Betty Gray’s home, tucked away on Sacramento Street near the busy Alcatraz Avenue business corridor, is stuffed to the brim with artifacts of her influence in the South Berkeley community.
On an unseasonably hot May afternoon, 73-year-old Gray sits by the door and retrieves something from one of the many boxes in her living room. It’s a commemorative publication celebrating Edythe Boone’s “The Invisible Becomes Visible” mural of South Berkeley — and in it, Alice’s Relaxing Bath & Gift shop is featured twice (a quirk of printing in the margins).
The little shop in the Lorin District and its gregarious, spiritual owner has had an outsized influence on the community. But Gray endured several physical setbacks at the beginning of the year, making it impossible to open her shop.
Gray moved to California over 30 years ago to support her son, Jason. She heard there were better services for children with developmental disabilities in the state and ultimately moved her family from the South Side of Chicago, where she was born and raised, to Berkeley. She has lived in both Berkeley and Oakland since coming west.
When she moved here, Gray said her priority was building a life that didn’t perpetuate a cycle of her children receiving welfare. She spent several years running a cottage bakery and working multiple jobs, including cleaning dorms at UC Berkeley with her mother, and finally began to fulfill that dream when she opened Alice’s Relaxing Bath and Gift Shop on Alcatraz Avenue.
Gray said her family made significant sacrifices to make it all possible, including years of sleeping on the floor of the apartment above the shop.
Jason Gray graduated from Berkeley High School and Laney College with Gray’s support and advocacy. About five years ago, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 47 when he transitioned on Aug. 30, 2017, 14 years after Gray lost her older son, Thump.
“I should’ve moved out of here a long time ago,” Gray said, thinking about the presence of Jason’s spirit in her apartment. “I didn’t want to leave him here. Now, I think, ‘I’ll take him to a new place.'”
After a series of falls on the steps from her second-floor apartment in January, Gray sustained minor head injuries and nerve damage in her lower legs. She refused hospital transport after falling down the length of the staircase, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to return without support.
The steps have made it unsafe for her to leave the one-bedroom apartment that has served as a haven for her children, grandchildren and other people she’s opened her home to as a mother figure. She now needs the support of canes to move around.
These days, she’s been homebound, which means she can’t take the 10-minute path to her store that she’s walked for years, and it weighs on her. Gray said that customers visit the store specifically to see her, and it doesn’t make sense to keep the shop open without her smiling at the counter.
She is looking for a new home in the same neighborhood that will accept a Section 8 voucher, but searching for housing is overwhelming, especially in the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gray said she has always been independent but is now reaching out to the community, asking for help to find a new home. Recently, community members created a donation page for Gray with a $5,000 goal.
“I’m content,” Gray said, remarking on a difficult but fulfilling life. “The only thing that truly, truly bothers me at this particular conjunction is that I’m not at work.”
Gray’s neighbors say the block needs her to retain its spirit
Adena Ishii met Gray over a decade ago when she moved to Alcatraz Avenue, and both women share fond memories of each other. She’s helped Gray’s business by setting up an Instagram account and social media and started circulating information when she heard of Gray’s injury.
“Over the 11 years that I’ve lived in South Berkeley, so many of our neighbors and local businesses have been displaced,” Ishii said. “Ms. Betty is family, and I just didn’t want to lose her too.”
Like Gray, store owners in the area said the neighborhood has suffered considerable losses in the Black community, and it’s important to protect her place in it and find a home that could allow her to continue the business. On Nov. 20, 2020, Mayor Jesse Arreguín recognized her, Rev. Betty Gray, as a “spiritual steward” for the city through her knowledge of Catholicism, The Rosicrucian Order, Native American spiritual practices and the Baptist church, and said she’s a leader in South Berkeley that preserves its rich history.
“The biggest part of this neighborhood is that it’s a historically Black neighborhood,” said Janina Angel Bath, Empress Vintage owner and longtime neighbor. Bath is leaving her location at the end of June, but Temple of Earth Apothecary, another Black-owned business, may fill its place. “To lose someone like Betty … would be to lose the real meaning of this place. [We need to] support Black business owners who open here [to] stay open.”
Shante Robinson is a barista and member of the Alchemy Collective across the street from Gray’s gift shop. Every time Robinson walks into the shop, she sees multiple generations of families and always leaves with gifts from Gray, even while trying to patronize and support the store.
Some of their shared moments were when she was at her lowest, and Gray was there to lift her spirits. She said Gray has tirelessly prioritized other people above herself, including strangers.
“Especially when you work in service, you have a certain face you put on. But, being such a perceptive and empathetic person, [Gray] has just walked by and said, ‘What do you need?'” Robinson described. “It’s really important to have elders who care about the community and want to create bonds between people.”
Those relationships are especially on Gray’s mind as she sits in her home now, unable to access her store and her customers. She said young people who have organized to support her, like local shopkeepers and Ishii, pulled her out of a hopeless place after she was injured.
“We’ve had more things than the average individual should ever have to be faced with, and it’s called life,” Gray said, “But I’m truly blessed; this was a healing place.”
After thinking about her own needs, Gray wants to be near a bus stop to access the shop, some space for her bountiful and beloved closet (“I like to get Chicago sharp.”) and a home where she can preserve her family’s history and extend a hand to someone in need if the situation arises.
“I want a place for my plants to be happy, a place where I can start over with new beginnings,” Gray said, looking around her greenery-filled apartment and beaming with her signature smile. “I want a place filled with light — and if not, I’m a light.”