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Small Businesses Thrive in Berkeley’s Downtown Niches By Al Winslow Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Small-business niches are scattered through downtown Berkeley, occupied by people who know things the rest of us don’t. 

Family-owned Replica Copy has been at 2140 Oxford St. for seven years. The small, high-tech shop sits at the edge of a restaurant district. Across a narrow sidewalk and four lanes of traffic, there is a view of the back wall of a University of California sports stadium. 

“It doesn’t look like a very good location,” I said. 

“Oh, it’s a wonderful location,” said co-owner Kavita Dhir. She motioned to the left of the stadium wall, where a road and walkway curved up into the woodlands below the main campus. 

Most of her regular customers come down that way, she said—students to copy textbooks at four cents a page and professors with writings to be duplicated, collated, and bound into book form. 

“We do a lot of books,” she said. 

A block away, Shihadeh Kitami, co-owner of Razan’s Organic Kitchen at 2119 Allston Way, stares at one of the restaurant’s inside walls. Termites—apparently—had devoured the lower struts and it wasn’t clear what was holding the wall up. 

“I don’t want to pay $2,000 to fix this. I can do it myself,” said Kitami, who didn’t know how to do it. 

“It can’t be that hard,” I said, not knowing how to do it either. 

After four days and many mistakes and discussions about tactics, a new and redundantly buttressed wall was put up. 

Kitami, skilled at figuring things out as he goes along, started as a dishwasher at a San Francisco restaurant, worked as a cashier at Fred’s Market on University Avenue, operated a food cart at Sproul Plaza for several years, and opened his all-organic restaurant with his wife, Siham Zumot, in 1998. The restaurant expanded two years ago. 

Kitami’s business philosophy is: “You have to love your customers and they have to love you.”  

Customers make themselves at home, toting in infants and other small children. moving the tables around, chatting with the cooks. 

Such casualness makes small businesses endearing and enduring, said John Gordon, a downtown Berkeley real estate agent for 20 years. 

“What makes a neighborhood great are small businesses, someone who cares when you walk into the store, who says, ‘Hi, how you doing.’” 

When Comic Relief lost its lease after 18 years in a long, narrow store on upper University Avenue, Gordon helped the popular comic book business move into a building he owns at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Addison Street. The small business occupies a large space at 2280 Fulton St., filled with more than 75,000 volumes. 

Owner Rory Root, who has read and sold comic books most of his life, said: “Comic books are a medium, not a genre. They can communicate anything—from Doonsebury to erotica, Superman to Japanese coming-of-age comics popular with young girls. 

Two first issues of Spiderman, printed in 1963 and protected in plastic, sell for $6,000 and $30,000. 

Root said most customers are aged 18 to 35. Some older ones want to know the ending of stories they lost track of years ago, he said. Does the Silver Surfer finally betray Galactus and side with the Fantastic Four to save the universe? “Yes,” Root says, pointing to the place on the shelves where the adventure unfolds. 

Walking down Fulton Street where it meets Bancroft, it’s hard to tell what the small store at 2280 is about. Boxes of old Life magazines sit near the doorway and sometimes the inside is neat and sometimes it is a clutter of coins, china, silver candlesticks, teapots, plates, salt-shakers and endlessly so on, with barely room to walk. It looks like someone is moving in or moving out but has looked like that for much of the 18 years it has been in business. 

A business card on the front door explains: “The Berkeley Collectible Shop.” 

George Klimacek, the owner and only employee, buys most of his inventory at estate sales. He sells much of it to other dealers. One of them, Ted Neima, owner of a collectible shop in Vacaville, said Klimacek is astute and honest. When he sells you something, “if there’s something wrong with it he tells you,” Neima said. 

Klimacek, who collected coins as a kid, said: “The first time I went to an auction, all I knew about was coins. I learned by trial and error and what I do now is try to find auction house mistakes.” He’s at his shop Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons, and sometimes on Tuesdays.  

Call first: 848-3199.