Most Saturday mornings you can find Marty Schiffenbauer at the counter at Ozzie’s, the venerable soda fountain in the Elmwood Pharmacy at 2900 College Ave.
“I’m one of the very new customers,” he said. “I’ve only been going there 24 years.”
Like many Ozzie’s patrons, Schiffenbauer fears the loss of a unique community touchstone as economic realities bear down on the pharmacy and its tenant.
The charms of Ozzie’s run deep, spanning more than half a century.
Chuck Gresher discovered a lot of them when he paid his first visit last Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ve seen it a million times, but I’d never come inside. Today I was hungry and wanted to try something new,” Gresher said. “I’m glad I did. You get simple, good food, and you get to enjoy it in something that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I’ve been coming here for a long time, and it’s an excellent place,” said a woman who asked to be called “just Dawn.”
“Good food at reasonable prices in a very, very friendly, very, very Berkeley place” is a major attraction, she said.
Asked to name the eatery’s single best feature, she answered instantly: “Michael.”
Michael Hogan—“Mike” or “Mikey” to many of the folks who congregate at his counter—knew from the first, when he took over three and a half years ago, that he was stepping into some very big shoes.
Last of It’s Kind
Ozzie’s, it seems, is a rare breed, the Bay Area’s last authentic drug store soda fountain around, a neighborhood hangout with a solid crew of patrons, many of them regulars, some going back to Ozzie’s early days.
“It would be a real loss to the neighborhood to see it go away,” said Dawn.
But that’s the danger, and Michael Hogan said he is committed to rescuing a venerable Berkeley institution.
Ozzie’s gets its name from Charles Osborne, the soda fountain’s long-time former proprietor. He first stepped behind the counter in 1950 and gave the place his nickname.
And there was no doubt it was his place, starting with the picture on the menu: Ozzie wearing his World War II Army Air Force flying gear, standing beside a biplane trainer. Printed next to the photo are words from the most famous of World War II Air Force ballads, “We Live In Fame Or Go Down In Flame.”
And fame he got, as he piloted British-made Spitfire and American P-51 fighters in five invasion campaigns in the European Theater, downing enough German and Italian fighters in aerial duels to earn the coveted title of ace.
He didn’t figure on sticking around. Berkeley was just the latest stop in his search for a salubrious environment for his asthmatic son.
Osborne was looking for something to do when “the place was recommended to me by a friend who worked for Borden Ice Cream,” he said.
With Osborne’s arrival at the Elmwood Pharmacy, the fountain was transformed from a four-stool narrow affair at the back of the store into a congenial 16-stool counter running the length of the north wall, warmly lit by the store’s big windows.
And behind the counter, the fearsome aerial warrior proved a compassionate, genial figure who quickly earned a cherished spot in the hearts of his growing ranks of customers.
Osborne wasn’t looking to get rich, and his political instincts were as compassionate as his business practices.
Though he’d never intended to sink his roots into Berkeley soil, “there came a time when I couldn’t envision being anyplace else,” he said. “I’ve never been one to wish for a glut of money, and the prices were always quite reasonable.”
He and his customers’ lives had merged into a unique community.
Ozzie’s became “a touch-base for high school kids, for younger kids and for older retired neighbors,” he said.
As his politics edged Left, Ozzie’s became the meeting spot and petition central for Elmwood activists.
By 1982 he was serving the grandkids of some of his earlier patrons and had been an honored guest at the weddings of some of their parents. But other faces had vanished as the California real estate bubble drove out many fellow merchants from his earlier days in the Elmwood.
With word of impossible new rents, the end was in plain view.
That’s when his regulars became his champions.
Barbara Lubin was one such regular.
“Ozzie was the best friend of Barbara’s son, who had Down’s Syndrome,” Marty Schiffenbauer recalled. He became her de facto baby sitter, giving her a reliable, safe, and friendly environment where son was comfortable.
Lubin circulated a “Save Ozzie’s” petition, gathering signatures form all parts of Berkeley. During a chance encounter Schiffenbauer asked Lubin, “Why not a real petition?”
A petition to regulate commercial rents.
Voters supported two landmark initiatives that year, one rescheduling city elections from April to November, the other creating the nation’s first commercial rent control system.
Before long, “a third of all the businesses on the avenue were sold to their renters,” Osborne recalls.
Seven years later, a year after the California lawmakers passed legislation outlawing commercial rent control, Osborne called it quits.
