Berkeley's best

Explore artist studios and upscale, irresistible stores
Chiori Santiago

When Berkeley was young, Fourth Street was where work got done. Odoriferous tanneries softened hides into fine leather, and metalsmiths made sparks fly while potters spun wet clay and labored in the mouths of red-hot kilns. Today, this popular shopping street is a marketplace for artful housewares, retro furnishings, wooden toys, and other tactile delights. Bins of polished stones at the Gardener (1836 Fourth St.; 510/548-4545) beg to be touched. The thick Japanese paper at Miki's Paper (1801 Fourth; 510/845-9530) beckons to be folded between one's fingers. And it's impossible to step inside Cody's Books (1730 Fourth; 510/559-9500) or Builders Booksource (1817 Fourth; 800/843-2028 or 510/845-6874) without flipping through a volume.

If so much fine craft leaves you yearning to make things, stop at one of the newest additions to the street, the Art Gym (1717D Fourth; 510/527-0600), a reminder of the devotion to manual work that once defined west Berkeley. It's a studio structured like a gym: for a $10 day pass (or a monthly fee), you can rent space to paint, draw, or model clay and, if you wish, display the results.

"When the Art Gym opened, we expected to get people who made art part-time at their kitchen tables," says artist and volunteer Elizabeth Taylor. "We ended up with quite a few professionals, people who have studios but get tired of working in isolation. Where else can you interact with other artists, then take a break and walk to Bette's Oceanview Diner (1807 Fourth; 510/644-3230)?"

If you're willing to venture beyond the main commercial strip, you'll discover, within walking distance, places where the artisan tradition lives on. In the area stretching from Gilman Street to University Avenue west of Sixth Street, nine pottery studios form the bulk of the West Berkeley Artisan District.

The Berkeley Potters Guild (731 Jones St.; 510/524-7031) is the oldest and largest clay-arts guild on the West Coast, with studios for 19 ceramic artists as well as a gallery. On Saturdays (or by appointment), wander through a pretty back garden at Mary Law Pottery (1421 Fifth St.; 510/524-7546) to find Law's Asian-inspired wares, or check out the high-fired porcelain and stoneware at Holt Ceramics (1449 Fifth; 510/527-4183). All three will remind you that the most beautiful objects retain the touch of human hands.

FINDING FOURTH STREET Fourth St. is in the middle of the West Berkeley Artisan District, bounded by Gilman St., Sixth St., and Ashby Ave. To reach the area, exit I-80 at University Ave., make a left on Sixth, then left on Hearst St., then right on Fourth.