Don’t go to the Berkeley Stamp Company to beef up your postage stamp collection.
“We get people in every so often looking for that,” said owner W. H. Ellis, with a smile. The modest store with the sign that boasts “Since 1929” caters not to philatelists but to corporations, turning out office signs, name plates and plaques.
And don’t mention retirement to Ellis, who turns 89 this month and has been with the company from the beginning.
A slight but active man with twinkling brown eyes, Walter Herbert Ellis was just 17 when his father, Herbert Ellis, was laid off from his job as an office manager on the eve of the Great Depression. The senior Ellis decided to launch his own office-supply business from the basement of the family home on Josephine Street, and the younger Ellis, third of seven children, went to work for his dad.
It wasn’t always fun working in such close quarters, Ellis said. But the H.R. Ellis Company grew slowly and steadily. H.R. Ellis retired in the late 1940s and his son took over, moving the company into a University Avenue storefront in 1952, where it has remained ever since. He changed the name to Berkeley Stamp Company, but the vintage sign hanging outside proudly reminds passersby that this is a company that’s been around for more than 70 years.
Ellis’ family spans quite a stretch of history. His parents met on Alcatraz when the island served as an Army base. His mother was a San Francisco native and his father came from Pennsylvania to fight in the Spanish-American War. Ellis was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Berkeley. He remembers the Key Route System that preceded BART, and says his father gave the Westbrae station its name. “The sign said Albany, but it wasn’t in Albany, it was in Berkeley,” he said. “My father wrote (officials) a letter and suggested Westbrae.”
Ellis graduated from Berkeley the year after his father began the company, and worked at the business until 1943, when he enlisted in the Navy. After three years on a troop transport ship, he came back to Berkeley and the family business. Soon thereafter, his father turned the reins over to him.
When Ellis began working for his father, print jobs meant setting type by hand. The company made rubber stamps using a vulcanizing machine that pressed the rubber into molds. The vulcanizer, long unused, still sits in a back corner of the shop, near a stack of metal molds that are also gathering dust.
Today, it’s all done by computer. On a recent day, employee Steve Patton was seated at the computer, pulling up a fancy font for an engraved invitation. On a nearby desk are scattered colorful plastic name tags, some for a church, some for a local pet food store. Patton simply scans the company logo and engraves it on the tags using a laser machine.
While technology has made work easier, it’s also taken its toll on the business. “It’s dropped off quite a bit,” Ellis said, musing back over the past few decades. “The computers have taken over.”
There is far less demand for personalized stationery, business cards, or other documents, which professionals can now create on their own desktops. Business rubber stamps are slowly becoming extinct. Where Ellis once employed eight people, he now has a staff of three. The business today is mostly name plates and plaques, such as one listing the winners in an area bowling league. Major clients include the University of California and Peet’s Coffee, which buys individualized labels for its various coffee blends.
Ellis still works full time every day. But he says he’s planning to cut back to half time, any day now. “My wife wants to see more of me.” He fairly beams when he mentions his second wife, Patricia, an organist at the Unitarian Church in Kensington. He met her about seven years ago, following the death of his first wife. “I wish you could meet Pat,” he says, looking around as if she might appear. “She’s really something.” He speaks with pride of her many abilities – she keeps the books for the store – and her large social circle. “You wouldn’t believe how many people she knows – oh, it’s amazing.”
His wife’s music and social engagements will certainly keep him busy in semi-retirement, and Ellis has projects of his own. “I need to catch up on my reading,” he said. “I follow the stock market.” Though he has no children of his own, he speaks warmly of his stepson, and his stepdaughter, whom he recently gave away at her marriage. His zest for life clearly remains undiminished. He speaks with delight of his home in Kensington, which has Bay views and shade trees.
But don't expect W. H. Ellis to spend all his time at home. Retiring completely from the job he’s held since he was a teenager seems inconceivable. “I like coming in here, seeing the customers and talking to them.”