“I’d stayed well beyond my Medicare eligibility,” Osborne, now 84, said. “And one day I just left, just like that.”
The wood frame structure, with its high ceilings and spacious interiors, went up on the corner of College Avenue and Russell Street in 1921, created by noted Berkeley builder John Bischoff. It’s been a focus of Elmwood neighborhood life ever since.
Fred Beretta took over the Elmwoord Pharmacy in the building beginning in 1923 and over time developed a friendly competition with the College Avenue Pharmacy, at College and Ashby, run by Charles Carter. Beretta’s son Leslie, who inherited the pharmacy, had an understanding with the Carter family: should one ever decide to sell, they would give the other the first option to buy.
This happened in 1960, when Beretta decided to sell and Carter packed up his store and moved a block north into the Elmwood Pharmacy. Osborne had been serving sandwiches and milk shakes for a decade already when Carter took over ownership.
Until last month, Victoria Carter, Charles’ daughter, ran the pharmacy and sundries side. She’d been in charge for 18 years.
But the pharmacy died last month, when harsh economic realities forced her to close the prescription department. Records went to Elephant Pharmacy on Shattuck Avenue, and today the shelves in Carter’s prescription department are largely empty.
The Elmwood Pharmacy had struggled in recent years, sapped by the same overwhelming forces that have closed thousands of independents across the country.
The culprits? Insurance companies and high rents.
“Pharmacies are the only businesses where a third party dictates what you can make,” Carter said. “They discount you so much that you simply can’t afford to fill a prescription.”
Carter said “it was very difficult” to close down the pharmacy, and it would be harder to close the store, and with it, Ozzie’s.
“The store’s been here 83 years, and we like to think it’s been important to the neighborhood. Everyone would like to have it remain, but I’m not sure if that’s feasible.”
And then there’s the lease, which runs out at the end of the year.
“This is a very unique neighborhood,” Carter said. “There aren’t many like this in the whole country. Business neighborhood-oriented. We have a bank, a cleaner’s, a theater, a hardware store and other convenience stores.
“Unfortunately, it’s also very, very expensive.”
Many of the older business are gone, as the Elmwood becomes ever-trendier place and rents soar, only a unique quota system remains to help the survivors.
Without more business, Carter said, “the future is very uncertain.”
The Gentle Optimist
Three-and-a-half years ago, Ozzie’s had been closed for several months and the regulars were starving for their old haunt. Another regular, Burl Willes—author of Tales of the Elmwood as well as the store history posted at www.ozziesfountain.com—stepped up to the plate.
Willes was a natural for the task after spearheading the drive to save the Elmwood Theater by creating a self-taxing business district.
The ideal candidate would be a lot like Ozzie, someone who cared about people, about community, someone who wasn’t out to make a fortune.
“When he asked me, I said yes,” Hogan said.
A native of Annapolis, Md., Hogan moved to Pacifica in 1995. “Before, I was a massage therapist, and I did non-profit law work for ten years,” he said.
But once behind the counter, he discovered his real niche.
“He’s made it his life,” Schiffenbauer said. “He’s been steadily improving the business, he’s kept up a lot of the traditions, the food is a lot fresher.”
“I think he’s done very well,” says Osborne. “He tries very hard to keep it open, and he certainly provides an adequate amount of food.”
“It’s our first time,” said Cory, sitting at the counter with Betty, her mother, last week. “I heard that the sandwiches were great. And as soon as she saw BLT on the menu, my mother had to try it.”
Asked why no last names were offered, Cory quipped, “We’re celebrities. We’re traveling incognito.”
So what about their BLTs?
“Really very good,” Cory said, “and it’s a very nice atmosphere. I like it.”
Not bad, considering Hogan’s previous experience in the restaurant world had been a brief dishwashing gig at age 14.
Above the shelves facing Hogan as he works is a row of album covers—all 50’s and early 60’s LPs from artists like Sinatra, Connie Francis, a very young Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee and Tennessee Ernie Ford. There’s even a favorite and rather ribald party album from 1960, Rusty Warren’s “Knockers Up,” not far from a poster for the cult, camp 1957 flick Reform School Girl.
He’s particularly fond of the cordless mechanical cash register, which outdates him.
“We’re on this corner near the entrance to the customer parking lot, and people coming to shop walk right by our front door. What’s most amazing to me is the number of people who walk by the corner and stop, slack-jawed,” Hogan said.
