It Was A 'Green' Christmas In More Ways Than One

Priuses, Michael Moore and Al Franken books popular Christmas gifts in Berkeley, California

Published: 01-Jan-2004

Was it a green Christmas for local retailers? Most say yes.

"The year started slowly and ended really good," says Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys in Albany. "Business was definitely up over last Christmas."

But with one glaring exception, nobody is giving any credit to George Bush. That exception is Laura Tibbals, senior buyer at Moe's Books in Berkeley.

"Business was up slightly, due to a huge demand for anti-Bush books like 'Dude, Where's My Country?' by Michael Moore and anything by Al Franken," she says. "They flew off the shelves faster than we could stock them. Thank you, Mr. Bush."

Otherwise, merchants say the upturn had more to do with local conditions than anything emanating from Washington. At El Cerrito Plaza, they give most of the credit to a guy named Joe.

"Business was much better, and it's due to Trader Joe's moving in," says Dan Turley, co-owner of Foley and Bonny Men's And Ladies' Clothing. "They brought a lot of walk-in traffic with them."

Sean Hall, manager of Bed, Bath and Beyond, agrees. "Foot traffic was much better this year, and T.J.'s has to gets a lot of the credit. But I think it's also due to the fact the major construction is finally over, so there's finally enough parking. It's much easier to find a space here than at our major competitors, Emery Bay and Hilltop."

His biggest seller: The talking "Mr. Wonderful" doll, which a lot of women bought as Christmas presents for themselves.

"It has 40 or 50 phrases that women love to hear the most," he says, "including 'Why don't I go shopping with you so I can carry your bags?' and 'Gee, I have no idea where we are. Let's pull over and ask for directions.'"

But if foot traffic was up at the plaza, it was down on Fourth Street.

"The diner did great, as usual, says Bette Kroening, owner of Bette's Oceanview Diner. "It's a destination; people know that's where they want to go when they leave home. But sales at Bette's-To-Go next door are more dependent on foot traffic, and they were definitely not as robust as last year."

She blames the calendar. "It happens every seven years. Christmas fell on a Thursday, so a lot of people decided to make it a four-day weekend and went away for the holiday."

Across the street at Dansk, manager Andrea Hille blames the parking -- or lack thereof.

"Parking is a joke around here," she says. "And the bad weather right before Christmas also hurt foot traffic."

But her business was still up a bit, thanks to her runaway best seller: textiles, including place mats, table cloths, napkins dish towels.

"People in Berkeley are really, really into textiles," she says. "We sell more textiles than any other Dansk store in the country."

People in Berkeley are also into environmental protection, which meant a merry Christmas for Alan Shivers, sales manager at Berkeley Toyota.

"We had a fantastic season, over 100 percent better than last December, and it's all due to the new Prius, a hybrid gas/electric car," he says. "They accounted for half our sales. In fact, we sold more Priuses than any other Ford dealership in the whole country. Who'd have thought it of little old Berkeley?"

It was also a happy Yuletide at Albany Ford and Subaru. "Our sales were up a bit over last December, maybe ten percent," says owner John Nakamura. "But the real increase was in parts and service," perhaps indicating that people are taking better care of their cars and holding on to them longer.

Carolyn Pugh, owner of Skein Lane in Kensington, saw a huge jump in business, too. "People are really getting into knitting and crocheting," she says. "I think it's because of 9/11. People have become much more interested in nesting."

For Tom Prouder of Music Lovers Audio, a super-high-end stereo company in Berkeley, Christmas is just beginning.

"People who spend $10,000 on an amplifier or $15,000 for a pair of speakers don't give them to their friends," he says. "They buy them for themselves. My typical clients wait until Christmas is over to see how much money they have left. So I make most of my sales between now and tax time."

But perhaps the best indicator of better times is the fact that the traditional office Christmas party made a comeback in 2003, after hovering on the brink of extinction last year.

"Last Christmas we only catered a few office parties," says Kimberly Case, catering manager at Rick and Ann's Catering. "This year there were a lot more."

But she says we're still a long way from the hang-the-expense attitude of the 1990s.

"If there's any trend, I'd say it's that people want more bites for their buck."

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