This week we were sorry to learn that a key downtown Berkeley retailer is going out of business. We got the bad news in a press release:
“Primarily because of diminishing support from its largest and oldest customer, UC Berkeley, ALKO owner Gary Shows has decided to close the business. ALKO has served Berkeley and the East Bay in its current business entity since 1964, Shows has been with ALKO since 1972. ALKO employs four full time and four part time staff.”
Alko was one of the Berkeley Daily Planet’s largest and oldest advertisers, and we returned the favor when we were in print and had an office by purchasing our supplies there, but of course our business with the office supply store was nothing compared to U.C.’s.
And U.C. wasn’t the only Berkeley customer that let Alko down. You can read the whole sad history of Alko’s last ten years if you search on its name in the Planet archives.
Way back in 2005 Zelda Bronstein, then writing the Planet’s local Public Eye column, researched and revealed what the headline called The University of California and the Wal-Mart Effect.
Here’s the gist of it:
“ Lately we’ve been hearing from City Hall that when the council settled the city’s lawsuit against the university last May, it got UC to agree to buy more goods and services from Berkeley businesses.There were various iterations of this discussion in the eight intervening years—the city of Berkeley also shifted its business to out of town chains in 2006 (Office Depot Beats Out Local Vendors for City Contract, by Suzanne La Barre). In those years the Buy Local concept got a lot of lip service around the country as well as in Berkeley, but the market share of local suppliers in most places continued to erode.
'If only it were so. What the university administration actually promised was to “develop and implement within a reasonable time a local-purchasing program for prioritizing the purchase of goods and services in Berkeley”—and here’s the catch—“to the extent permissible under existing law and UC practices” (settlement agreement, Sections V.B. and D). In fact, recent changes in the university’s procurement practices and policies mean that Berkeley vendors will be selling fewer goods and services to the campus.
'The new reality began to dawn on one long-time independent Berkeley businessman and UC supplier this fall. In September, Gary Shows, the owner of the Alko office supply store in downtown Berkeley, sent UCB Associate Vice Chancellor Ron Coley a letter wondering why the campus’s Strategic Sourcing Program had “been actively encouraging and in some cases insisting that UCB Departments (our customers) buy supplies from OfficeMax instead of us” [emphasis in original]. Alko had been provisioning UCB for almost a century. But in the new program, the store’s “services apparently were not even considered. In my 35 years with ALKO,” Shows wrote, “I have never seen a single vendor so singularly supported the way [OfficeMax] is. I cannot believe that this policy reflects the will of the Regents of the University of California.”
The late Councilmember Dona Spring made a valiant effort to turn this around, as reported in a 2006 commentary by council candidate Elliot Cohen, but councilmembers Bates, Maio, Wozniak, Capitelli and Anderson voted her proposal down. Meanwhile, Radston’s, the other big Berkeley office supply business, closed its doors too.
In 2007 the Staples chain moved into a downtown building with a big parking lot. Alko was game to compete, according to a Planet story by Judith Scherr. But the company’s best efforts didn’t pan out.
Last July Gary Shows announced that the store would be closed, but the business would remain open. Now it’s turned out that even without a storefront to support it seems to be impossible for a local business to compete against the chains for the big contracts. Shows says that “Elmwood Stationers on College Avenue in Berkeley will be taking over many of ALKO’s services.”
Local residents have lost many independent businesses in the last couple of decades. When we moved to Elmwood College Avenue had not only a stationery store, but a hardware store, a variety store, two pharmacies and a shoe repair, now all gone, replaced by boutiques, tchotchke vendors and fly-by-night restaurants. Then we could walk to do most of our errands, but now most often we have to drive instead.
What’s to become of Alko’s building? According to the press release:
“The building housing ALKO office supply has been sold. It is noteworthy that the 1908 building until now has always housed an office supply retailer. It will be exciting to see what the new owner of the beautiful old building has in mind.”
I don’t know what kind of protection for the building itself is in place, but I fear it could be torn down to be replaced by yet another rabbit warren marketed to gullible students or by luxury condos for San Francisco BART commuters with unlimited incomes.
It’s noteworthy that at no time in his company’s long struggle to survive did Gary Shows join the chorus of inept downtown businesses which have tried to blame the city’s homeless street population for woes actually caused by the larger economic picture. In fact, Alko was one of the businesses which endorsed the successful “Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down” campaign against the Downtown Business Association’s November anti-sitting ballot measure.
This is no surprise: the business owner has always had plenty of backbone. When he was threatened by a fanatic participating in the long-running hate campaign against the Planet, he told us about it but didn’t cancel his ads.
What’s next? You still have a couple of weeks to do some honest business with an honest businessman of the old school:“To clear merchandise out of the building a clearance sale will begin on April 8th and continue through the month with increasing discounts. The public is invited to participate in the sale. ALKO will continue commercial delivery service through April 30th.”
Drop by if you’re downtown to tell the folks at Alko that some of us in Berkeley appreciate everything they’ve done for us all these years. The address is 2225 Shattuck.