakes are lower now.”

Both stores have been around for a long time. Johnson opened 50 years ago; Ensler Lighting a year later.

A third lamp store, Solano Lighting, is farther west on Solano Avenue in Albany, and both Johnson and Mahl have referred customers there, too. Yet they recognize that their chummy, collegial relationship is unique. 

“It’s just amazing,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been able to work with anybody like this before.”

Sue Johnson Custom Lamps & Shades, 1745 Solano Ave. (off Ensenada Avenue) Berkeley. Phone: 510-527-2623. Hours: Monday-Saturday, noon-6; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Connect via Facebook

Ensler Lighting, 1793 Solano Ave. (off Colusa Avenue), Berkeley. Phone: 510-526-4385. Hours: Thursday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. 

Closed North Shattuck

Shattuck Avenue nutrition shop closes after 2 decades

The empty storefront recently abandoned by Earthly Nutrition in Shattuck Commons. Credit: Joanne Furio

Earthly Nutrition, a family-owned store selling vitamins, minerals, probiotics, ayurvedic remedies, essential oils, homeopathy, natural skin care and the like, held a 40% off sale in mid-March and closed its doors a few weeks later. 

John Norheim of Norheim & Yost, the real estate broker who leased the 1,400-square-foot store to the owners at least 20 years ago, suspects that the shift to online shopping during the pandemic contributed to the store’s closing. 

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “Everybody orders online now.”

Earthly Nutrition, 1400 Shattuck Ave #4 (at Rose Street), Berkeley.

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...