On Saturday, the owners of the long-closed Federation Trading Post hosted a reunion of their Star Trek-oriented store in The Village, 2566 Telegraph Avenue.
This is a story with many layers of quirk.
Layer one: people who love a television show that went off the air 49 years ago after three seasons and 79 episodes. They are quirky.
Layer two: a store that was devoted to this television show, owned and run by bright and good people who trusted their crazy idea. It was quirky.
Layer three: a store that was housed in The Village, an “indoor hippie mall” built in the early 1970s, a crazy idea itself. It is quirky.
Layer four: a reunion in the old quarters with enthusiasm and nostalgia and cosplay. Boy was it quirky.
Chuck Weiss and Arian Sarris, who dreamed up, started, and ran the Trading Post, organized the reunion and were front and center.
Just like the old days, there was Star Trek merchandise.
Episodes of from the original series were shown all day.
There was a sense of infinite egress with the fans dressed as characters watching an episode featuring their character.
Many fans showed up in costume, from the simple Enterprise crew uniform to the elaborate.
I don’t know the Star Trek characters, but I do know that this is the Klingon leader Kang, played by the late Michel Ansara.
Also in character, albeit not a Star Trek character:
Above is Frank Ailsworth of San Leandro, who, in character as Lord Blood-Rah, has hosted Lord Blood-Rah’s Nerve Wrackin’ Theatre (horror and sci-fi films) at various Bay Area venues.
In “Almost Cut My Hair,” David Crosby sang of letting his “freak flag fly.”
So it was at this reunion — people happy to be with other people who love Star Trek and the Federation Trading Post as much as they do.
Chuck Weiss and Arian Sarris met in 1975. They were both huge Star Trek fans. At that point, the original television series had been off the air for six years.
Together, they conceived a Star Trek Original Series (TOS) convention. They called the convention “The Red Hour Festival.” In The Return of the Archons (Season 1, Episode 22), the Red Hour marked the 6 p.m. beginning of the Festival on Beta III during the governance of Landru, a festival which condoned lawlessness, debauchery and chaos.
The convention took place on Feb. 22, 1975 at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. They sold 2,000 tickets in a day and a half. It was a great success. There were dealers and prizes and appearances by James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu), Walter Koenig (Chekov) and Arlene Martel, who had appeared as Spock’s bride-to-be.
What they started is now seen as the basis for Star Trek fan events that have followed. This was an event produced by fans for fans.
After the Red Hour convention, Weiss and Sarris brainstormed on how to make their avocation their vocation. They had a crazy idea — a Star Trek-themed store. They trusted this crazy idea, which had never been done. They made this crazy idea happen. They contacted Paramount, which owned the original Star Trek series. As long as they didn’t use the name “Star Trek” in the name of the store, Paramount was fine with the idea. No problem — they called it the Federation Trading Post. “Federation” is short for The United Federation of Planets (UFP), an interstellar federal republic.
They rented space in The Village, an indoor mall in what began life in 1945 as Harry Doten’s auto dealership at 2556 Telegraph. Doten owned and ran University Motors at C.J.’s Old Garage one building south, at 2566 Telegraph. He ran Doten Pontiac out of 2556 Telegraph and passed it on to his son, who took in Ed Cunha as a partner.
In 1971, Larry Broding filed an application with the City to convert the building into two levels with a total of 21 small commercial spaces around a large common. Hal Gilbert was the architect. What he proposed is today known as adaptive reuse, the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than which it was built or designed for. The Jan. 14, 1972 Berkeley Daily Gazette featured a long story about what would become the Village – “Creative Shopping Mall to Have a Berkeley Flavor.”
Part of that Berkeley Flavor would be the Federation Trading Post.
They opened the store in May 1975. People lined up, more than one thousand of them. Go crazy Berkeley! There were hundreds of Star Trek items for sale — photos, clothing, posters, props. Spock merchandise outsold all other merchandise combined.
People Magazine ran a story on the store in its Jan. 12, 1976 issue. The Trading Post went from big to bigger with that.
Star Trek photos, posters, and merchandise lined the walls.
The eastern wall was covered with a mural.
The mural is gone, but the poster upon which the mural was based was hanging for the reunion.
Weiss was alone in the store on a Sunday in 1976. Three men with suits came in, looked around, and suggested that the store would do well in New York. Weiss and Sarris debated the idea. After said debate they went into business with Doug Drexler and Ron Barlow and opened a Federation Trading Post on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Weiss took one of the hippie bus lines — either the Gray Rabbit or the Green Tortoise — to New York, stopping for skinny dipping in hot springs along the way. He got the store running and came back to Berkeley.
Drexler later became well known and admired as a visual effects artist, designer, sculptor, illustrator and a makeup artist. He credits Weiss and Sarris for having “ignited a couple of careers.”
