The neon wired clock above a countertop lined with jars of candy welcomes customers into the Palo Alto Creamery, a restaurant known for its signature milkshakes and iconic old school diner ambiance. For decades, family-run shops have dominated the retail scene in small towns. In a metropolitan setting, however, the general style of business changes into mostly streamlined companies. Compared to local shops, these larger businesses often lack a unique personality, making them comparable to the long list of other conglomerate-style options, and what they do offer customers in the form of personal relations often fizzles out quickly. The independent stores are commonly referred to as “mom and pop shops,” implying a strongly personal, almost familial, connection between the employees and customers. However, as communities become increasingly modernized and city populations continue to grow, there is no longer a prominent place for these independent companies. Instead, customers choose where to shop between the convenience of a store’s location and its history. Hometown gems have scattered locations and the familiar, credible quality of mainstream products justify why shoppers are hesitant to change their habits and switch to atypical businesses. While there is a steady stream of new shops replacing longtime community favorites due to the high cost of real estate and rent, some local businesses are miraculously able to thrive in the revamped environment. In other cases, the community support is not enough and these stores have no other choice but to close their doors.
When driving down San Antonio Avenue, it is hard to miss the multi-story movie theatre complex that towers over surrounding shops. Between its tall glass windows and newly renovated architecture, it has a dominating presence over its neighbor, the Milk Pail Market, causing the one story, open-air shop to be forgotten in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the shopping center.
The community pushback began over five years ago when the businesses around the Milk Pail evolved, creating a modernized environment threatening the market’s success with the rising cost of rent in the Bay Area. The recent announcement of its closure resulted in backlash from the market’s shoppers and local neighborhood, soon drawing attention to the little shop with the hopes of saving it.
Longtime Milk Pail shopper, Katherine Williams, has been shopping at the market for over 20 years and has seen the extensive change that the San Antonio Center has experienced. “I wanted to support [the Milk Pail] because it’s really hard for mom and pop shops to continue in this area,” Williams said. “All the strip malls are losing people. I know [of] another little fruit stand [and] I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before that one [is] removed too.”
With the changing environment and growing economy, the price of maintaining a locally run business continues to rise, making it harder to compete with chain stores that offer the same products at a much more convenient location. Williams recognizes that there are a limited number of mom and pop shops left in the Bay Area and that the replacement of these establishments is pushing towards a more refined, corporate enterprise. “I just can’t believe all these apartment buildings and everything [are] getting wiped out,’’ Williams said. “All these little places I love to go to are getting chopped down one by one like a dead tree.”
Saying goodbye to these corner stores also means that customers won’t get the chance to see the familiar faces while browsing the aisles or checking out at the cash register. From her personal experience, Williams has found that this involvement in her community is one the most rewarding outcomes she has gotten from frequenting mom and pop shops and believes that the friendly environment will simultaneously change as the shopping centers do. “[It’s] the basic neighborhood community friendships that develop outside of work and homes [that I like about mom and pop shops],” Williams said. “I think it [the lack of mom and pop shops] closes people off and makes them isolated.”
As soon as news of the Milk Pail’s closure spread, there was an outpour of childhood stories about shopping at the treasured store and pleads from the community to keep the market open. In this outburst of community support, there were enough supporters to maintain a daily influx of customers. “I remember when they fought to keep that space before they did all that construction and the community stepped in to try and save them,” Williams said. Unfortunately, the rise in customers was not enough to keep the market running. The corner lot has been sold, and in the near future there will likely be an office building standing in its place.
Not even 10 minutes away from the iconic corner lot stood the unappealing and rundown wooden building, iconic itself in its concealment of a bustling atmosphere that was comprised of daily regulars and wide-eyed first-time customers. As you cautiously made your way through the Friday night crowd, trying not to spill your iced Coca Cola or have your cheeseburger knocked from your tray, the buzz of friendly conversations and cheering sports fans engulfed the small, packed room. Even when sitting at one of the secluded booths at the Oasis Bar and Grill, the chatter amongst total strangers gave everyone a sense of communal belonging.
