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 November 10

by Carolina

You’ve probably never been in a place like Ohmega Salvage.

The Berkeley store could easily be mistaken for your average antique store or salvage yard, but it’s both. It’s also part hardware store, and, I’d argue, part museum. 

There are doorknobs from the 1920s, chandeliers from the 1950s and at least one door from the 1890s. Hundreds of vintage hinges are divided into drawers, old keys dangle from nails in an antique cabinet and classic black and white San Francisco house numbers are piled high on a corner shelf. Every inch of the store is covered in something for sale — ceiling medallions hang on the upper sections of the walls, light fixtures drip from above and furniture crowds the floor, displaying other for-sale goods on top of dressers, hutches and bookshelves.

Some of the vintage items available in the showroom at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Some of the vintage items available in the showroom at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

But as I stroll through the crowded aisles of endless merchandise of this Bay Area architectural mecca with general manager Steve Smith, what’s more remarkable is he seems to know where every single item came from. He points to old church doors that were donated from the San Francisco archdiocese. He waves a hand toward a wooden panel from 1899 that came out of an old mansion in Grenoble, France. He said they acquired that piece from an early dot-com tycoon that had shipped it in for his custom Silicon Valley house and decided not to use it. Across from the carved panel sits a tall stack of wooden corbels from a Julia Morgan-designed house. He continues to gesture and rattle off names of the people that sold the shop each item, the year they sold it to them and often even the sellers’ professions.

Smith has been working for Ohmega Salvage since 1999, when he decided to get out of the construction business. The tough day-to-day was wearing on his body and he didn’t love the speed at which he was forced to work — and throw away perfectly good materials. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do next, but he saw an ad in a local paper to work at Ohmega’s former second location and ended up covering for a worker out on maternity leave. When she decided not to come back, he permanently filled her position. 

Store manager Steve Smith shows of some of the vintage doors available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Store manager Steve Smith shows of some of the vintage doors available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

He’s worked his way up the ranks through the years, building that encyclopedic knowledge of Bay Area architecture and now acting as one of the only employees left after a rough 19 months due to the pandemic. 

Smith is used to change though, he said, and it’s the nature of the store, which has weathered many different iterations and locations since it was conceived on June 4,1974. The story goes that on that day at 9:30 p.m. in the Flight Bar at San Francisco International Airport, Victor “Vito” Lab and Bob Ford agreed to acquire and empty a building at the Oakland Naval Supply facility, Smith said. They didn’t know much about what they were getting themselves into, both Smith and the store’s website attest, but after dismantling wooden Navy barracks, they continued to grow their idea into a burgeoning salvage business and eventually ended up in a store in Berkeley selling their wares. Lab and Ford had a “hippie sensibility,” Smith said, hoping to both support the green movement by selling recycled materials and promote the artisans dedicated to old crafts.

The name Ohmega is intentionally spelled with an “h” to embody that concept. “Our name is a synthesis of two concepts: ‘Ohm’s law,’ the measure of electrical resistance to power … and the Greek symbol Omega, the final letter in the Greek alphabet — signifying that an object can be reborn even when at the apparent end of its life,” the website explains. 

Laurie Muscle, left, and Sheryl Sheets look through the vintage hardware at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Laurie Muscle, left, and Sheryl Sheets look through the vintage hardware at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Steve Drobinsky, known as both a “former stock option floor trader and dumpster diver,” purchased the business from Lab in 1986, furthering his predecessor’s idea and enhancing its presence in the East Bay. By 1998, the store was doing so well — Smith credits the store being featured on an episode of “This Old House” in 1997 — it expanded to include the building across the street at 2400 San Pablo Ave., which is the only location today. 

Drobinsky died in April 2012, and his wife Katherine took over ownership. With Smith’s help, she’s navigating a new chapter for Ohmega — one that’s constantly facing new challenges, whether it be the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent tightened labor market or local residents’ waning desire for salvaged materials.

The Berkeley storefront is currently only open by appointment during the week, since Smith is the only person on staff after having to lay off all other employees during the pandemic. They received some loans to keep them afloat, but they’ve burned through a lot of their reserves. Katherine owns the property, but they are in the process of clearing out one of the storage containers on the land to rent out to someone else in hopes of generating extra income. 

A large selection of vintage hardware is available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

A large selection of vintage hardware is available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Smith said he also worries that people just aren’t as interested in restoring and maintaining old homes as they once were. “There is a generational shift going on for what people like and have an affinity to versus what their parents and grandparents do,” Smith said. “… I want to be optimistic but the future is uncertain right now.”

He said some people are also surprised at prices when they’re shopping. “People get upset that we’re expensive sometimes,” Smith said. “The reason that everything here is so expensive is because houses that were once hundreds of thousands of dollars are now millions of dollars and anything that is in a house correspondingly gets more expensive.”

But Smith is still eager to help those that come in; he helped find a matching doorknob for a customer who had one that broke and even gave her a quick overview on how to install it properly on the day I visited. He also has an extensive knowledge of all the artisans operating around the Bay Area — he knows who does old tile work, who still does plaster work, what locksmiths can fix an old lock and where to go find something if Ohmega doesn’t have it. He worries about the artisans most, he said, since so many of them don’t have someone to take over their craft once they’re ready to retire.

A large selection of vintage hardware is available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

A large selection of vintage hardware is available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

He also worries about what goes missing when old homes are gutted or torn down in the Bay Area. The city of San Francisco cares more about the exterior than the interior, he explained, and while they get their inventory from both contractors and homeowners, if either aren’t interested in salvaging materials, they’ll likely get thrown away. Smith said contractors used to be better about calling them about unique materials, but as they’ve gotten younger, less know the value of certain items.

Education is a core part of his job, Smith said. As we pass an etched glass shower door from around 1920, Smith explains that it wouldn’t be safe to install it anymore for its original use since it’s not tempered glass. But if it were him, he’d take that glass and craft it as part of a home bar, storing liquor bottles behind it as a cabinet front. “It’s about repurposing and getting people to understand something. [I] explain to people what this stuff is all about, what its advantage is and what its disadvantage is,” he said. “I tell them, yes, if you’re going to buy this door you’re going to spend a lot of money stripping paint off to get down to the redwood. Is that practical? Maybe not. Are you going to be able to find someone who can make you a door with redwood this good? Probably not.”

While the customer base may be dwindling, there isn’t any store exactly like it in the area, so it’s gotten its fair share of celebrities through the years. While Smith has worked there, Robin Wright came in when she was designing a house with Sean Penn in Marin County. Sharon Stone bought a few items and even sold the store something, Smith said. Tom Waits, Chris Isaak and Norah Jones have all been in to browse. The most recent big name was Daryl Hannah, though Smith had trouble recognizing her in a mask. 

“Since we carry such a broad cross section of things you get a broad cross section of people,” Smith said. “… You’ll have a guy coming in to sell something so he can get money to eat that day standing literally right next to a guy that’s worth millions of dollars.”

He said that’s what keeps him coming in every day, excited about his work and the future of the shop.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about this place is all the people that have come over the years and all the conversations I’ve gotten to have and all the people I get to meet.”

Vintage ornamental decor available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Vintage ornamental decor available at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Vintage doorknobs at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Vintage doorknobs at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Vintage tub feet sit on a shelf at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Vintage tub feet sit on a shelf at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

The exterior yard at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

The exterior yard at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. The store has a large selection of architectural salvage that people use to restore historic homes, among other uses.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Original posted at www.sfgate.com

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