Of the store, Ron Barlow wrote: “Everyone that comes into the store realizes that the store is not just set up to make money, but it’s set up to encourage fandom. It’s set up to give them whatever hope they have in the show. We have a bulletin board which is a public-access board for any Star Trek fan to use. From time to time, we put up newspaper clippings, information that we’ve come up with for them to read. It saves us the time of explaining it, and all of the personnel working at the store are hard-core Star Trek fans, so if we don’t have the information, chances are very few people would.”
TrekMovie.com published a detailed and affectionate article about the New York store in February 2017.
Another surprise — a man named Dave Needle, then in his late 20s, came into the Berkeley store in 1976 and asked if he could install a one-off, coin-operated Star Trek console computer game. Another crazy idea — Weiss and Sarris said yes. Video games were a very new thing. The first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space by Nutting Associates, was introduced in 1971. In 1972, Atari introduced Pong to the arcades. There was no guarantee that Needle’s Star Trek game would be popular. It wasn’t just popular, it was very popular.
At the reunion, I saw the face of a man — who as a boy played the game with fervor and went on to a career of User Experience, Product Design, and Information Architecture — light up when Weiss told me about the game. This man remembers the basics of the game: “I believe you could play as either the Federation or the Klingon Empire. You were propelled around the screen by clicking the rocket button and a knob that would let you tun right or left. The goal was to knock out your opponent’s shields. Now and then a Roman ship would appear to zap you. I think at the end of it, the winner would destroy the other ship. I may be wrong here. I do remember however that if you were helpless, you could also be destroyed by the Doomsday Machine.”
The Doomsday Machine was a giant machine, miles long, that used beams of antiprotons to tear planets apart, consuming the rubble for fuel.
Needle went on to be a key engineer and co-chief architect in the creation of the Commodore Amiga 1000 computer, which Byte magazine called “so far ahead of its time that almost nobody … could fully articulate what it was all about.” He later co-invented the Atari Lynx and the DO Interactive Multiplayer. Needle died in 2016.
The original Star Trek series ended after three seasons. So too with the Federation Trading Post. Despite the 1975 blessing that Paramount gave the store, as the store grew in fame, so did Paramount’s interest in protecting the brand. Paramount sued the Federation Trading Post. Although the litigation eventually settled when it was discovered that Paramount’s copyright claim for the original series was imperfect, Weiss and Sarris had gone through their savings in attorney fees. It was a perfect example of a Pyrrhric Victory — a devastating toll on the victor that made winning tantamount to defeat. Plus — the strain of a 24/7 mom-and-pop business.
In 1978, the Trading Post doors closed, both in Berkeley and in New York. Sarris went on to a career in therapy and is the author of many self-help books. Weiss went on to work with transit, especially paratransit.
It was an intense hour that I spent at the reunion — many things that I find important and good and uplifting at play.
What struck me the most about the Federation Trading Post is that it was a place where people who geeked out about the original series of Star Trek could go and in that element immerse themselves, free of any judgment. Griel Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone in 1978 that Berkeley has been a city with “room for anyone willing to persevere long enough to be accepted and valued as part of the daily reality of the place.”
We have been a city where people who might not feel that they belong anywhere else feel at home here, free to be themselves and make their unique contribution to society. We are — stealing from and then embellishing Herb Caen — a great temple, like the great temples of Abu Simbel, Abydos, Aten, Karnak, Nanto, Ptah and Templo Mayor, for those who have been cast out from lesser temples.
In 19th-century America, trading posts were not just for trading, they were also places for people to meet and exchange news at a time before the proliferation of newspapers. So too with the Federation Trading Post. It was a place to exchange and share, not just goods, but a passion that might seem odd elsewhere. It was a place where a young engineer could walk through the door with an idea for a video console game, or where a visit from three men would lead to a cross-country trip across the country in a hippie bus line to start a store in New York. It was a place where attention to detail was supreme — the braid used when they made uniforms had to be exactly right and it was, all the way from New York.
And it was a place where a man and a woman had a crazy idea, trusted it, and made it happen. It was a great crazy idea, one that touched thousands and thousands. I don’t think I’m making too much of this. The Federation Trading Post and the reunion were the best of us.
Load-out time — the reunion is done and gone. The afternoon lingers, the years of the Trading Post linger, the memories of a shared passion linger. The Village is almost certainly destined for the wrecking ball. Back to Griel Marcus — “some of us cannot walk past the park, or Moe’s Bookstore, or any number of campus battlegrounds that are now merely buildings, without feeling chased by our own ghosts.” I’m glad to have spent time in the now-closed second floor of the Village. I’m glad to have spent time with Chuck and Arian and their loyal customers — and with the ghosts of the Village.
In closing, let me congratulate myself. That there were so many times that I could have gone for the obvious pun of “Captain Quirk” in writing this. I didn’t though.
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-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.