Over its finite 60 years of operation, the Oasis accumulated countless regulars and became a fundamental part of numerous traditions involving all generations, from those returning to the establishment ever since childhood to high school sports fans and their weekly dinners. The Palo Alto Baseball Team used to frequent the Oasis after every Thursday practice for a mandatory team dinner and the team even punished players with a fee for every absence. The tradition began decades ago, and the closing of the Oasis forced the team to abruptly adjust and leave the beloved tradition behind. Former varsity player Ole Erickson recalls, “After closing, we started doing dinner at Jeffery’s, the food was good but it just wasn’t the same.”
Last year, the Oasis announced their upcoming closure, resulting in the heartbreak of many individuals in the Menlo Park and Palo Alto communities. Through social media and fundraisers, locals came together in an effort to help subsidize the lease. Numerous Facebook posts and groups were dedicated to raising awareness about the termination of the Oasis lease and petitioned for the local customers to further frequent the restaurant to support the ownership and staff one last time. “It was sad when they announced they were going out of business, and when we found out, we made an effort to go as much as possible before closing,” Erickson said.
The Tougas Family first leased the building in 1958 and have controlled the business ever since, developing a fun and community-catered environment. However, with the climbing desirability of the area comes increased costs. “After several months of effort, we were unable to negotiate a reasonable lease for our business nor meet the requested terms of the building’s owner,” the Tougas Family said. “Therefore, we have made the very difficult decision to close our doors and bid farewell to the endearing community of Menlo Park and Stanford University.”
It was only when the Oasis had to shut down did people start to realize what made the restaurant unique. The individuality of the Oasis is one of the many reasons why people cared so much about the fate of the establishment. No one fights for the ordinary, white-walled buildings that populate rapidly modernizing cities. They support places with character, such as the Oasis, that have rusted license plates depicting sports teams hung on the wooden walls etched with key-carved names of past customers. The Oasis, like many other mom and pop shops, is unique because it helped build a stronger community through long-lasting memories made by families and devoted employees. With the demanding costs of real estate in this developing area, the Oasis can no longer provide this sentimental value to its customers.
Between the bustle of downtown and the tranquility of Palo Alto’s Professorville, the Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store allows outsiders to gaze into the old-fashioned diner that has been serving all-American food to Palo Alto for decades. The establishment, known for its breakfasts, lunches and milkshakes, was formerly a primary dairy provider for the community with a fleet of 60 milk trucks at its largest operating capacity. Founded by John Santana II, the business is in the family hands of James Santana, a Palo Alto High School parent. Nearing almost a century of existence, the quintessential shop caters to customers both old and new. Lala Perez, a regular, comments on the lasting tradition of this restaurant. “I’ve been here [the Peninsula Creamery] for 28 years, and there I’ve seen people who were babies and they have now graduated college and come in with their kids, and it is great.” Additionally, the locality of the business builds familiarity and personal connections to the community. “We get our regulars, they come in they don’t have to say anything, we just know what they want.”
In the city of Palo Alto, real estate prices are notoriously unsustainable and many businesses, though striving to rent, are failing. “It’s bad. A lot of businesses try but they move elsewhere,” Perez said. Earlier associated — and often mistaken — with the Peninsula Dairy Store, the Palo Alto Creamery is a relic of Palo Alto’s history and remains bustling every day of the week. The perpetuity of its charismatic barstools and classically-made milkshakes comes from healthy landlord-tenant relationship that is, according to owner Rob Fischer, built for longevity. “Sometimes a long-term relationship is more important than money; both sides have to weigh your options,” Fischer said. He also commented on the blunt realities of our booming economy, highlighting that we live in a capitalist country. “Everyone wants and needs to make money. That’s the way the economy goes, and you can’t rely on the city to protect you.”
Due to a long-lasting lease and a fair landlord-tenant relationship, the Palo Alto Creamery is likely to remain common ground for Palo Alto natives, and many cite it as an invaluable haven for the community. “We get so many people who come in and tell me they met their spouse here, or this was their first date,” Fischer said. “It’s endearing, and it’s just one of those places.”
