Just a 15-minute bus ride from campus, Ohmega Salvage is a relic of the past.
At the corner of a long block of San Pablo Avenue, it sits as a yellow building with a yard big enough for customers to pull their car in.
Inside, natural light shines down through skylights and wooden lattices that hold hanging lights and overhead light fixtures. Filling the hardware section are door hinges, light switch covers and skeleton keys from before the 1950s. The store also houses a mixture of lamp fixtures, tiles from as early as the Victorian era, light covers, dressers, vanities, mirrors and chairs — including a pair of 1930 Cushman chairs which, according to Katherine Davis, Ohmega’s owner, were her mother’s from New England.
“This is somebody’s dream, somebody’s whole life,” said Wendy Kaplan, a customer who has been coming to Ohmega for about 30 years. “You can feel it now, in the service I got just now. All this stuff takes you back in time.”
Ohmega, one of the few architecture salvage stores in the Bay Area, according to Davis, will be closing its doors soon.
Over the years, the business has not been able to make money, she said. Davis explained that the business has become a source of thousands of dollars of debt and she’s reached a point where she can’t keep it going. At 65, Davis wants to retire, she said.
“This has been a fantastic day, as have been all the Saturdays since we’ve announced we’re closing,” Davis said. “If it had been like this, I probably would have been able to pay all my bills.”
Ohmega Salvage was first dreamed up by Victor Lab, known as Vito, and Bob Ford, according to manager Steve Smith, beginning as a contract on a paper napkin in 1974. The pair bought salvage from World War II army barracks being torn down in Treasure Island and Oakland, wanting to save the Douglas fir wood used in their construction.
Unlike other Bay Area salvage yards like Urban Ore, Ohmega focused only on old items from before 1955, as that was what Vito had enjoyed, Smith said. To Smith, the beauty of these old things was the stories that came with them: Each customer had a story to tell, and each item kept the past a little closer to the future.
“It’s great because you get to be around stuff that is comforting, in a way it is like you’re around your family,” Smith said. “It comes back to the stories, these things have a story and they almost tell you the story by being here.”
Even the name’s unique spelling tries to honor the importance of reuse, Smith said, combining Ohm’s law of resistance with the final Greek letter omega to suggest that recycling is the “path of least resistance” after an object’s end.
When the store began, according to Smith, it was a lot in a rented warehouse space that doubled as a commune. In 1978, Ohmega moved close to its current location, and in 1986 it was bought by Davis’ husband Steve Drobinsky, according to Smith. Now at 2400 San Pablo Ave., in an old general hardware store built in 1897, Ohmega has been run by Davis since Drobinsky’s death in 2012.
“This is what I would consider the Cadillac of salvage products,” said Mark Elliot, an Ohmega customer of over 30 years. “Look at the merchandise, everything here is well displayed, it’s well archived, it’s ready for resale.”
Elliot said it is places like Ohmega that “help him sleep at night” as a contractor, since so much of his work deals with waste. Elliot added that he’s been coming to Ohmega for years, as he’s worked on restoring a Queen Anne Victorian-style building.
These long-term customers are part of Ohmega’s history and the reason why it’s closing, Smith said. When he was first hired in 1999, Smith remembers memorizing the names of frequent customers, but notes that many have either moved away, been priced out of Berkeley or died.
As the interest in architectural salvage has waned, so has business, Smith said. In a culture focused on the next best thing, he added, what is old is forgotten.
“I came here because I was sad I just learned about a palace and it is on its way out,” said Clark Andres, a first-time customer with a 1928 Spanish Revival-style home. “I just bought a house and I want to make it authentic. (I’m) trying to do something true to the Bay Area.”