A good friend of Quirky Berkeley suggested a few weeks ago that I visit some of the more long-standing businesses in Berkeley. They had a specific suggestion – businesses that have been operating for at least 50 years. And, they had an even more very specific suggestion of where to start – Al Lasher’s Electronics.
There is not much quirky per se at Lasher’s, but the sum of the parts – definitely quirky. This is part of what I love about our dear old Berkeley, the somewhat quirky businesses. Why not?
Al Lasher opened the store at 1734 University Ave. in 1960.
Before World War II, Lasher worked in a radio shop at 66th and Shattuck, just inside Oakland. He enlisted in the Navy for the war. After the war, he worked for others until 1960. The store website describes his work during those years: “Al had previously worked for Pacific Radio Supply, calling on T.V. and radio dealers, stocking their shelves right out of the back of his station wagon. As Pacific Radio began moving into HiFi, Al decided to open a radio shop of his own, in Berkeley, as a branch of a friendly competitor, Styles and Engleman. Six months later, because the store wasn’t doing as well as he had hoped, Al purchased the stock and reopened as Al Lasher’s Dealer Electronics.”
A neighbor told Lasher that the space had once been an indoor miniature golf course with a mezzanine from which spectators could watch.
As may be seen in the ghost sign near the roof line, the building once housed the Edison Electrical School.
In the 1950s, one of the tenants upstairs was The Civil Rights Congress.The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was founded in 1946 by a merger of several other organizations. Its politics were hard left, and it was deemed to be subversive and communist by the government almost from the start.
The federal government engaged in surveillance of the Civil Rights Congress.
Jessica Mitford (referred to here as Decca Treuhaft) was noted to be a frequent visitor to the Civil Rights Congress in Berkeley. Mitford was a muck-raking, trouble-making, hell-raising, feather-ruffling, gad flying leftist. She scared them to the bones.
Lasher’s was originally for the wholesale trade only.
Business boomed, with as many as ten employees at times. Al retired in 1987 at the age of 71.
Son Bob and daughter Ellen took over.
I asked Bob when he started working in the store. “When I was tall enough to see over the counter.”
When we visited, there was a steady stream of customers with Very Specific and Very Diverse electronic needs. Their needs are met. What they seek is found.There are many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of parts and pieces of equipment for sale. The grasp of electronics past and present and the encyclopedic knowledge of the store required of the Lashers is beyond my understanding.
The parade of electronic savants and the visual glory of the store are wonders.
John Storey asked how often they test tubes. Almost every day, at least once. Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to send out 50 tubes a day for repair.
A rotary phone! Shades of Dr. Alan Greenbaum, recently retired, old-school, kind-hearted, office technology-averse doctor to Quirky Berkeley for 30+ years.
The Lashers report that musicians and artists are their biggest customers. Two musicians with whom I have talked recently volunteered that they love Lasher’s – Dave Seabury of the Psychotic Pineapple and Jon Hammond.
One big reason – EL (electroluminescent) wire. It is is a thin copper wire coated in a phosphor which glows when an alternating current is applied to it.
A smaller room on the east end of the store is home for radio stuff and a part of Bob’s antique radio collection.
It is my understanding that most of the collection is at home.
The steady flow of customers didn’t slow down. We could have wandered a lot longer looking at the parts and the signs and the equipment, seen by us at least not for what they do but for what they look like. We could have asked many more questions.
Under Berkeley law, the Lashers must seismically upgrade its building. The company submitted its retrofit plans in March 2016 and are hoping to get a FEMA grant to complete the construction, said Ellen Lasher.
When we started our farewells, Ellen took me outside to the locked door of the radio room. There is a poster map showing Berkeley businesses in 1985. Most are gone.
“We are a dying breed,” she said.
That’s the point. That’s the problem.
Lasher’s is family-owned. They focus on substance, not form. They know many of their customers and care about them all. They know their inventory inside out, frontwards and backward, up and down, over and under. History means something to them. Berkeley means something to them. They repair instead of replace. They are the antithesis of our disposable, throw-away culture. They are part of what makes Berkeley Berkeley.
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 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.