The Palo Alto Creamery persists because of the authentic character and culture it preserves.“You have to keep up with the times, and you make changes, as subtle as they may be, and you still try to keep current with what is going on, but at the same time you try to maintain some of the nostalgia that the restaurant had,” Fischer said. “We just do what we do, and it’s not a race and it’s something that you do because you love it.”
Just one storefront over sits a charming, grey-painted building with big gold lettering reading “Bells Books.” Contrasting with the otherwise Silicon Valley nature of Palo Alto, the endurance of this store may appear out of place. However, like the Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store, the owners of the store are also owners of the land itself, keeping the business shielded from the struggles many other businesses face. Christopher Storer, husband of the owner, believes in the importance of remaining an analog service in the technologically-advancing community. “It hasn’t particularly impacted us because we have provided a service of the town that isn’t particularly changed by the tech structure.” While they do sell a selection of contemporary writers, they are more known for their rare and used books. “We tend to focus on material that stays important in the human community for generations,” Storer said. Despite the work that is required to keep up the business, their special place in the community is something they deem worth it. “Our value is not in the money we make but in surviving and being able to provide the service that this town — any town — needs.”
Many other mom and pop shops share the same philosophy, including the former owner of the Sugar Shack, Suzi Tinsley, who believes that every town should include staple locations such as a local tailor, hardware store or stationery shop. “I am also a firm believer that every downtown city should have a ‘sweet spot,’ whether [it be] a candy or ice cream destination where families [can] enjoy some good old fashioned fun!” Tinsley’s views reveal one of the fundamental aspects of a city or town: the businesses. “Small businesses have things people need, and the community is better for having local businesses as a mainstay of the vitality of the community.”
In 2007, Tinsley’s childhood dreams, as well as her personal endeavor to uphold the vitality of her community, culminated in the opening of the Sugar Shack. “As I got older and started my own family, I thought the Sugar Shack would be the perfect spot for kids to gather downtown,” she said. “The store was right next to the barber shop and within walking distance of eight schools, the perfect location for the Sugar Shack.” Not only did her business fit perfectly into the puzzle of her fantasy downtown structure but it soon became an iconic establishment. “I felt supported by my local community from the day I opened,” Tinsley said. “Smaller businesses need the traffic to generate revenue, so I relied on my customers, young and old, to make things come together.”
“I had 185 bins of candy in the Sugar Shack,” Tinsley said. “Assorted Jelly Belly’s, individually colored M&M’s; 30 bins just for sour candies, chocolates from around the world, and over 45 varieties of ‘old school candy’ that are impossible to find.” It’s easy to imagine the widened eyes of customers of all ages, peering into hefty plastic containers stocked with everything from classic black licorice and caramels to the latest shape of sour gummy candy. It is clear why customers would be upset when the wondrous experience the Sugar Shack provided was liquidated into an online format where images replaced the sweet smelling aromas. “I did get a lot of dirty looks in the local grocery stores or in our church after the closing, but I am still providing sweets for luncheons, school events, the Lucille Packard prom, and for local athletic teams,” Tinsley said.
Although this famous establishment has since closed, the Sugar Shack remains a testament to the unique products that are formed out of the convergence of tradition and technology. After it closed, the force of the digital age allowed Tinsley to successfully seize entrepreneurial opportunities and further pursue the vision of the Sugar Shack through a website.
Despite having to relinquish special personal customer interactions with the Sugar Shacks’ closure, the establishment continued to prove its prosperous business. “I do miss the day to day routine of seeing the kids after school, catching up with some of the moms who would come in earlier in the day, and the excitement around having new visitors to the Sugar Shack who had heard about it through a friend,” Tinsley said.
