Community

How Quirky is Berkeley? Art Ratner’s miniature buildings

Art Ratner. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner. Photo: John Storey

Art Ratner has been fixing Japanese cars in Berkeley for more than 30 years. His energy, intelligence and humor make him liked. The best-in-the-Bay work done by his shop, Art’s Automotive on San Pablo between Russell and Oregon, make him sought-after. Many know him, but not many know of his staggering collection of miniature souvenir buildings.

It reminds me of the 1987 episode of Miami Vice when Crockett and Tubbs visit the apartment of their partner, Lawrence “Larry” Zito, who has been killed by a heroin overdose. They discover a large collection of snow globes and Crockett observes that you can know somebody for years and years and still not know what makes them tick. Wisdom from Miami Vice applied to Art Ratner!

Ratner grew up in Flushing, New York. When he was 9, his mother took him to the Statue of Liberty. He bought a miniature Statue of Liberty but, as boys will do, he lost it on the way home.

Art Ratner. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner. Photo: John Storey

In 1984, he saw the same — he thinks — miniature Statue of Liberty for sale and he bought it.


Art Ratner. Photo courtesy of Art Ratner.
Art Ratner in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy of Art Ratner.

And then started collecting miniature souvenir buildings.

At that point, Ratner had been in Berkeley for almost 10 years. He got here via a tour of duty in Vietnam, some time on the GI Bill, and some vagabonding throughout North America. He did leather work for a few years, went through the automotive trade program at The College of Alameda, a few years as a shade tree mechanic, and then in 1984 opened Art’s on San Pablo.

Ratner has been collecting for more than 30 years, and he has several thousand miniature buildings in his collection.

Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner's miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey
Art Ratner’s miniature building collection. Photo: John Storey

The photographs only hint at the scale of the collection. Ratner shows passion as he talks about his collection. His knowledge of his collection is encyclopedic. As is his knowledge of what he doesn’t have. And what others have. And how they got it.

“Every one of these has a story,” he says. And he knows the stories and tells the stories. It is impossible not to feel his joy, and impossible not to embrace his enthusiasm for the little buildings and not to admire 32 years of collecting.


There are obsessive collectors everywhere. There is nothing particularly Berkeleyesque about collecting. But there is about Art Ratner and his collection. His joy of life and enthusiasm and energy smack of Berkeley. We and the Japanese cars he fixes are lucky he’s with us.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.