Indian Businesses Build Community in Berkeley

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Walking or driving down University Avenue, Berkeleyans are sure to notice the 30 to 40 Indian businesses clustered along the street.

For anyone interested in the history of these stores, the Berkeley Historical Society held a walking tour of the area's Indian-owned shops, the fourth in a series of five tours this fall.

Leading the tour were the owners of University Avenue's first Indian shop, Bazaar of India. Kirpal and Neelam Khanna opened the store in 1971 while they were living in Alameda.

Neelam Khanna said they had had only $2,000 to spend, and University Avenue was the closest place to their home where they could afford to open a shop. Berkeley's atmosphere was one that made them think their store was welcome, she says.

Approximately 10 years later, when they opened a store in Fremont, which they later closed, she says they did not have the same feeling.

"People were not familiar with India and Indian things," she says. "We were in the middle of a very conservative white community, and it was not something they were open to."

Ironically, Khanna says most of the Indians in the Bay Area today live in the South Bay. She says Berkeley businesses have not all moved to that area because the owners have already built a helpful business community here.

The Khannas opened Bazaar of India in response to a demand for Indian spices in the Bay Area. But today their merchandise includes musical instruments, statues, books and more.

When they started the business, they already had two children, Neelam Khanna says. She says she did not believe in having her children grow up with a baby sitter, so she had them grow up in the store instead. She jokes that her children used to think of the cash register as a bank, because they would open it and money would come out.

All of the Indian businesses started for a reason, she says. The Khannas opened their store to sell spices. After seeing how successful they were, a friend of theirs, who noticed that people in the Bay Area wanted Indian clothes, started a clothing business about half a block away.

Gorpaul Bhatia, owner of International Emporium, Inc. and Raja Indian Cuisine, says he originally opened a store to sell 220 volt appliances. He says people would buy the appliances and take them to India to give to their families. The demand is not as large now, so Bhatia started to sell clothing and jewelry as well.

At Bombay Jewelry Company, one can buy silver and gold jewelry and have jewelry custom-made. The owner, Maulin Chokshi, says his family also maintains a store in India.

When the owners of Sari Palace noticed a demand for traditional Indian wedding apparel, they devoted an entire section of their store to wedding clothes. Anil Thakkar says he and his wife opened the store about 15 years ago, and five years later they began selling the wedding clothes.

"(The immigrants' children) started getting married here rather than going to India to get married," he says. "They needed (the right) clothes."

On Sunday, Sari Palace held a sale because of the Diwali festival, during which people light oil lamps and firecrackers to commemorate Lord Rama's return from exile. Neelam Khanna says one way to celebrate is to buy new clothes, so it was a good day for a clothing sale.

Since most of the items in many shops are imported from India, the merchandise in these stores is equal to what one would find in India, she said.

"They've created a 'Little India' here," she says.

When people walk around shopping all day, they get hungry, Khanna says. So it was only natural for people to start opening restaurants on the street. She says she has not been satisfied with some of the restaurants, however.

"(Some of the restaurant owners) want to make the food fancy," she says. "They think the Westerners want it fancy. I say, 'Why don't you just serve them what you eat at home?'"

She says she prefers "sidewalk cafes" in which the taste of the food is more important than matching dishes and designer tables.

At least one restaurant near University Avenue has earned Khanna's approval. The owner of Shan Chat House on San Pablo Avenue provided tea and snacks to the people on the tour. Everyone got styrofoam cups and paper dishes, but there were many compliments on the food.

Khanna points out that not all of the Indian-owned businesses on University Avenue sell Indian products. There are several motels and photocopy shops with Indian proprietors in the area.

Sara Marcellino, a graduate student in geography at San Francisco State University and a Berkeley resident, says she came on the tour to gather information for her master's thesis. She says the Indian shops in Berkeley are not surrounded by Indian residents, unlike many other ethnic communities in which businesses and residents coexist.

"(The Indian businesses) started here 30 years ago because it was a place they weren't going to be snuffed out of," she says.

Another Berkeley resident, Doug Johnson, said the stores are a very visible part of the community. He said that before the tour he would have felt conspicuous going into one of the shops, but now he does not.

"We are glad we are opening the culture to you," Neelam Khanna said to the tour participants.

Khanna says the owner of Ajanta Enterprises India also claims to have opened the first Indian business on University Avenue.

"(But) I think they were painting while we were putting the rugs in," Khanna says with a laugh.


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