Public Comment

Where Will All the Flowers Go?

By Conn Hallinan
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 06:56:00 PM

Ashby Flowers, the tiny store on the southwest corner of Telegraph and Ashby, is one of those places that (you can supply the cliché) “saves your bacon,” “covers your butt,” “salvages a bad moment,” when you suddenly realize that you forgot (take your choice): Valentines’ Day, Mother’s Day, spouse’s birthday, anniversaries, or whatever special moment you need to commerorate with plant life.  

For 60 years the little hole-in-the-wall, with a rather amazing selection of flowers at very reasonable prices, has salvaged marriages, marked important dates, or filled hospital rooms at nearby Alta Bates. The current owners—Marcy Simon and Iraj Misaghi—bought the shop in 1995, and the place is decorated with “Best” awards from the East Bay Express and the Bay Guardian. 

The last time I was in there, Simon was anxious about a customer who had sat in the Alta Bates Emergency for five hours without being seen. When the young woman came into the store to report that she had had it with Alta Bates and was off to see her own doctor, Simon actually wrung her hands and confided, “I’m worried about her.” 

Very Berkeley.  

But if the Whole Foods behemoth on whose parking lot Ashby Flowers sits gets its way, the cheapest, quickest and arguably friendliest flower store in Berkeley will be ripped up by the roots come July 31. 

And why? Well, Whole Foods is not exactly saying, except that it is a “business decision.” And Whole Foods is definitely about “business.” Based in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods is the 55th largest retailer in the country, with more than 270 locations nationwide (and spreading internationally). The company wraps its pricy produce—its nickname is “Whole Paycheck”—in environmental correctness, except if you happen to want to join a union. Then the company shows its claws. 

When Whole Foods took over the old co-op market, the company dumped the Food and Commercial Workers Union in favor of promoting “team member happiness and excellence,” a phrase that should make everyone reach for a picket line. The unions in Berkeley did, but they couldn’t crack Whole Food’s anti-union, libertarian CEO, John Mackey. Whole Foods beat back a similar effort in Madison, Wisconsin, where organizers accused the company of union busting. 

Whole Earth claims it pays its full-time workers competitive salaries and gives them health care. But of course there is no union contract or grievance procedure just in case you disagree with the boss on the definition of “happiness and excellence.” 

When local supermarket chains signed on to a drive by the United Farm Workers Union to improve wages and working conditions for strawberry workers, Whole Foods refused. Instead the company had a day when it gave a certain percentage of its sales to organizations providing social services to farmworkers.  

As I said, Whole Foods doesn’t like unions. 

While the company will not own up on what it intends to do with Ashby Flowers, it denies that it is trying to drive the store out of business. “The store [Whole Foods] sells pre-made bouquets, plants and herbs. It does not make custom bouquets or do deliveries.” Except, of course, that Ashby Flowers also sells pre-made bouquets, and getting rid of the store will simply mean that customers who would like to use their imagination in making up a bouquet will have to pay higher prices some place else. Much higher prices. 

According to Simon and Misaghi, Whole Foods plan is to put in a coffee shop, which will put considerable stress on two quite good local coffee shops, Mokka and Mudrakers.  

This area of south Berkeley is a kind of retail hell. The northwest corner has a defunct camera store (that morphed into several other things before being boarded up), and the northeast corner is a dead gas station. Mokka has good coffee, pastries, killer Panini, and a nice, relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. Mokka is owned by Berkeley residents Susan and Michael Iida, and has a staff of nine. Mudrakers, which adds salads and sandwiches to its lineup of coffee and pastry, is much the same. According to owner Hazim Bazian, the place runs on a staff of two.  

A coffee shop run by a retail mega-giant will swamp the two of them, making it impossible to get decent coffee without going up to College Avenue. Unless, of course, one wants to sip union-busting grounds. 

Ashby Flowers co-owner Iraj Misaghi says the couple and their two employees are just trying to survive. “We’ve lived here 20 years. We have a house, a mortgage. This store is our life.” 

So how does one stop Godzilla from driving several small businesses into the ground? Well, for one thing you can stop by Ashby Flowers and sign the petition and ask what you can do to help out. You can also take this issue to the City Council, where helping local businesses against retail giants ought to be a concern. And since Whole Foods is not about to bail from the lucrative Berkeley market because the Council comes to the defense of Ashby Flowers, such a move won’t hurt our tax base.  

In the middle of the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, Ashby Flowers may seem like small potatoes. But when times get hard, that’s when you need reasonably priced flowers delivered by nice people. 


Conn Hallinan has lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years.