Excitement and concern mark opening of Savers Thrift

Savers Thrift on University Avenue held its grand opening ceremony on Thursday. Cutting the ribbon were store manager Craig Gains with Katherine Keeney of the Epilepsy Foundation, an unidentified man, and and Savers president and CEO Ken Alterman. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A new for-profit thrift store opened its doors on University Avenue on Thursday in a ceremony filled with balloons and music – but already burdened with the job of doing damage control with its neighbors.

Savers Thrift Store opened at 1414 University Ave., the former site of Andronico’s, on the heels of a lawsuit that gave the building’s owners exclusive rights to the adjacent parking lot, which had once been shared by neighboring businesses. The decision to only allow Savers customers to use the lot prompted nearby residents to threaten to boycott Savers.

“We’ve always wanted a store in Berkeley because our stores do best with a very broad demographic,” Savers president and CEO Ken Alterman said at the ribbon-cutting.

Berkeley is the 330th location for Savers, a Washington-based for-profit thrift store company with shops around the country and in Canada. Each Savers has a nonprofit charity partner that receives a cut from each item donated to the store. The Berkeley branch is the eighth Savers in Northern California.

Savers’ arrival immediately caught the attention of neighboring businesses and caused a dispute over the parking lot.

The lot, which sits between the Savers building and a string of businesses known as Strawberry Walk, has historically been shared by the tenants. But in August, an Alameda County Superior Court judge decided that Palo Alto’s Berkeley Bazaar Partnerships (BBP), the owner of the property occupied by Savers, has exclusive rights to the parking lot. Strawberry Walk’s landlord had argued unsuccessfully in court that prescriptive easement — rights to a property due to continued use — should have granted her tenants the rights to the lot.

The lot outside Strawberry Walk stores reserves parking spaces for Savers' customers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The lot outside Strawberry Walk stores reserves parking spaces for employees of Savers and other businesses at 1414 University Ave. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In the weeks leading up to the Savers grand opening, BBP labeled the 26 parking spots in front of the Strawberry Walk shops “Reserved for Savers Employees.” But Alterman said Savers never requested the reserved spots, and would have been happy to “play it by ear” and see whether the lot was large enough to be shared. Per Alterman’s request, BBP removed Savers’ name from the spots, which now say “Reserved for 1414 University.” The building also houses a few smaller businesses.

“I think the landlord was trying to protect our interests,” said Alterman. “But we don’t want to alienate anybody. We have a history of helping the businesses that surround us.” He said it is unlikely Savers will ever fill the 80-space lot, except on a few big sale days each year.

Inflaming tensions even higher, BBP representatives made markings along the walkway in front of the stores last month in preparation to build a wall blocking off the parking lot.

Alterman said Savers does not support a wall in front of the shops. “I don’t know what’s to be gained from that,” he said.

BBP could not be reached to confirm the plans for a wall, but partner Joyce Yamagiwa said in October that exclusive rights to the parking lot are necessary for her tenants’ success. “Parking is critical for a retail business, so we have taken action to secure the parking for use by our tenants,” she said.

Despite Savers’ insistence that the parking restrictions were initiated by BBP, some neighbors are calling for a boycott of the store. They say a for-profit thrift store is unwelcome in the neighborhood and threatens the survival of the nearby Goodwill and Out of the Closet nonprofits.

Alterman said it is misguided to assume a nonprofit status makes a store more philanthropic. Some executives of well-known charity stores command high six-figure salaries, for instance.

“There are some nonprofits in this business that I won’t mention that make much more money than I can afford to pay my people, because their goods are free and they don’t have to pay taxes,” he said. “In the scheme of things, I would say our model is an even stronger community model,” he said, referring to the company’s taxes and partnerships with nonprofits.

Markings on sidewalk that some business owners think is for the construction of a wall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Markings on sidewalk that some business owners think is for the construction of a wall. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Berkeley Savers aims to donate roughly 30% of the cost to acquire each item that is donated to the store to its nonprofit alliance, the Epilepsy Foundation’s Northern California chapter. Alterman said the money given to the foundation will stay in Alameda County. Savers’ nonprofit partnerships all fall under the categories of disease-based foundations, organizations that help at-risk youth, or veteran organizations, and several of the stores across the company already partner with the Epilepsy Foundation. Savers has donated $1.5 billion to its partner non-profits in the last 10 years, according to company officials.

The local Epilepsy Foundation chapter’s executive director Katherine Keeney spoke at the Thursday morning ribbon cutting. The partnership significantly helps the foundation financially and helps destigmatize the disease, said Keeney, who has epilepsy herself.

“They’re making a living in a way that is really helping us,” she said. “Compared to all the other donations from for-profit companies, Savers is heads and shoulders above.”

Savers’ profit status aside, many neighbors were hoping to see something entirely different occupy the space that previously housed Andronico’s and the Co-op market. Nicola Bourne has lived two blocks west of the store for over a decade, and said the neighbors miss having a grocery store within walking distance. “Clearly, if (BBP was) thinking about what is needed in this neighborhood, a thrift store isn’t it,” she said.

Alterman said what distinguishes Savers from the nearby thrift stores is the sheer quantity of merchandise it offers. Unsellable clothing is donated to developing countries or recycled. “That’s what makes us different – that we have a good purpose for the afterlife of this stuff,” he said.

Alterman did not anticipate the resistance and criticism he encountered in Berkeley. “Berkeley has its own vibe,” he said, pointing to the store’s sign, which, due to city rules, is the smallest Savers sign that exists and is not backlit.

Eager shoppers waited in line outside the new Savers Thrift store on University Avenue in anticipation of its opening on Nov. 14. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Eager shoppers waited in line outside the new Savers Thrift store on University Avenue in anticipation of its opening on Nov. 14. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some locals are willing to give the store a chance. At least a few dozen eager shoppers lined up outside the store to watch the celebratory ribbon cutting and be the first to walk through the doors. A DJ blasted pop music throughout the morning as customers dropped in to peruse the racks of sweaters and overflowing shelves of knick-knacks.

“We’re going to work hard to be a favorite in the community,” Alterman said. “We’ll make changes, we’ll make adjustments.”

Neighbors angry at parking restrictions at old Andronico’s (10.01.13)
Ace Hardware will not move to old Andronico’s space (09.18.12)
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses (07.13.13)
Andronico’s to shutter University Avenue store (10.17.11)
Andronico’s and A.G. Ferrari saved from the brink (10.12.11)
Andronico’s files for bankruptcy (08.22.11)
Andronico’s plans recapitalization with new lenders and investors (05.25.11)
Four Berkeley Andronico’s face difficult conditions (05.24.11)
A.G. Ferrari closes Berkeley store, company bankrupt (04.05.11)

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