Taking Art to the Streets: Vendors of Telegraph Avenue

From hotshot salesman retailing $300,000 blazers at Loro Piana to street vendor handcrafting copper wire imitations of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, John Schtakleff rose to Telegraph Avenue stardom for his object art. Equally acknowledged among handicraft enthusiasts is self-taught ceramist Russell Andavall, who draws tourists and local press to his pottery stand with glazed designs resembling the cosmos.

Each member of the Berkeley street art community has a story to tell.

History of Telegraph Street Vendors

Even beyond individual artisans, the community itself has withstood “several wars to get street vending,” according to Andavall. It, too, has a dynamic history dating back to the 1960s.

According to a curated digital archive, the first Berkeley street vendors emerged in 1967. The co-founders of Cody’s Books on 2476 Telegraph donated part of their private property to street merchants, allowing them to legally navigate around the “peddlers’ law” that would have otherwise forced them to move their stalls every five minutes. As the number of vendors grew, they began to butt heads with established business owners. In 1970, the vendors successfully enacted the first street vending ordinance after months spent in discussion with city officials.

Since then, the community, once a bustling horde of aspiring artists and craftsmen, has dwindled down to a handful of vendors.

Development Over the Decades: Various Perspectives

“Twenty years ago, there was a three-year waiting list to get a license,” recounted Andavall, who had been selling pottery in Berkeley since 1973. “There would be about a hundred vendors out here every weekend.”

In a nutshell, “this place was a zoo.”

The jam-packed streets two decades ago called for vendors to be unrelenting in the fight for limited spaces to set up shop in. Nowadays, they can dominate large areas of sidewalk space to showcase their handcrafted creations. Schtakleff, who received his license as a hobby business six years ago added: “I heard people used to fight for a four-foot space. And now look at me, I can go more than eight if I want to.”

Some locals have testified to the steep decline in artisanal street sellers, but what lies as the root cause?

Andavall reduced the factors down to a single issue he believes to be the main culprit behind the community’s shrinking numbers: the loss of parking lots to university-funded urban development. To him, that means less parking for vendors and customers alike. Calling the situation “hideous”, he expressed distaste at the $40 parking fees and gouging lots that are left.

However, Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, disagreed. He explained that the merchants’ complaints regarding parking are “just not true.” Records of the Telegraph Channing Garage reveal how it is rarely full, with the exception of game days. Instead, Baker attributes the source of a declining vendor population to the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

“You just cannot make it unless you bring in a lot of money,” he said. “Most vendors that I know who left (6–8) have all moved to cheaper cities and that was their reason.”

Obtaining a Business License

Additionally, the challenge for vendors on Telegraph doesn’t rest solely on appealing to pedestrians and securing sales. Even before that, to get a chance to showcase their porcelain dishes and wire-wrapped crystal jewelry, vendors must catch the eye of city representatives when applying for a street vending license.

The process is detailed on the City of Berkeley’s webpage and could take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year and consists of three stages. First, applicants must acquire a California Seller’s Permit. When approved, they move on to the screening process, during which samples of finished works, works in progress and raw materials are presented before a city representative. Only after completing those steps can applicants apply for a City of Berkeley Business License that costs $25 for registration and another $240 for annual renewal. Once sellers obtain official “street vendor” status, they join the community in hitting the streets to share their craft.

A Community United by Passion

With fewer vendors around, those that share the streets today have woven a tight-knit network of their own.

When asked about his daily routine, Schtakleff put it simply: “All you have to do is set up and be nice with everyone — with your friends,” he said, gesturing to his vending neighbors across the street. “Everybody knows each other.”

Their close relations also boil down to the fact that “vendors are pretty gregarious”, in the words of Andavall, who joked that “there’s a good bit of flirting that goes on.”

At first glance, not many would know that John Schtekleff and Russell Andavall, both veteran street vendors, lead polar opposite lives. One regards street vending as “the best job in the world”, while the other has been lost in a depressive episode for the past year while trying to make a living.

However, the two share one defining commonality that is true for most — if not all — in the street vending community: a passion for the art they create. For Schtekleff, the infinite potential of his craft is what keeps his brain alive and his life full.

“The sky is the limit,” he said. “You can do anything.”

Andavall, in response to questions about why he continues to make and sell art, said: “I’m insane. Who would do this? Yesterday, I sold $50.” But in spite of the harsh realities of relying on sales to passing locals and tourists to get by, he expressed that his love for art is what keeps him coming back.

“Hey man, we all die. But it’s how you live,” finished Andavall. “And I’m not ashamed to say I’m a potter.”

Credits:
Milin Zhang (Intro Video)
Xiaoliang Hao (Street Interview Video)
Jiani Gong (Photography)
Carmen Llerena (Infographic)
Irene Chen (Writing)

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Irene Chen

Irene Chen

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Earth tone enthusiast, undecided on the age-old savory vs. sweet food debate.