Have Berkeley's milkshake revolutionaries gone soft? When Ozzie's Soda Fountain closed in early May, it was the first time in more than twenty years that BLT (no avocado) activists failed to mount the barricades in defense of the beloved Elmwood institution they'd already saved from several threatened or actual closures. None of the usual suspects raised much more than a whimper in defense of the place, which has a history of serving up egg salad sandwiches and a distinctively yeasty sense of community for regulars, including writers Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, and Mercilee Jenkins. As a result, Elmwood's charming old white elephant of a lunch counter may have dished up its last Purple Cow. Ever.
Called the last real soda fountain in the East Bay, Ozzie's started as the Elmwood Soda Fountain back in 1921, according to local historian Burl Willes in Tales from the Elmwood. The mottled gray Formica counter running the length of Elmwood Health & Mercantile drugstore came to be known as Ozzie's some time after 1950, the year Charles "Ozzie" Osborne bought the place.
The first battle to save Ozzie's shook the neighborhood in 1981, when ubiquitous Berkeley activist Barbara Lubin successfully deployed Save the Elmwood, a voter initiative (later overturned) that locked in commercial rent control. Since then, the lunch counter has survived at least three closures: in 2000, 2005, and again last year, when Elmwood Health & Mercantile owner Vicky Carter took over the day-to-day at Ozzie's. The current closure feels ominously different, some former regulars say.
Carter complained to Kitchen Sink that Ozzie's was losing too much money. "If somebody comes along and makes me an offer I'd consider it," she said, before refusing further comment. But the drugstore itself has the look of a business struggling to survive. On a sunny afternoon when College Avenue had a steady flow of sidewalk traffic, the store was empty except for a young woman browsing sparsely filled shelves, turning briefly from her cell phone to ask the clerk for ibuprofen. Dust has settled on tea boxes still lined up behind the lunch counter, where a laminated sign bears a terse message: "We regret that the soda fountain has closed." And in breezy script below: "Thanks for the memories!" Ozzie's worn Formica now displays gift merchandise, including an embroidered pillow that reads: "There's nothing a little champagne can't fix."
But even a jeroboam of Dom Perignon probably couldn't fix Richard Nagler's sorrow. He reckons he's been coming to Ozzie's for at least 25 years, a habit describes with a chuckle as "a religious experience." "It's been loved by so many people," says the 59-year-old Piedmont resident, who's weathered previous Ozzie's closings with more optimism. "It kind of went out with a whimper this time. In the past it was a big bang, and people rallied around it. But this time it was so sudden. Vicky just kind of pulled the rug out."
Nagler is part of an eight- or nine-person cabal that would gather on the fountain's leatherette bolt-down stools Saturday mornings. Now they meet half a block away at Filippo's Pastaria. "Everyone's tired of the soap opera and drama," he says.
But while neighbors and customers debate Carter's business skills or her commitment to Ozzie's chocolate-drizzled legacy, the neighborhood itself may have simply moved on. Down the long block, on the same day Elmwood Mercantile was all but deserted, luxury ice cream shop Ici was overflowing with customers lining up to buy artisanal superpremium cones whose flavors might include rose petal or yerba mate-green tea. Given rents that have risen to $3 a square foot, the shift from fusty old Ozzie's to gorgeously pristine Ici is inevitable, suggests jeweler Jon Moriarty, the owner of 14 Karats and longtime member of the Elmwood Merchants' Association, who railed at the neighborhood's traffic and scarce parking: "When you're only able to get X amount of customers in a day, the only thing that works is ice cream for $5 a scoop."
To be fair, a triple scoop at Ici costs $4.75, a little more than a turkey on wheat at the perhaps terminally closed Ozzie's. But you know what they say: There's nothing a little hypergentrification can't fix.