As I walk along Fourth Street in Berkeley, California, I notice a shop called Bare Escentuals, "nature's most complete beauty store." It seems terribly Berkeley-ish to me, so I decide to go in and take a look around.
A young sales assistant approaches two middle-aged women standing next to me. "Have you had the chance to see our aromatherapy center yet?" she inquires, and promptly leads them to rows of vials, each containing potent oils and extracts.
"Eucalyptus is one of our best-sellers," the clerk says, "because it can be used as a decongestant or as a deodorant. We also have essence of basil, which helps wake you up in the morning. Ginger is great for curing jet lag, and jasmine is a fabulous antidepressant."
"That's all very fascinating," said one of the women. "But really, I'm just interested in buying something that SMELLS nice."
At that moment, I seize upon a fundamental truth about shopping on Fourth Street: you'll find absolutely nothing you need, but you'll be engrossed for hours.
Fourth Street has recently emerged from industrial oblivion to become the sophisticated up-to-the-minute retail embodiment of all that Berkeley has long represented. During the 1980s, San Francisco architect-developer Denny Abrams and his partners decided that unusual upscale shops would fit in nicely with the neighborhood's many warehouses and factories. Their redevelopment project was slow and measured, but by the early 1990s, Fourth Street had arrived as one of the Bay Area's most talked-about destinations.
On this street you can try on shoes made entirely from recycled materials; browse in a hardware store that sells Swedish mailboxes and Czech watering cans; buy a jar of Save the Oceans hand cream; and sample various types of sake from a local manufacturer.
According to Abrams, Fourth Street's human scale is what makes it such a pleasurable place to spend an afternoon. The buildings are only a story or two tall; the street itself is narrow and easily crisscrossed; sidewalks are decorated with reproduction vintage streetlights; and there's plenty of bench space, shaded by sycamore and pear trees, from which to watch the never-ending passing parade.
In one sitting, I see a striking young African-American woman in black tights and a denim shirt on Rollerblades; a middle-aged Asian poet, ensconced at an outdoor cafe, typing haiku on his laptop computer and sipping coffee; a surfer dude with an archery set strapped to his back; and a mid-thirties businessman, in blue jeans and Armani tie, pausing to read a sign on a lamppost. "You can heal yourself with psychoneuroimmunology," the sign promises, if you "access your immune system with hypnosis."
Farther along the street is a store called the Gardener. I expect hoes, rakes, lawn sprinklers, but I find a pretty boutique selling a variety of wall mirrors made from recycled materials, tubes of European toothpaste, hand-painted place mats, and ornamental fruits and vegetables made of ceramic.
The Restoration Hardware—a name that seemingly promises nuts and bolts for "This Old House" aficionados—sells wind chimes made of silverware, woodpecker door knockers, a mermaid whirligig, Mona Lisa computer mouse pads, French enamel weather thermometers, and a device that prevents deer from dashing in front of cars.
Earthsake, specializing in "environmentally friendly goods," is where I try on shoes made from recycled materials, almost buy a bottle of Save the Rain Forest shampoo, and ponder the concept of a stapleless stapler.
One of the neighborhood's newcomers is Aerial, which has an idiosyncratic collection of CDs, miniature musical instruments, exotic hand puppets, and do-it-yourself paper model reproductions of famous buildings and monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, that would engage just about anyone's imagination.
Like its shops, Fourth Street's restaurants are a small and eclectic group. One of the most popular is Ginger Island, a tropical fantasy serving Asian-influenced cuisine. The menu changes daily, but most dishes are prepared with the restaurant's eponymous spice, including the hot fudge sundae. Don't miss the Vietnamese spring rolls, the chicken satay, and the yellow curry noodles, as well as the fresh ginger ale. Although ginger may be a cure for jet lag, I find the spice rather tedious after the first dish.
After several visits to the area, I discovered O Chame. With its unimposing facade and street-front terrace, you could easily mistake it for a simple tearoom/bento box take-out counter, but O Chame is handsomely designed. The honeyed plaster walls are engraved with visions of musing Chinese goddesses. The chairs, tables, bar, and corner booths are made of a rich Brazilian wood. Pale shafts of light emanate from handcrafted copper fixtures. Meals are served in Japanese pottery, and coffee in elegant glass press pots.
The food is light, healthful, and delicious. A cold pomegranate spritzer provides a refreshing complement to zesty appetizers like deep-fried eggplant with scallion and grated daikon. There is grilled fish on the menu daily, as well as wood-oven specials, but most people come to O Chame for one of eight different "meals in a bowl." For less than $10, you get a large portion of udon or soba noodles in a clear nourishing broth, with a topping of your choice, such as grilled chicken and spinach, salmon and bean sprouts, or shrimp and wakame seaweed.
By the time I order dessert—shortbread cookies and a cappuccino—I have completely unwound from a tiring day.
"Maybe," I begin to think, "Fourth Street offers something I need after all."
JAMES A. MARTIN's articles have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.