A neighbor expresses gratitude to free shop owner Kate Sassoon, who goes by “Sassy,” on Friday afternoon after a fire burned down the free shop overnight. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

A three-year-old free store on the corner of California and 63rd streets in Berkeley was destroyed by a fire early Friday morning, but neighbors roused the residents at the attached home and helped them escape safely.

The fire happened at about 3 a.m., when free store organizer Kate Sassoon and family were woken by neighbors banging on their door to alert them of large flames leaping closer to their property on the street corner.

“We were so lucky that someone saw the fire and got us out,” said Sassoon, who was sleeping inside the home with her wife, father and one-year-old baby. She was recently “doored” by a driver while riding her bike and has to use a leg brace while awaiting surgery, and she’s extra grateful for her neighbor’s timing in helping them leave safely.

The flames jumped to the exterior of the home just as firefighters were turning their hoses on, she said, and it could have been catastrophic if neighbors hadn’t jumped into action when they did.

The Berkeley Fire Department is investigating the blaze as possibly “suspicious,” according to public information officer Dafina Dailey. She said firefighters began receiving calls at 2:39 a.m., and arrived to find a fence engulfed in flames. They put out the fire and no one was injured.

She said no other details are currently available.

A poster on California Street with notes from the neighborhood, and instructions on how to support the free store. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Sassoon said irrigation lines for the family’s garden were damaged but the main structure of the house was “barely touched.”

The free store is completely disintegrated, however, and Sassoon is raising funds to restore the community project that she began during the pandemic. Anyone with spare cash can Venmo her at Kate-Sassoon, and she’s also requesting photos, information and any other inquiries for support (such as help with the irrigation lines) at savethefreestore@gmail.com.

The shop is stocked and refreshed by neighbors, and many have told Sassoon that they clothe their children solely with items from the store, or that they’ve found special and unusual items at the makeshift shop.

“The shadow purpose of it has become just to cement a love of community,” said Sassoon, who’s planning a neighborhood work day to revive the shop. “We could definitely use some help now.”

One previous iteration of the free store in March 2022. Credit: Philip Lang

On Friday, multiple neighbors stopped by to express their gratitude to Sassoon.

“I’ll help you rebuild,” one neighbor said to her. “When I saw (the fire), I knew, the community is gonna come together.”

A poster on the home’s California Street fence is also covered with affectionate notes from the neighborhood.

“This hurts my heart so much. What a resource and gift this has been for our neighborhood,” one note reads. “So glad y’all are safe, and happy to help with future iterations.”

“I got so many things on this corner when just moved into this country a year ago! Also donated a lot when had the chance. Thank you so much for giving so much to the community,” another reads.

Residents rallied around the store once before after the city served organizers a closure notice for obstructing the sidewalk in 2022. Sassoon rebuilt the store to keep items off the ground, and it had been operating undisturbed for about a year before Friday’s fire.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...