BERKELEY -- Empty storefronts have become commonplace around Berkeley over the past several years, but the most recent addition also marks the demise of one of the few remaining original businesses in downtown.
After 105 years in business, Alko, an office supply store at 2225 Shattuck Ave., closed its doors for the last time on April 30. According to owner and manager Gary Shows, the store had been operating at a loss for the last six years, and a year ago he made the decision to close.
"I feel like downtown Berkeley has changed so much that this kind of retail doesn't work anymore," said Shows. "The real basic office supplies that were our bread and butter, everyone sells."
But what everyone else can't offer, Shows argues, is the personal attention and expertise Alko had provided for years.
But aside from the changing shopping demographic and the perception that office supplies sold at chain retailers cost less, the biggest nail in the coffin, said Shows, was the loss of the store's contract with UC Berkeley.
According to Shows, the office supply store served the university's various administrative departments for at least 20 years, but in 2009 orders began to decline. A chart posted on the store's website showed the number of units ordered by the university had decreased from almost 60,000 in 2009 to a little more than 10,000 by mid-2012.
"The way we do business, we're so geared toward helping the university," said Shows. "We wouldn't be able to stay alive without (it)."
According to UC Berkeley campus spokeswoman Janet Gilmore, the university entered into a contract with OfficeMax in August 2004 as part of a systemwide arrangement.
In 2012, the university put out a bid for an additional supplier in order "to ensure that local and diverse suppliers continue to have access to campus buyers and opportunities to compete for UC Berkeley's business," she said in an email.
Alko was among the applicants but was ultimately beat out by Give Something Back, an Oakland-based office supply company.
While Alko employed as many as 16 during its busiest times, in the end that number was down to seven, only four of which were full-time.
"This has been a lot of kids' first jobs," said Shows. He estimates he has hired hundreds of high schoolers and college students over the years, many of whom remained after graduation.
"You know you've been doing this too long when these kids come back to visit and they have gray hair," Shows joked.
One of those former high-school students is Sonam Dolkar, who started at Alko while still attending Berkeley High School. The 20-year-old is now completing nursing program prerequisites at Berkeley City College.
"Everyone here is really close," she said, periodically exchanging silly comments with co-worker Andrew Allen. "It's kind of like a real family."
"You can go off and make more money somewhere," Allen chimed in, "but these perks, you can't buy."
Dolkar, along with her co-workers, had long suspected that business was not going well, but they were officially notified in early April.
"Everyone keeps saying you'll find a job, but it's not a guarantee," Dolkar said.
Shows relocated to California from San Antonio, Texas with his partner in late 1971. The couple's first stop was Los Angeles, where they planned to stay with friends. But the visit turned out to be short-lived -- when they saw "the big, yellow cloud over L.A.", the two hopped back in the car and drove to Oakland, a decision Shows said he has never regretted. The couple now lives in Point Richmond.
That same year, Shows was hired as a buyer for Alko and gradually purchased the business after the owner retired.
While the location has consistently sold stationery and business supplies, Alko was not the store's original name. Clifford Radston opened Radston's Office Supply in 1908 but sold the business when he retired.
He soon regretted the decision and when the new owners of the office supply decided to move the store to a larger location, he jumped at the chance to buy back the original location. The store reopened soon after as Alko -- named after Al Koch, Radston's son-in-law. Years later, he hired the newly-arrived Shows, who bought the business in 1984 and the building itself in 2000.
Alko's online specialty store will remain, however. It will continue to operate in partnership with Elmwood Stationers for the next year, after which the latter business will take it over completely. A buyer for the building was not found and it was recently purchased by the real estate company representing it.
Upstairs in the hanging mezzanine overlooking the store, Shows and his bookkeeper finished up last-minute paperwork at their desks, pausing to greet customers who made their way upstairs to say goodbye. Amid boxes of records and remaining inventory were several bright, child-sized stools and an infant's bouncing chair, remnants from the time one of Shows' longtime employees would bring her three daughters to work with her before they were old enough for school.
On Alko's last day of business, a steady flow of longtime customers --as well as passers-by simply enticed by the sale -- stopped by the store. Many knew the employees by name, and some leaned over the counter to exchange hugs. Thanks to the monthlong liquidation sale, most of the inventory was gone.
"So where are we supposed to get our stationery?" a man asked a cashier behind the counter.
Peter Schorer, a longtime Berkeley resident, had been coming to the store when it was still named after Radston, and had a few strong words for the university, which he believes failed to truly support small local businesses.
"Tell the management an old-timer really appreciated the store," he told the cashier before leaving with his last purchase.