The Wooden Duck, which has been making tables and benches out of reclaimed wood in Berkeley for almost 24 years, is going out of business, its owners announced Monday.
The company, which is run by Eric Gellerman and Amy Ferber, has sold its San Rafael building to a family that will turn it into a brewery and plans to shut the Berkeley store and workshop by Nov. 15, said Gellerman.
A number of factors went into the decision to close, he said. The landlord increased the rent on the Berkeley building and declined to transfer the lease to the Wooden Duck’s longtime bookkeeper, who had hoped to take over the business, he said. The company also suffered a devastating fire in 2014 that has taken many years to recover from. The company was uninsured and had to pay about $1 million to vendors and customers who had already purchased furniture, said Gellerman. The partners retired that debt about six months ago, but it took a lot out of them, he said. Lawsuits about the fire are still pending.
“I think we were ready to go,” said Gellerman. “It’s been almost 24 years. We didn’t expect to be in business for even two years.”
The Wooden Duck employs about 25 people, five of who make the wooden furniture, said Gellerman. They have known for six months that the business would be closing and the woodworkers already have multiple job offers, he said.
The company sent out an email Friday about its closing to the 25,000 people on its mailing list, said Gellerman. When he went to work Saturday, there was a line of people waiting for the store to open. Many had come to take advantage of the discounts now in effect, but others came just to say goodbye and to offer their thanks.
One older woman told Gellerman she had left money in her will for each of her three daughters to buy a custom Wooden Duck dining room table. She told Gellerman, with a tinge of regret, that she would now have to change her will.
Everything in the store is on sale and, starting Friday, the discount will be 50% off to get rid of the remaining stock, he said.
“And everyone who comes by next weekend we’ll give them a souvenir chunk of the Cal Memorial Stadium! Go Bears!” Gellerman wrote in an email.
In 2012, Gellerman and Ferber bought 184,000 linear feet of wood from UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, which was being remodeled. Many of the bleachers that had been ripped out were made from rare old-growth woods: Port Orford cedar and Alaska Yellow Cedar. It took 24 double flatbed trucks three days to move the wood from an Oakland warehouse to The Wooden Duck’s storage facility in Richmond. The Wooden Duck transformed those pieces into furniture and small mementos such as clock surrounds, and coat hooks.
The Wooden Duck also purchased the bleachers from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium after it was demolished in 1989.
When asked what he was most proud of having accomplished, Gellerman said one thing was allowing the community to use the Wooden Duck space free for events. The practice happened after the partners moved from Ashby Avenue and Seventh Street to 1823 Eastshore Highway. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 100 fundraisers in the space, many held for Berkeley schools, he said.
Gellerman expressed regret at how much Berkeley and the Bay Area had changed and said it would be impossible to start a similar business today. First of all, one could never find an affordable workspace, he said. Secondly, the rents are so high that it makes it extremely difficult for employees, even well-paid ones with health care, to find affordable places to live. Gellerman sees how the quality of life has deteriorated all the time. Each day, there is usually someone sleeping by his dumpster.
When the doors close permanently next month, Gellerman plans to do nothing, for at least a year. His sons are 10 and 12 and he wants to spend more time with them.
“For 23 years, we were open seven days a week,” he said. “That was a lot of sacrifice. I want to take it easy for a bit.”
The retail space won’t stay empty for long. Another furniture store, Terra Patio, is moving into the storefront at 1823 EastShore, said Gellerman. A number of The Wooden Duck employees have been offered jobs there.
Update 10.26, Bill Decarion, who owns the building the Wooden Duck is in, called Berkeleyside to dispute aspects of what Gellerman said. The article has been changed to say the landlord increased the rent, not doubled it.
Decarion said he had not raised the rent for eight or nine years. The Wooden Duck was paying $1.25 a square foot and Decarion was paying property taxes and insurance out of that. Decarion proposed a rent of $1.75 a square foot, he said, but Gellerman said they had already decided to shut down. Decarion said he could not rent to The Wooden Duck’s bookkeeper because she did not have any assets nor could she prove she could be financially responsible for the space. Decarion then contacted Norheim & Yost, who found a new tenant within two weeks. Norheim & Yost marketed the space for $2.25 a square foot, said Decarion.