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End of an Era in Elmwood?

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 01, 2008
The former Elmwood Pharmacy may be closing its doors.
Richard Brenneman
The former Elmwood Pharmacy may be closing its doors.

The transformation of Berkeley’s Elmwood commercial district into a trendy amalgam of restaurant row and upscale shopping district may be moving another step forward. 

One of the neighborhood’s oldest merchants is giving up the ghost, the former Elmwood Pharmacy, for decades the home of the now-vanished Ozzie’s. 

Shop owner Victoria Carter, the second generation of her family to own the business, is selling off her inventory, including the glassware of Ozzie’s, a popular soda fountain that occupied a fifth of her floor space. 

Asked on the record to confirm the closing, Carter declined comment Thursday, but was overheard telling a customer that she was closing in the near future. 

The building which houses the business and Mrs. Dalloway’s, a popular upscale bookshop, is owned by Hal Brandel, a Berkeley man who is also part-owner of Cafe Trieste’s Berkeley outpost at San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way. 

Elmwood Pharmacy opened its doors in 1921. Carter’s father, who ran another drug store in the Elmwood, consolidated the two businesses in 1960, handing over the reins to his daughter 26 years later. 

Carter had signed a five-year lease three years ago, but closed her pharmacy business in August 2004. She told the Daily Planet at the time that prescription pricing dictated by insurance companies had made continued operation impossible. 

In the years since, the business, renamed Elmwood Health & Mercantile, offered over-the-counter medication and sundries, while Ozzie’s, a cherished neighborhood institution, struggled through a series of operators before finally closing for good last year. 

Just what will happen with the building remains in question, given that the city use permit for food service use covers less than a fourth of the floor area and the building has no provisions for full-service cooking. 

One neighbor, who declined to be quoted by name, noted that the building does not have handicapped accessible bathrooms nor space for walk-in refrigerators and other equipment needed by a restaurant.  

Food for Ozzie’s customers had been prepared on a plug-in electric griddle designed for home use. 

The building itself was constructed at the southwest corner of the intersection of College Avenue and Russell Street in 1921 by noted Berkeley builder John Bischoff. 

Fred Beretta took over ownership of Elmwood Pharmacy at the site two years later, and operated the business until 1960, when he sold to Carter’s father, who was then running his own drug store at the corner of College and Ashby, the site now occupied by Roma Cafe. 

Brandel, who has owned the building since the early 1980s, said he hasn’t received official word of the closing, “but I have heard it may close by the end of April or mid-May.” He said he’d heard of the possible closing from Dave Fogarty of the city’s economic development office. 

As for the future of the ground-floor commercial space, Brandel said nothing is certain, “though there are a few ideas floating around.” 

One possible notion “if we could work it out” would be to use part of the space, including the square footage allotment for the soda fountain, to extend the floor area of Mrs. Dalloway’s next door to the south. 

Brandel said one obstacle Carter had faced was that, unlike her father, she wasn’t a pharmacist, and she found it increasingly difficult to keep a pharmacist on her staff. 

“Finally she sold her customer list to Elephant Pharmacy,” he said. 


Ozzie’s legacy 

It was another crisis over the fate of Ozzie’s and Elmwood Pharmacy that gave rise to Berkeley’s short-lived program of commercial rent control. 

An announcement of a substantial rent increase in 1982 threatened to bring the imminent demise of the business and mobilized Ozzie’s regulars such as Marty Schiffenbauer and Barbara Lubin to circulate petitions headed “Save Ozzie’s” on behalf of a ballot initiative. 

Berkeley voters embraced the measure, which was then defeated seven years later when a more conservative state legislature outlawed commercial rent control. 

Ozzie’s was named for Charles Osborne, a World War II fighter pilot who took over the soda fountain in 1950 and became a beloved figure in the community. After he left Berkeley 13 years ago, several operators tried in vain to make a success of the fountain, but a short business day, high rents and lack of kitchen facilities may have combined to doom the enterprise..