How Quirky is Berkeley? The Star Grocery block on Claremont Avenue

The 3500 block of Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
The 3000 block of Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

A few months ago, Mark Bulwinkle, the sculptor, praised the 3000 block of Claremont Avenue, home to Star Grocery, the Escapist, Afikomen, Jutta Flowers and more, as the quirkiest commercial block in Berkeley.

What about it resonates with Bulwinkle?

The grocery store, particularly the meat department, reminds me exactly of the old Triple A supermarket I worked in as a teenager after school and summers in Weston, Massachusetts about 55 years ago. In fact, the whole strip, Turtle Island Book Shop and all, reminds me in a strange way of another era, way back then, in that little burg in New England. It’s nice. I stop up there when I want to get a coffee at Semifreddi’s [now closed] and drift back to then, the pre-Vietnam invasion era.

I get it! When quirky is the norm, non-quirky is heterodox.


3068 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3068 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3068 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey.
3068 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey.

The heart of the block is the Star Grocery, which has been in business since 1922 and at its current location since 1942. It is quaint, cool, and the indoor signs really rock.

Other highlights of the block:

3090 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3090 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

The Escapist rose from the closing of Comic Relief (1987-2011) and opened on Claremont in 2011. 

3086 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3086 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

Dark Carnival specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries. Forty years in business. They know the genres. 

3078 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3078 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

Over the years I have bought flowers and an occasional decorative gift from Jutta, both from here and from her earlier location on Domingo. I love her store.


Quirky Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. on November 28th, 2016.
3048 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

Former high school principal and administrator Laura Leventer was known for wearing unique business clothing with pizazz. She opened Personal Pizazz to share her love of good clothing. It has a solid 5-stars on Yelp.

3042 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3042 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

Afikomen offers contemporary Judaica for inspired living. I have had long conversations with the staff there about the phrase “sacred and profane” and Ladino, the transactional language of Sephardic Jews.

3036 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3036 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

There is something about an upholstery shop that invokes an older, weirder America.

3032 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey
3032 Claremont Avenue. Photo: John Storey

Last, Turtle Island books. Years ago, many years ago, Turtle Island was located downtown and I went there. A lot. I still browse Turtle Island grateful that it is there in an age of internet used book buying.

Bulwinkle has a point about this block. Three bookstores, four if you count Afikomen which sells books. Cool upholstery shop. Jutta’s Flowers. And Greatest of All – Star Grocery.


As I was preparing this post for publication, I learned that John Gordon, whose Gordon Commercial signs can be seen all over town, had made an offer on the building that houses all businesses northeast of Star Grocery (Pizazz, Afikomen, the French Cleaner, Lazlo’s European Upholstery, Turtle Island Books, and Michelle Nelson Design). Gordon has restored a number of buildings around town, including the John Woolly House and the Ellen Blood House near People’s Park.

“We love the building and have had frequented the businesses there for years,” Gordon wrote in an email. “We intend to operate the building much in the same manner as the sellers, who have had it in the family for three generations. We do not anticipate any tenancy changes and will have one vacancy when we close escrow.”

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.