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Stained glass business still going strong after 25 years

By Matthew Lorenz
Tuesday July 31, 2001

When she opened the Stained Glass Garden in 1976, Joan McLean probably didn’t intend to stay in business for 25 years. But artists and art-lovers in Berkeley and beyond say they are glad she has. 

The airy, white, upper reaches of the store’s space – always crowded with colored glass and light – could not have been more crowded Friday night than the feet-covered floor beneath. Bubbling with talk and drink, guests came to celebrate a store, a rare combination of artistic craft and retail product, and the woman who made it all possible. 

The Stained Glass Garden was the first retail store on Fourth Street in west Berkeley, and it got started mainly because, inspired by visits to some of the great cathedrals of Europe, McLean and her friends would get together in her garage and make stained glass windows.  

The garage just wasn’t big enough. 

“We wanted to be able to afford the glass, and it was cheaper to set up a business and get a retail license and teach our friends,” said Mel Honowitz. 

Back then, Fourth Street was a bit different.  

“The only (commercial space) in this area that was of any note back in the ’70s was Spenger’s,” he said. “The rest of it was just old buildings that had fallen down.”  

Mayor Shirley Dean had evidence of how far the area has come. 

“The Fourth Street shopping area has been declared, by Metropolitan (Home Magazine), as one of the 10 best shopping areas in the United States,” Dean said, “and that really has a lot to do with people like Joan (McLean).” 

What makes the Stained Glass Garden all the more remarkable, is that, when an area flourishes as much as Fourth Street has, it usually doesn’t bode well for the first small shops there at the beginning, said Gillian Herbert, who also owns a stained-glass retail establishment.  

About eight years ago the affluence of the Fourth Street district began to challenge the financial stability of the Stained Glass Garden, McLean said, and at that time, it became clear that some business changes had to be made.  

“For me (the artistic side of) this job is easy, because I have the art background with composition and color,” she said. “The thing I had to learn was how to manage and run a business and be an extrovert when I’m basically an introvert.” 

McClean did it. And not only did the Stained Glass Garden maintain its rightful place at a sought-after location, it did so with its rather unorthodox product.  

“I don’t know of any other stained glass store that’s been open for 25 years,” said Peter Dunk, a stained glass artist who teaches at the store. “That’s a good record. It’s proven to be a real success story.” 

Gillian Herbert isn’t surprised, though the picture she draws of McLean is not that of the typical business person. Herbert worked at the Stained Glass Garden for a while, and spoke of the day she told McLean of her plans to open her own shop, also in the Bay Area. 

“I had a certain amount of trepidation,” Herbert said, “since I was going to be maybe perceived as a competing business.” 

But McClean wasn’t at all angry, Herbert said; instead she smiled, saying how glad she was that working at the Stained Glass Garden had had such a positive impact on Herbert and her artistic growth. 

“For me that just kind of summed up the ethics of Joan McLean, and how she moves through the world,” Herbert said. “That she very much looks for the other person’s good, being fair in how she works with them.” 

Herself a stained-glass artist, though now only part time, Herbert shared the thing she most loves about creating stained glass. 

“What I enjoy about it is the immediacy,” she said. “With so much of the work we do in our culture today, we don’t see the end result.” 

With her store of artwork, McClean has.