In Tibetan culture, a yak’s tail is a symbol of good luck, equivalent to a rabbit’s foot. As a store, the Tail of the Yak has certainly had its share of good fortune — 51 years’ worth. Now the store’s longtime owners have decided to call it quits for that very reason.
“The store’s been in business 51 years,” said Lauren McIntosh, 66, who is a partner in the store with Alice Erb, 77, “and we’ve gotten old.”
The store will close June 30.
Tail of the Yak is one of those rare idiosyncratic shops that reflects the quirky and/or refined taste of its owners. In this store, the proprietors take the concept of “by hand” seriously. Tail of the Yak recalls an era in which things took time: to craft by hand, to write by hand, to shop by hand, experiencing the merchandise with the help of an accommodating staff. Barcodes are nonexistent. Receipts and small signs are written by hand. The owners, and some of their employees, have even hand-drawn an inventory of every piece of jewelry the store sells in a small book.
The ambient sound of coo-ing is not piped in. The white doves, Bianca and Zephyr, inhabit a 19th-century cage from a Denver department store that’s tucked in the back of the shop, adding to its multi-sensory appeal, sense of discovery and delight.
“There used to be more interesting stores in the Bay Area,” Erb said, “but there are very few now.”
Tail of the Yak opened in The Elmwood in 1972, when the youth culture coming out of the ’60s was developing an interest in the East. The store was the brainchild of three students from Berkeley’s Nyingma Institute who wanted to sell Tibetan ritual objects and crafts to benefit Tibetan refugees. At the time, Erb was traveling and collecting textiles and jewelry from Asia and selling them in the U.S.
“There was a very rich community of people in Berkeley who were interested, especially in textiles,” she told American Craft magazine in 2015, “… lots of ikats and suzanis and things like that, which, back then, in the early ’70s, people were learning about but hadn’t actually seen.”
Erb helped satisfy that curiosity by bringing such fabrics to the store when she became one of its main suppliers. Over the years, as the original partners dropped out, Erb took over in 1975.
As sole proprietor, she tweaked the store’s offerings to her liking. She added traditional crafts, jewelry and textiles with a much broader global reach, from places like Iran, Africa, India, Nepal, and North Africa, often handpicking the items herself while traveling.
In 1980 she hired McIntosh, then an art student at UC Berkeley, who was originally responsible for the displays but quickly found a home for her many artistic outlets. She became co-owner in 1983.
Like the best relationships, the partners fell into a comfortable division of labor based on their preferences and abilities. Erb has done most of the researching and sourcing. McIntosh, who has exhibited her paintings around the country and in France and Japan, creates the store’s graphics, ads and annual calendars that have become synonymous with its aesthetic. After the store’s closing, McIntosh plans to spend more time painting, and continue the card line she sells in the store called Minnie Olga.
In the ’80s, the partners expanded the store’s repertoire, bringing in crafts from the Southwest, Mexico, Japan, and China, along with European antiques, with Erb shopping for Victorian and Georgian jewelry in London, which the store has become known for.
“It kept swirling onward and upward,” McIntosh said.
“Our specialty is things that are beautiful and unusual and not easily found elsewhere,” said Erb.
On a recent visit, the partners pointed out some of the most unusual items: etched glass made by disabled artisans in Mexico ($14-$24); Ukrainian hand-embroidered linen blouses and dresses ($260-$350); and a Czech headdress made of cloth flowers ($390). As an incubator for local artisans, the store also sells hand-sewn sachets ($55-$120) made by longtime employee Susan Mickiewicz, using Indian trimmings.
Over the years, Tail of the Yak has become widely respected in the craft community and mentioned or featured in many publications, including Vogue, The New York Times, Victoria and the ne plus ultra of international design publications, World of Interiors.
The store is also credited with launching the career of Anandamayi Arnold, who began making paper objects for the shop when she was a student at Berkeley High. (She now lives in Oakland.) Based on the Japanese surprise balls she discovered in childhood, Arnold’s version “has taken it to a fine art,” Erb said. Arnold’s life-like fruits, plants and vegetables do yield small trinkets if unwrapped. But most customers prefer to keep them intact as object d’art. Lemons and cyclamen are among the current offerings ($82 and $275).
Japanese customers, in particular, have made the store a destination specifically to seek out Arnold’s work. The store has shipped them worldwide.
During the pandemic, the partners opted for a four-, rather than six-day, week, which demonstrated how much time they spent at their store.
The reduced schedule “suited us well,” Erb said. “We have loved the store, but it takes a huge amount of energy — a huge amount — to run. It becomes very intense here at Christmas time.”
As an Elmwood institution, some loyal neighborhood customers “feel very proprietary toward this store,” according to Erb. So the partners decided to embargo news of the closing until May 1. Word trickled out nonetheless.
A case in point: Jill Weed was buzzed in one afternoon, shouting, “I…can’t…believe…it!” She has been a customer for 33 years.
“This place is like a museum,” Weed said. “It’s the best.”
Looking back, the partners consider themselves “quite successful,” Erb said. “We were able to do what we love and our customers love what we do.”
A 20% off closing sale is under way.
Tail of the Yak, 2632 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Phone: 510-841-9891 Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Connect via Instagram.