Sweet home, California

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 10, 1997

Sweet home, California

Often called Palo Alto's second downtown, the California Avenue area is looking for new ways to celebrate its character and attract visitors--but not too many.

by Jim Harrington

California Avenue is not University Avenue. And, guess what? It doesn't want to be. In an era when bigger seems better and trendy always gets the nod over practical, the California Avenue business district has remained what it's always been--a small commercial haven serving mainly its neighbors.

At a time when University Avenue strives to attract celebrity chefs and the city's other retail mecca, Stanford Shopping Center, wants to add 80,000 more square feet, the big news on California Avenue might be the addition of a new mail box or the closure of Cambridge Hardware, a small but long-established hardware store.

But just below the commercial radar, small changes are happening. Last week, a 25-foot-tall carving was set in place on the avenue. It's the second of what could be many more examples of public art strewn about the area as a strategy designed to distinguish the avenue from downtown and Stanford Shopping Center.

In addition to the public art, the city is also slowly but methodically mapping out a plan to increase the avenue's commercial viability. The plan calls for zone changes and other planning inducements that will allow for more residential housing in the area and, as a consequence, more shoppers. The latest step in that direction came last month when the Planning Commission approved a zone change for a 35-unit condominium that will replace an industrial building on Page Mill Road near El Camino Real.

And for their part, merchants are beginning to band together through joint marketing and development efforts between local businesses and the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA).

Merchants and shoppers stress, however, that they like California Avenue just the way it is.

"I think it all works together to make it a pleasant place to be--have everyone happy, from merchants to customers," said Ronna Devincenzi, CAADA president.

California Avenue merchants like to say that the strip is family-oriented and more in tune with the needs of nearby residents. It's less frantic, more laid back.

"I'd rather be down here than downtown," said Bob Davidson, owner of California Paint and Wallpaper. "Our parking is better here."

Many of the merchants, and shoppers, also take great pride in the fact that there are few large chains represented on the avenue. Sure, there's a Round Table Pizza and a Kinko's Copies--but those are exceptions to a place filled with originals like Antonio's Nut House, Country Sun health food store, California Avenue Pharmacy, Draper's Music Center and Know Knew Books.

There's a Noah's New York Bagels on California, but some locals would much rather talk about Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels.

"Have you tried the bagel bars at Izzy's?" asks Devincenzi. "They are delicious. You have to like onions (though)."

Part of California Avenue's homey character comes from the fact that many of the establishments are run on a daily basis by the actual owners, rather than a manager hired by the home office hundreds of miles away.

"We are down here seven days a week, most of us," said Susan MacDonald, co-owner of Printers Inc. Bookstore. "And I think that gives a place its flavor."

Part of California Avenue's down-home charm may stem from its origins when it wasn't a business area. Back when the area was known as Mayfield and California Avenue was Lincoln Street, the strip was basically residential. In those days, the center of commerce was Main Street (now El Camino Real). Today, El Camino Real still bustles, and there isn't much physical evidence left of California's residential roots. But folks like Bob Davidson, owner of California Paint and Wallpaper, can remember when there was. His dad, Dave, bought the business in 1962 and Davidson quickly became involved.

"I started working here when I was in high school, and I could never get trained for anything else," he said.

Davidson remembers that back then California Avenue was home to three grocery stores, five or six houses, and two gas stations located across from each other at the intersection of California and Birch Street.

"There was a Shell on one corner and a Standard on the other," he recalled.

Looking out on the avenue these days, Davidson says "there is a lot of different businesses, but the buildings haven't changed that much except for the gas stations and the (few) houses."

California Paint and Wallpaper is just one of a number of longtime businesses on the avenue (the store opened in 1946), and there is a chance that it could continue to be Davidson-family operated for many years. Besides his wife, Lynn, Davidson's son Jeff also works at the store.

Susan MacDonald has co-owned, with Gerry Masteller, Printers Inc. Bookstore since it opened 20 years ago in a building that was once home to a Salvation Army location. At that time, she says, the street "was really quiet" but, even today, she doesn't think the street deserves the tag "funky," as some have called it. Clearly it's no Haight-Ashbury.

"We got someone up there that used to sell crystals--I don't know if they still do--but that's it," she said as she looked down the avenue. "I would say less funky and more old-fashioned."

Old-fashioned and family-oriented. Just check out Mollie Stone's market, where kids can follow mom and dad with their own miniature shopping carts, equipped with an orange flag raised up into the air. Also, with the push of a blue button, "Mollie Stone's Good Time Jamboree" comes alive with various produce, a bagel wearing a Stanford hat, and a cow with a bell singing about the joys of recycling. These motorized, large-size dolls provide much entertainment for the kids as well as, if the young ones are really listening, teach an important lesson.

The California feeling also thrives in such longtime family-owned businesses as Keeble and Shuchat Photography and California Avenue Pharmacy. Under different names and at different locations, the pharmacy has been operated for more than 100 years. Stanley Bishop, who died about seven years ago, bought the pharmacy in 1935 and his wife, Cordelia, still owns the building.

Cordelia Bishop lives just two blocks off the avenue and professes strong feelings about the strip.

"It's a very homey, friendly area," she said. "It's like the main street of a small town, you might say."

While some things stay the same, others change. California Avenue's landscape is constantly changing and modernizing. People still bemoan the loss of the Fine Arts movie theater and Patterson's Variety and Toys shop. The latest business to call it quits is Cambridge Hardware, which has served the area since 1957. Owner Linnea Ark said the store's last day will be Oct. 31, when its nine-year lease expires.

While many businesses have shut down, other new ones have sprouted up.

