It’s older than the Campanile, older than Sather Gate, older than the city of Berkeley itself. And on Aug. 30 Gorman & Son Furniture, a Telegraph Avenue fixture that grew out of a tragic fire and an immigrant’s pluck, will pack up and leave town.
The shop, run by four generations of Gormans before owners Chuck and Andrea Rosenberg bought it six years ago, will move to 3400 Broadway in Oakland, and sit alongside the car dealerships of Auto Row.
Berkeley old-timers said they are sad to see it go.
“All of us newlyweds, 30 or 40 years ago, depended on that place to furnish our homes,” said long-time Berkeley resident Heidi Seney. “I’m going to miss it, because I thought it was an honest business, a good business.”
The 2599 Shattuck Ave. building, a ramshackle wood structure that includes a converted horse stable and a hodge-podge of additions, dates back to at least 1876, according to a written history prepared several years ago by neighbor Patricia Dacey, with help from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, when the city moved to landmark the building.
Chuck Rosenberg said he had an opportunity to buy the three-story structure when he took over the furniture business in 1997, but decided to rent instead. The old building, he explained, is susceptible to fire and earthquake.
“We’re four blocks from the Hayward fault and if that ever went off...the building would collapse,” he said.
About two years ago, the Gorman family sold the building to Berkeley developer Ali Kashani and local architect Kava Massih, who plan to restore the facade, spiff up the first floor retail space and put four housing units on the second and third floors, which currently serve as storage space.
With the developers hoping to start work this fall, the Rosenbergs have signed a five-year lease on the 3400 Broadway property—taking up the residence of an old competitor that recently went out of business, the Saw Mill furniture store.
Chuck Rosenberg said he’s been expecting the move for years and is looking forward to the new space. But he is eyeing a possible satellite store in the old Telegraph Avenue building when the restoration is complete.
“Gorman’s is a Berkeley institution,” Chuck Rosenberg said.
The store, according to Dacey’s history, began in 1876 as a small furniture and upholstery outfit operated by John Gorman, an Irish immigrant who made stops in New York, Chicago and San Francisco before settling in Berkeley with his wife Margaret Carter.
Gorman’s first big break came during his first year in business when Berkeley’s old “Dumb and Blind Asylum,” which later became the California School for the Deaf and Blind, burned down. The upholsterer, who had learned his craft as a teenager in Ireland, got the contract for providing all the mattresses for the rebuilt institution.
In the 1890s Gorman’s son Wesley joined the company as an undertaker. Undertaking and furniture-making were often intertwined in those days, according to Dacey’s history, as it was the local furniture-maker who was best qualified to construct coffins.
Gorman’s served as an anchor for a Telegraph Avenue commercial area that was growing rapidly at the turn of the century. A May 1901 article from the old Berkeley Gazette newspaper chronicled the transition.
“The heretofore quiet and unassuming neighborhood near Dwight and Telly has evolved into a busy and disquieting scene of commercial activity,” a correspondent wrote. “The click of the hammer and the hum of the saw” leads one “old resident” to “fancy that the business center will be transferred from Berkeley Station to Dwight Way and Telly.”
As the district grew, Wesley Gorman’s son, Wesley Robert Gorman, succeeded his father in the firm, and his sons, Bob and Gary, ran the shop until 1997 when the Rosenbergs took over.
Andrea Rosenberg said the couple had been looking for some time for a business to buy when they came upon Gorman’s, and were quickly enamored with the place.
“When we walked in the door, I think the first thing we noticed was how great it smelled—the wood,” she said.
After taking it over, the couple built on a long-standing reputation for honesty and customer service.
General manager Bob Maass, who has worked at the store since 1975, recalls an elderly woman who bought a large mattress from the store several years ago.
“A few weeks later she called and said, ‘This mattress has to be flipped doesn’t it? You guys do that, don’t you?,’” Maass recalled.
So the staff drove out to her house and flipped the mattress—the first of many such visits.
“She’d call every few months and say, ‘this is Grandma,’” Maass remembered with a laugh.
Andrea Rosenberg said the locals, after all these years, view Gorman’s as a resource for all kinds of household projects. “People call us with the strangest things—‘I know you sell furniture, but you’ve been there for so long. Do you know someone who can refurbish a bathtub?’”
At the end of the month, shoppers will have to take their questions—about mattresses and bathtubs—to Oakland. The Gorman’s staff is hopeful that loyal customers will keep coming, but they say they’ll miss the old green building on Telegraph Avenue.
“You become attached to a building,” said Maass. “You become attached to the people you see everyday.”