“When they walk in the door, they tell me they’re amazed that a place like this still exists.”
And what a place.
Walking for the first time into Hogan’s anyone near Social Security age who lived a childhood in the U.S. confronts an overwhelming sense of deja vu. To be sure, the chairs are cane, not woven wire, and the tables aren’t marble—but the essence was the same.
The long counter, the cast iron square pedestal stools with the revolving round vinyl cushions, the long counter topped with chrome-plated menu holders that serve as home base for the condiments, the tall glass chrome-topped sugar container and the even taller round glass straw holders, the kind with the straw-lifting chrome lids.
Rounding out the picture at 3 p.m. on a recent Wednesday afternoon were the customers, filling most of the seats, some munching on sandwiches accompanied by chips and a cup of salad, arrayed with a casual artfulness raises the deja vu tingle to near fever pitch.
Nearly every seat is taken, and customers are talking, writing, reading and eating—of sipping at ice cold malts and sodas, served up in heavy, stemmed tulip glasses.
And Hogan finds time to swap smiles and stories as he works on a pair of BLTs.
To most customers, it’s a instantly familiar place, even to the first time visitor.
First-time customers are frequent, many of them coming down from the Claremont in search of something different. Of the local first-timers, more and more are becoming regulars.
Learning of the impending changes, Hogan set to work—e-mailing his “counter contingency,” the regulars, asking for thousand dollars apiece as investments in a limited liability corporation that would own the business and pay to make it work.
Though interest was high, he soon realized he needed a serious feasibility study and specific proposals. That’s what he’s working on now, he said.
Whatever the plan’s specifics, he knows it’s his customers who’ll save Ozzie’s.
“They’re great,” he said, offering the warm smile that’s became familiar to his customers.
“Today we were short-handed when a big family came in. When they say how busy we were, they bused two tables themselves and had a wonderful time. They’re a very loyal and compassionate bunch, and some of them say that if we’re forced out they’ll never shop at whoever replaced us.”
He’s already got some ideas.
“I would expand the hours and double the seating capacity with twenty more places, and I’ve always wanted to be open Sunday because there are very few opportunities for breakfast around here and customers keep encouraging me to do it.”
He hopes to reopen the pharmacy, though cutting back on some of the sundries to open space for seating.
Pointing to the counter’s Formica top, he said “they’re still making this. And they’re still making the linoleum,” he added, casting his eyes down at the hints of black and white squares still visible in the spaces where they’re not been worn down to the wood by generations of feet.
Hogan also wants to restore the interior, filling in the gapes of lath, replacing leak-stained ceiling tiles and refinishing the wood. “I want to make it pretty again,” he said.
Restoration and bringing the cooking area up to full efficiency won’t be cheap. There’s the new freezers needed to hold a reasonable supply of the ice cream that goes into malts, shakes, sodas, sundaes and cones. There’s the stove and vent hood to prepare meals for a doubly large crowd.
While other parties have shown interest in the building—including one Fourth Street restrateur—Hogan said “I want to be a contender, and with the support of the community, I think we can do it.”
And one thing’s certain. He’s got a lot of folks pulling for him.
“I don’t know what I’d do with my Saturday mornings,” Schiffenbauer said, trying to imagine a life without Ozzie’s. “There’d be a big gap in my life, and in the lives of a lot of others.”
That there’s some reason for hope can be found literally right next door, when the vanished Avenue Books is returning in a new incarnation as Ms. Dalloway’s.
Though he’s living in Palo Alto these days, Ozzie Osborne remains in close touch with his band of regulars. He still throws the annual Valentine’s Day party he started in Berkeley 22 years ago.
“Every year about 40 of us gather. Hardly anyone’s ever missed one,” Osborne says.
Including Marty Schiffenbauer, who said, “He spends the year collecting the joke gifts he gives out at the party.”
Another Berkeley regular is carrying on with Osborne’s 4th of July fetes, when the old crowd exchange visits and calls with their long-time patron.
Though he’s 84 and has suffered some circulatory problems, Osborne’s stays busy. “I love landscaping, and I’m in charge of the grounds of a very large church,” he said. The site covers half a city block.
As for Ozzie’s, “it was a good lifetime for me. I was able to reach out to a lot of people and get involved in their lives—and they in mine.”