The Star of the neighborhood celebrates birthday

By Neil G. Greene, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 20, 2002

Berkeley’s Star Grocery celebrated its 80th birthday yesterday, with balloons, friends, music and food for all. 

Founded in 1922 by brothers Jimmy and Nick Pappas, the market has kept residents of the Claremont neighborhood well fed and steeped in a unique sense of community. 

“I just tried to be a neighborhood store with a sense of immediate community, with service and fun,” said store owner Nick Pappas, 56, who grew up around the corner. 

Yesterday Pappas mingled in the crowed aisles and sidewalk, shaking hands and shooting the breeze amidst fine music performed by the Bella Music Quintet and Crowden School Chamber Ensemble. 

Pappas took over the store in January of 1974 from his father. All who knew both Pappas men say there is little difference between the appearance of the store and manor in which its run now. 

“Jimmy Pappas was a saint, the most beautiful man in the world,” said Jean Kistner, a store employee from 1948 to 1951. “And nothing has changed. Everything is in place. I used to stock the shelves and I could do it today.” 

While the size of Star pales in comparison to larger corporate supermarkets, the atmosphere is grand. 

It has a down-home feel in its fully stocked, highly diversified shelves. The market is replete with kind and knowledgeable employees, beaming fresh vegetables, and a wide array of food ranging from Ragu to organic salad dressing and Kasugai Roasted Hot Green Peas. 

Polly Armstrong, councilmember for District 8, said Star is where many neighborhood kids make their first solo voyages into the world. 

“For people who live close by, it’s one of the first independent trips they can take. They get a dollar and buy an onion or a quart of milk. It’s a wonderful center of the neighborhood,” she said. 

And according to locals, Star acts as a makeshift barometer for how well the neighborhood, and Berkeley is faring. 

Jimmy Pappas was known to keep families fed during the Great Depression, and Nick Pappas did his share during the Oakland Hills Fire. And while these events may put an immediate dent in store revenue, it is loyalty from Pappas and Star customers that keeps both sides smiling. 

Mary Spivey has been shopping at Star for 30 years. She remembers tight times as a single mother when Star helped her keep food on the table. 

“I just used to sign the tab and take food home,” said Spivey. “Nick is so casual about the whole thing,” she said, adding that Pappas has also been known to give loans to neighborhood kids waiting for their paychecks. 

Both Star and Pappas received a birthday present with the re-lighting of the store’s neon sign, which has sat in the dark since the mid-70’s. Funds for the sign’s restoration were lead by customers who wanted to do something kind for the market that keeps on giving. 

Julian Hodges lives across the street from Star, and helped lead the effort to raise more than $5,300. He now jokingly hopes the green neon lights won’t keep him up at night. 

By canvassing the streets and storefronts, Hodges and others were able to raise enough money to pay for the sign’s repairs and yesterday’s celebration.  

“There’s a fierce loyalty to the grocery. [Jimmy Pappas] grub-staked many families in the depression,” said Hodges. Even to this day, he added, Nick Pappas continues to carry the groceries to his kitchen table. 

Pappas is also known for employing neighborhood children who many local parents don’t want to see working at Safeway for their first job. There is always an interesting array of teenage characters, said Hodges, sometimes resembling a Fellini film. 

It seemed that all present yesterday were enjoying themselves, even employees on the clock. 

“I fell in love the first day I walked in,” said Butcher Tim Chauvin. He noted how Star’s customer interaction differs from many of the larger food stores in the area. At the larger stores, there is no one to speak to before making a purchase, he explained. 

“Here we have personal interaction. This is real Berkeley,” Chauvin said.