Berkeley Retail Wars: ‘Occupy Hopkins Street’

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Berkeley is blessed with several lovely neighborhood shopping districts. A couple of those areas feature stores that started out as world-class produce markets and have turned into big groceries. One of those is Berkeley Bowl, so called because it opened in an old bowling alley on Shattuck Avenue in South Berkeley. The Bowl now has two big stores, a fanatic following, and its share of idiosyncrasies (a few years ago, when a Los Angeles Times ran a piece on the sometimes frenetic strangeness of the Berkeley Bowl scene, including its practice of lifetime bans for shoppers who sample produce without buying, the writer himself was banned).

In our neighborhood, the Monterey Market is a legendary produce emporium. Its proximity is a real-estate selling point. I will say that perhaps I have not taken full advantage of this resource. It’s ridiculously crowded most of the time and often the produce hasn’t seemed like the greatest (we all have standards by which we judge; I’m attuned to the condition of the yellow and red onions). The store is not without its own peculiar baggage: A couple years ago, a falling out among members of the family that owns the half-century-old market led the brother who had managed the store to step down. At the time, it was hinted that a desire among some members of the owners, the Fujimotos, wanted the enterprise to become more profitable (my friend and former San Francisco Examiner colleague Carol Ness wrote about the situation here: Ethicurean: “Fujimotos’ departure from Monterey Market a tough blow to local food chain”).

The market has changed visibly since the management changed. Nothing radical–it just looks a little spruced up. At the same time, there has been some unease in the Hopkins Street neighborhood about the new management’s practice of more aggressively stocking items also sold by local specialty stores. Last year, I ran down to the market to buy flowers from the guy who had a little floral business on the street outside the market. He’d been there for years, always had a nice selection, and made beautiful bouquets. He complained that the store had begun selling flowers and was doing so much more cheaply than he could and was driving him out of business. He felt it was a little unsporting and complained that the owners had other plans, such as opening a to-go coffee window that would compete with the cafe across the street. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why can’t there be enough for everyone out here? Why do they feel like they need to take it all?” I don’t know the current status of the flower-seller; I haven’t seen him since that day.

But apparently that sentiment is spreading. This morning, a friend forwarded an email about a petition that’s being circulated in one some of the other shops on Hopkins Street. The email’s subject line: “Occupy Hopkins, aka there’s enough for everyone.” It says, in part: “MM (Monterey Market) has expanded its supply of wines and the liquor store on the corner is really suffering. They have added a large variety of gourmet cheeses and sausages…the same varieties as Country Cheese….and have reduced prices below what Country Cheese can afford to do, causing a reduction in the cheese store’s business. They also have added a large variety of plants and flowers and herbs in direct competition with Berkeley Hort Nursery, the flower vendor on the street, and Freshly Cut.”

The petition aims to get the attention of the Monterey Market owners as well as encourage people to patronize all the shops in the small retail district. At bottom, this is the Wal-mart vs. Main Street battle in miniature–a bigger competitor with bigger purchasing power threatening smaller, limited rivals. We know how the Wal-mart fight usually goes, I think. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in microcosm.

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