Berkeley Art Museum’s gift shop is a slot canyon of wonder. For those unfamiliar with the California Bay Area’s jumbled cluster of cultural geography, Berkeley is often described as San Francisco’s edgier cousin.To some extent, it’s true.
The fog that blurs the edges of vertically aligned dollhouses west of the Golden Gate simply isn’t present on the bright facades of the gourmet ghetto. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, known more casually as BAMPFA, exemplifies the ever-curious edge of civilization that the city seems to rest on. Exhibits are intentionally chosen to showcase unique histories, and the gift shop reflects this mission at every turn.
To begin, the retail space is a single, long corridor. According to Jim Surgarman, who is responsible for curating all the objects you see in the store. This is a constraint created by the unique architecture of the building, designed by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It really is a sliver of space, which makes the sheer amount of neatly displayed merchandise exceedingly impressive.
“We always try to keep things moving,” Sugarman tells me, referring to the stock. I visited on a Monday, the seemingly universal day-off for museums like BAMPFA. This is the day that they switch things up in the shop, and it happens every week. This means you’re almost guaranteed to find something new upon every visit.
The small square-shaped shelves along the right wall are stacked atop one another. All of the woodwork in the front of the building was crafted by a local, Paul Discoe, who is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and — unsurprisingly — a master woodworker. Above and beneath each one is a storage space, for extra merchandise. Due again to the limited space that BAMPFA occupies, there simply isn’t room for it anywhere else. It is an elegant solution; by arranging the stock vertically, the space feels open and clean, much larger than it seems.
In any case, this gives a linear sort of progression through the various displays, which are divided by alcoves on the shelves (calling to mind a cabinet of curiosities) and smaller, free-standing tables. Light from a series of mural-sized windows shines on the wares and serves as an exhibition of the colorful boba cafes and sushi joints along Center Street.
I asked Sugarman about how the gift shop manages to reflect such a diverse city. He confirms that the patrons of BAMPFA are indeed a motley crew: gangly just-barely-adults from University of California, Berkeley; giggling groups of middle-aged women with strange scarves and stranger earrings; movie buffs attracted to the museum’s regular vintage film screenings; Silicone Valley’s next top computer scientist; the list goes on and on. How can this be reconciled?
His answer rather surprised me: there’s a whole lot of overlap.
Books on surprisingly diverse subjects are quite popular. I was drawn to one on the history and usage of the Futura font, something I have never given a second thought to before. Another was titled The Secret Life of the Pencil, again piquing a random and obscure interest. Pencils are mundane objects, until they are given a story to tell. Just beneath the book are several sets of patterned pencils, in case you’re partial to creating a secret life with a Marimekko graphite of your own.
A little further down, I was struck by the sudden compulsion to play a game of paint-chip poetry, far and away the one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. The names of colors serve as small prompts for short poems. It is not explicitly artwork, but it’s perfect for the meditative/creative mood.
They each adhere to some sort of theme, like one shelf inhabited by curios emblazoned with clever phrases like “Modern Art = I could do that + yeah, but you didn’t” and “’Is the art pretty?’ says Susan. ‘No,’ says Mummy, ‘Pretty is not important.’” Sugarman points out a display of geometric-themed items. “Sometimes things just come together,” he tells me.
Spread throughout are postcards, which happen to be my favorite collectible from art museums. BAMPFA stocks an impressive collection of, well, everything you could ever want. There are gorgeous lithographs of the Golden Gate Bridge, hipster remakes of world leaders (I am partial to Queen Elizabeth II in a flower crown, circa 2014 Coachella), and, of course, copies of some of the gorgeous works on display within the museum.
Sugarman regularly attends craft fairs in the Berkeley area, scouting for a new sort of flair to add to the shop. Some of their best-selling works are by Rigel Stuhmiller, a Berkeley-based artist who produces unique tote bags. Each one has a screen-printed, lithographed image on it, mostly of produce. They’re probably the ideal way to transport hauls home from the farmers market, another time-honored Berkeley activity.
Tucked into the back is another one of my favorite museum collectables: Exhibition Catalogues. There is an entire shelf dedicated to them, each one a tribute to one of the museum’s shows in its forty-eight years of existence. These are an interesting stratigraphy of cultural trends, tracing the rise and fall of artistic vogues.
Sugarman directed me to a chronicle on Hans Hofmann, a central figure in both Abstract Expressionism and BAMPFA’s founding. The book centers around the first eleven paintings in the museum’s collection, all of which are original Hofmanns. Towards the end, there is what can only be described as an ode to the city of Berkeley, an attempt to explain why the prolific artist chose this city, instead of Munich or New York, where he based his art schools.
Let’s face it: art museums inspire creativity. If you are struck by a sudden impulse to create with something entirely new, then the gift shop has you covered. Inspired by their free-with-admission Art Lab (a collaborative space in which various art supplies are provided by the museum and visitors are encouraged to draw, stamp, and collage their afternoons away), the gift shop offers sets of rubber seals suitable for bullet journals and art projects everywhere.
Upon exiting Berkeley Art Museum’s gift shop, I was struck by just how lucky I am to live near such a lovely place, and how I was already excited to return.