These days, walking down the avenue, a potential patron can choose from Chinese food at Palo Alto Golden Wok, smoked salmon with crispy wontons and wasabi at Bistro Elan, Italian cuisine from Spalti Ristorante or exotic burritos at Mediterranean Wraps. An art gallery, La Gallerie Internationale, has also opened, exhibiting works by French artists.

Perhaps the most noticeable recent modernization came last month when the restaurant at 463 California Ave. changed from the old-school Talbott's to La Bodeguita del Medio, which serves a variety of clams, mussels and oysters, among other seafood delicacies.

Still, these new opening are not of the chain variety. They are new businesses unique to the area.

"I like to think that everyone on California Avenue is part of the movement of small," MacDonald said. "I hope that the celebration of this street is for the singly-owned, quirky, personable store that has character . . . "

California Avenue, even before it was known as such, has always had an independent streak. The area's residents have traditionally preferred to set their own path, not have it dictated by others. What is now south Palo Alto was once known as Mayfield. The town was located in an area extending from Cambridge Avenue to Page Mill Road, bounded by El Camino Real and the railroad tracks. Mayfield was one of the earliest towns on the Peninsula and was in existence from 1850 to 1925.

Perhaps the most important meeting in Mayfield's 75-year history took place in 1886 when newly elected U.S. Senator Leland Stanford met with residents. According to the Palo Alto Historical Association's 1976 publication on Mayfield, the meeting took place at the corner of old Main and Lincoln streets, and Stanford informed the locals of his plan to establish a nearby university.

The university would need a support community, where people connected with the school could shop and find housing. Since Mayfield was the oldest and closest town, it was a logical choice. Stanford's one stipulation was that Mayfield become "dry." For a town with 13 saloons, that was simply too much to ask. Stanford's offer was voted down.

"It was politically wise to make (the college) town dry and Mayfield didn't have a desire to be dry," said historian Steven Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association. "(Stanford) and his wife were not temperate people themselves--he had one of the largest wineries in the state. He didn't buy into it for himself, but he did for his students."

Rejected, Stanford turned his eyes north and convinced his friend, Timothy Hopkins of the Southern Pacific Railroad, to buy 700 acres of private property and sell lots. This new townsite was called University Park, which would later take the name Palo Alto.

Mayfield's mistake turned out to be a boon for Palo Alto. But, as Staiger points out, there was no assurance that Stanford University would prosper and many Mayfield residents were skeptical it would ever be built.

"If Mayfield residents were convinced that Leland Stanford's university was a sure thing, I think they would have agreed to his request to make it a dry town," Staiger reasoned.

But the small town soon fell on hard times. Plagued by money problems, bad roads and little leadership, a group of residents began an effort in 1918 for Mayfield to be annexed by Palo Alto. A first attempt at annexation was voted down in 1924, but a second passed, 357 to 288, less than a year later. Palo Altans agreed to the annexation, and the two communities officially consolidated on July 6, 1925.

Though the name has changed, the area still can boast a pretty active nightlife. It's obviously not the same type of rowdy debauchery that took place back in the late 1800s when lumberjacks ruled the Saturday nights at Mayfield saloons. Still, the activity clearly doesn't end when the sun goes down on California Avenue. Restaurants and bars keep locals out and about well past twilight.

The cafe tables at Printers Inc. are filled with singles reading books and newspapers, couples chatting or playing chess, and groups reliving old times and creating new ones. It's open seven days a week until 11 p.m. and is the place to go for a quick bite to eat, a steamy mocha or a sweet Italian soda. It's a place well-suited for both down-time and up-time.

Further down the street, as things are just slowing down at restaurants and Printers Inc., things are likely just starting to cook at The Edge nightclub (see Our Town, page 4).

If there's one business that best exemplifies California Avenue's independent streak, as well as harkens back to its freewheeling heritage, it's Antonio's Nut House. A thriving, blue-collar bar, Antonio's has been owned for 25 years by Tony Montooth. Many believe it's the kind of place that simply wouldn't work on upscale University Avenue. When patrons walk into Antonio's, the first thing they notice is the floor, or more precisely, how you can't see the floor. That's because it's covered with peanut shells. It's a tradition at the place: eat peanuts, drop the shells on the floor. Moreover, the crumbled shells are really a type of California Avenue-style marketing plan.

"It was one of Tony's brainstroms," said bartender Andie DePass. "He's very good with gimmicks."

Alicyn Merritt, 25, has been a regular at the Nut House since she turned 21. She's protective of her neighborhood bar and would rather keep it a secret to outsiders.

Her friend, Eric Cedar Gren, shares similar sentiments.

"Yeah, we like the people here," Gren said. "We don't need any people from University Avenue."

Another regular, Joe Cotey, sits over with a couple friends at the end of the bar nearest to the entrance. Cotey's been a regular for 28 years. He keeps coming to Antonio's--playing pool for 50 cents a game--although he moved out of Palo Alto to Sunnyvale years ago.

On this evening, he says he dropped by Antonio's simply because he was bowling nearby.

"The league meeting tonight was up at Palo Alto Bowl," Cotey states.

But the accuracy of that reasoning is quickly contested by one of his friends.

"But you don't bowl every night, and you are here every night."

"I bowl almost every night, and I'm not here every night," Cotey counters.

While Cotey and his friend come to a disagreement about why he frequents the establishment, a life-size, mechanical gorilla wearing a Panama hat stands guard behind them. The gorilla rests in a black metal cage watching over a basket of unshelled peanuts. In order to get a cup of peanuts, a patron must reach into the cage.

At that moment, the bartender pushes a remote control, and the gorilla moves forward releasing a menacing roar at the person going for the peanuts. Bartender DePass, who apparently understands mechanical gorilla speak, translates the roar:

"It's saying 'Leave my nuts alone.'"

Like Gren, Merritt and some other native Californians, the gorilla is obviously very protective of his domain.

Back up to the Table of Contents Page