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Tom Gambel, owner of East Bay Aikido, in his Oakland, Calif., studio, June 3, 2010 in Oakland, Calif.

OAKLAND — In the martial art of aikido, when it looks like you're about to be struck, it's best to spin away and avoid harm.

Fittingly, whenever Tom Gambell, 67, owner of East Bay Aikido, is confronted with financial challenges that have knocked down other small businesses, he looks for ways to minimize the blow. As a result, the 2,400-square-foot studio, referred to by its Japanese name, "dojo," next to Rocky's Market at 1446 Leimert Blvd. in Oakland has remained open for 22 years.

Founded in 1988 with $25,000 from his savings account, Gambell currently has about 70 adults and 30 children who work out at the facility. The median age of the students at East Bay Aikido is 45.

Noel Amherd, of Oakland, has been going to East Bay Aikido for 12 years, and says he's amazed at what Gambell has been able to do.

"The martial arts world is very fickle with them coming and going all the time," said Amherd, who teaches several classes. "I think (East Bay Aikido) has survived because of the community feel that Tom has created."

One thing Gambell does is make sure that his students have every opportunity to remain with East Bay Aikido. In times he knows his students might be financially challenged, instead of having a "pay or quit" attitude, he allows people to pay what they can afford.

If others can afford more than the $95 monthly charge, he welcomes extra.


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"This business is a lot like flowers in that it's a discretionary expense that people do not need at the core, but a place they want to be," Gambell said. "The last thing I want is for people to quit and stop working out."

Gambell was born in Massachusetts and raised in Georgia. In 1967, the Army brought him out to Monterey. A friend of his told him to try aikido, but he was hesitant to get involved because he had a misunderstanding about what it was.

"The thing that kept me away from it was that I always thought it was violent," he said. "I thought it was about trying to destroy the enemy."

The truth, he later found out, is that aikido is the antithesis of trying to beat others up. Unlike mixed martial arts where fighting occurs, aikido is translated as: "The way to harmonize with the energy of the universe."

Linda Andersen, Gambell's wife as well as an instructor at East Bay Aikido, says that this martial art consists mostly of getting out of the way and spinning. Kicking and punching are not elements of aikido.

"There are a lot of throws, so all you really need is the willingness to get up and down a lot," she said.

Gambell admits that nationally, aikido has lost some of its charm because it doesn't have aspects of violence to it, but he believes those who try it will understand its purpose.

"Aikido changes people's lives sometimes without people realizing it's changing their life," he said. "For me, aikido is like meditation in motion."

Before starting the studio, he worked as a law office manager for Castle & Cooke in San Francisco. When he was told he needed to relocate to Los Angeles, he quit.

"I gave up a six-figure income to do what I love," he said.

Unlike other fitness centers or martial art studios that force their clientele to sign lengthy contracts, Gambell has always kept the commitment month-to-month. Even though the rent continues to go up, Gambell hasn't raised his prices for five years.

The studio is open every day except Friday.

Services other small businesses might require, such as janitorial, are avoided because the students help keep the dojo clean. The instructors are volunteers.

The marketing he does is minimal, as most of the clientele has been built via word-of-mouth.

"We're like a really good restaurant with only a certain number of tables," Gambell said. "You're excited to share it with others, but not too many because you also want to keep it a 'best kept secret.' "

Physically, you don't have to have to be the best athlete to be successful at aikido.

"In grammar school, I was too short for basketball, too small for football, and in baseball I would either bunt or just stand there," Gambell said. "If I could do aikido, anybody can."

Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8534.

SMALL TALK
  • Name: East Bay Aikido
  • Owner: Tom Gambell
  • Employees: 1
  • Address: 1446 Leimert Blvd., Oakland
  • Phone: (510) 531-0303
  • online: www.eastbayaikido.com