Growing Up On Piedmont Avenue

By Anna Mindess
Friday December 21, 2007

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Lacking a village, I was fortunate to have, instead, Piedmont Avenue.  

In 1990, after a six-month sojourn in Paris, my husband Armand and I rented a cozy Craftsman house on Monte Vista Avenue, across the street from Piedmont Grocery and a half-block from Piedmont Avenue. I was still clinging to the civilized French daily ritual of visiting the local shops to buy fresh ingredients for dinner. I loved living across the street from a well-stocked independent grocery. It’s true they didn’t have the 365 varieties of cheese I had gotten used to in France, but they did have knowledgeable butchers who could advise me in an old-world style. 

We had everything we could possibly need within walking distance: library, post office, movie theater, yoga studio, drug store, stationery store, bookstore, cafes and plenty of charming restaurants. But it wasn’t until two years later when our daughter, Lila, was born (only a few blocks away, at Kaiser Oakland) that I really appreciated our little neighborhood. 

Since we had no relatives in the Bay Area, the shopkeepers and restaurant owners became like a second family to us. The intimate Japanese restaurant, Kotobuki, around the corner, was Lila’s first dining experience. We used to take her as an infant and place her in her bouncy seat on the large table in a semi-private, curtained-off room. We sat there bleary-eyed, taking turns jiggling her seat and nibbling on grilled eggplant appetizer and sushi. The kind owner, Katherine, would always come to greet us and remark on how much Lila had grown. Later when Lila, too, partook of eggplant and sushi, Katherine invariably made sure to slip her a free dessert of mochi ice cream balls. 

Another “honorary auntie” of Lila’s was Teresa, the stylish owner of the award-winning, yet family-friendly Chinese restaurant a little further down the street, Little Shin Shin. Teresa and Lila enjoyed an entire relationship that I was not privy to. Near the end of the meal, Teresa would usher Lila up to the front counter. She always returned to our table clutching a little bag of treats, jelly beans and fortune cookies. Lila would reciprocate by delivering Valentine cards to Teresa and bringing her tiny “lucky cats” to add to her collection near the cash register. 

The businesses on Piedmont Avenue still remind me of the many eras of Lila’s childhood. The gift store Surprise! was the center of her world during her Beanie Baby period. The donut store was her Shangri-la when rainbow sprinkle donuts became the ultimate temptation. I devised a plan. She could have one donut a week after her Saturday morning gymnastics class at Kids in Motion down the street. Lila started going to Kids in Motion at age two-and-a-half, soon after the owner Laura opened her center, housing a colorful collection of mats, bars, and trampolines. Lila took classes there for many years and celebrated a couple of birthday parties there too. 

The most magical day of the year was the Saturday of the Halloween parade when half a dozen blocks of Piedmont Avenue were closed to traffic. Lila joined the throng of costumed cuties marching down the middle of her beloved street behind the bagpiper and then dashing into her favorite stores for candy treats. 

Like the faint pencil marks on a doorframe marking a child’s growth, the stores on Piedmont Avenue became a measure of Lila’s growing independence —once I was willing to let her venture out alone or with a friend. When she was 9 or 10 she started a persistent line of questioning about when I would ever let her go to the market across the street by herself. I stalled and hedged and put her off. Finally, I was ready. One day, I surprised Lila by sending her across the street alone to get me something I needed to finish the dish I was cooking. As she returned, she proudly handed me not only the two onions I had asked her to buy, but also a single rose she had purchased at the market to thank me for finally allowing her to go. 

After 15 years of living near Piedmont Avenue, it was with mixed feelings that we decided to move to Berkeley last year. Not only were we sad to say goodbye to our cozy little house but also to bid farewell to all the shops, people and memories associated with Piedmont Avenue. Ironically, Lila has gotten her first paying job at (where else?) Kids in Motion Gymnastics, leading birthday parties on the weekends. I don’t really mind driving her there, because I can still visit my favorite butchers and get some advice for dinner.