“You can be gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty and irresistible for the rest of your life”
Immediately upon entering Sottovoce at 1845 Solano Avenue in Berkeley, you will most likely be greeted by the warm, friendly and always smiling shop owner Christine Mewha. She has been welcoming shoppers in Berkeley CA in one Solano Ave location or another since she was eighteen years old. “I started my retail career at I’m A Gift– a fabulous store a little south of here that will always be remembered by the locals for its eclectic mix of beautiful clothing and unusual gift items,” she tells me. “It was the best store to visit, because its shoppers were presented with a fascinating combination of things. You would find this gorgeous handmade artisan knit sweater hanging right next to a hilarious display of Groucho Marx type glasses, replete with the oversized nose and black moustache,” she laughs. “The day I was hired to be the shop’s clothing buyer I was thrilled, because I was a such huge fan of the store. In fact, I’m A Gift was a big inspiration behind Sottovoce.”
Christine worked for I’m A Gift six years before finally opening her very first retail shop Footloose, a unique shoe and accessories shop located a bit southwest of her current address on Solano. The dream of owning a shop of her own had come true. “I carried all kinds of exclusive shoes, and many were handmade from Spain. This was the ‘80s, so we carried bright pink and turquoise blue shoes, and merchandised them right next to the ones that came in bright mustard yellow. It was a really interesting time, because Regan-omics hit a generation of people in Berkley who suddenly found themselves having to step out of their Birkenstocks and into a slicker more dressed up shoe. We sold lots of Madonna type black boxing boot shoes, LA Gear style stuff, Sascha London, Via Spiga. There was a real shoe explosion on the market then, and shoemakers began pushing against their creative limits. Interest in specialty shoes reached a fever peak.”
After about four successful years of running Footloose, its building was sold and Christine had to pack up to find a new location. “There were no suitable spots available when my lease was up so I stopped by Yasmine, another favorite boutique further up Solano to speak to the owner about ways in which I might partner up with her while I waited for my own new location,” she explains. And after being hired to manage Yasmine for a short time, its owner informed Christine that she was ready for change and wanted to sell the shop. “I couldn’t believe my good luck,” she reminisced. “Yasmine was exactly in the location I had hoped to reopen my own store, so I asked the owner to consider selling it to me. Thankfully she agreed.”
How did Christine come up with the unusual name for her new venture? “I first heard this operatic term when was traveling through Italy. It literally means “under the voice” and is indicative of using the voice in an understated tone, like a whisper. I was drawn to the both the sound and meaning of it. Shortly after I arrived home, I was reading a novel and the term popped up again. It was then that I realized it was the perfect name for my new shop,” she reveals.
Who is the Sottovoce shopper? “I buy merchandise for women of all ages. Customers aged from 30 to 80 can regularly find something irresistible that they can’t live without amongst our shelves or on the racks”, she enthuses. “I have always loved quality clothing and accessories that are built to last, and I’m not very attracted to trendy styles. My typical customer is sophisticated and stylish, but loves wearing things that are super comfortable. For example, I carry a fabulous line of pants under the Canadian Raffinalla label. They are easy to care for, feel like a yoga pant but wear like a city trouser. This is the genre of clothing I like to stock my store with.” But Christine doesn’t just carry wearables- she also offers a wonderful selection of gifts for children, interesting books, great scented candles, pretty tableware…the list goes on. Like I’m A Gift before it, Sottovoce houses a treasure trove of delightful items to keep or to give.
When asked to address the issue of having to compete in a retail market where the increasing popularity of online shopping seriously threatens brick and mortar retailers, Christine pauses and takes a breath. “It is an extremely difficult time for local merchants, and I sometimes feel like I’m operating an antiquated business model and wonder how Sottovoce can continue to survive. Local merchants are unfortunately not being protected by their communities. More and more shops will dry up when people stop supporting their neighbors and do all their shopping online. I can tell you, Solano Avenue has changed so much over the years; it used to be a thriving destination for shoppers and browsers. These days I see more and more empty storefronts, and it makes me very sad. Its unimaginable to think we are headed for a world where locals aren’t able to walk over to their nearby downtown communities to stop in various shops to see and evaluate new things and touch or hold items before buying them.”
Christine refuses however to give up on the idea that local shop owners can and will survive current market trends. “I’ve made lifelong friends over the years by working on Solano. Customers stop in to relay news, show off baby pictures or just plain say hello. I am so very grateful to my longtime local clientele, who continue to come and and knock out their Christmas shopping lists each year. One lady who comes in annually with her elderly dad helps him do his shopping while she does hers too, and I help them wrap and label everything so when they head out the door, they are all set for gift giving. The people I come in contact with everyday have become a big part of my life, and I think in many cases, I have become part of theirs as well. This is the reason why I’ve been opening my doors seven days a week for decades. And God willing, I will continue to open up shop every day for decades more.”
Stop by, see whats new in the store and say hello to Christine at Sottovoce Mondays thru Saturdays 10am – 6pm or on Sundays 11am – 5pm. And thank you for remembering that our Solano Avenue store owners and small business owners everywhere need and appreciate the support of shoppers who buy local.
©2017 Lisa Ihnken, All Rights Reserved