The slight divergence in her experiences as a small business owner, from an establishment to a website, does not sway Tinsley’s focus on candy as her coveted product. “With the internet, I could, [and still can] track down many items, but the tastes for the duration of the store, and continuing into my events today have remained the same,” Tinsley said. Furthermore, she didn’t feel that she had to feverishly compete with the fast-paced internet age millennials and their changing tastes. “I was very lucky in that what I sold appealed to everyone,” she said. “Candy is very nostalgic, so many of my older customers would have me track down their favorite [candy from] when they were kids, and the younger generation [were] all about the ‘gummy’ and ‘sour’ items.”
After an eight-and-a-half year run and a name in the history books, Tinsley is satisfied with her contribution to her community and how she found a place in her fantasy. “Every customer in the Sugar Shack was memorable; I enjoyed meeting and greeting every grandmother with her grandchildren, the boy getting ‘something sweet’ to make ‘an ask’ to a prom, the kids having a root beer at the bar waiting to get their hair cut next door, and the ‘regulars’ who we knew exactly what they wanted as we saw them parking the car.”
In the 1950s, Kepler’s Books, located in Menlo Park, was an innovative force in the book market. The bookstore and self-proclaimed cultural hub championed its driving participation in the ‘Paperback Revolution,’ and has been established as an iconic marker of older, traditional companies thriving in modernizing times, even if its central product has become somewhat of a rarity. Current CEO Praveen Madan describes the prosperous times in which the early Kepler’s Books existed. “Cheap paperback books were the disruptive new technology in the 1950s and 1960s, much like e-books are today,” Madan said.
Over 60 years later, Kepler’s roots have consistently widened to encompass a diverse set of values, offerings and community relations. “The result is that today, Kepler’s is one of the most successful, stable and innovative bookstores in the entire country,” Madan said. “There are many different things people value about Kepler’s -—Kepler’s rich history, their relationship with the bookstore, which for many customers goes back years and even decades, their relationship with individual booksellers, the selection of books, our events program that brings leading writers and intellectuals to the community for live conversations [as well as] our work in the community with schools and non-profits.”
While Kepler’s is often characterized in terms of its lengthy success, it is also heavily defined by its hardships and the resulting response from the bookstore and the community. “Kepler’s has had two major financial crises — one in 2005 and again in 2011,” Madan said. “Both times, there was a core group of community champions determined to save Kepler’s, and both times they successfully initiated many positive and high impact changes in how Kepler’s operates and engages with the community.”
To many people living in the Bay Area, the possibility of the loss of Kepler’s, an intellectual and cultural tenet of the community, was enough incentive for change-makers and ordinary consumers to grasp. The bookstore had transformed into a mainstay of their community, and consumers weren’t willing to lose it because of growing economic difficulties. Enter Madan, an entrepreneur with a vision to combat and appeal to the modernizing interests of consumers and the digital revolution. “I was invited to become the CEO after the second crisis at Kepler’s in 2011, and I was given a mandate to create a new realistic vision for Kepler’s that the community could embrace,” Madan said. “The vision we developed, with significant input from the community, was to transform Kepler’s into an organization with a social mission to provide public education and cultural enrichment.”
Kepler’s has now transformed into an establishment that champions more than just paperbacks, but any items of the paper variety, as well as experiences and opportunities that are relatively unavailable online. “We differentiate from Amazon by focusing on relationships, services, and experiences because we can provide these better than Amazon can,” Madan said. “[I]n the last seven years we have built a high democratic organization of community service specialists and gone away from the idea that’s pervasive in retail businesses that the business should be led by an owner who hires a low-wage workforce to run a for-profit company for the benefit of the owner.”
Now, similar to every business owner, Madan looks to the future, one that seems to be crumbling for the print industry. However, he also draws on the past that founder Roy Kepler built in his efforts to formulate a campaign that would extend Kepler’s shelf life for generations. “The philosophy of stewardship has driven us to develop pragmatic responses to address the evolving needs and issues of our community,” Madan said. Their logical response to the impending future? Establish and furnish a campaign comparable to those of 2020 presidential candidates. “The Kepler’s 2020 campaign has already been successful, as it has led to a revitalization of Kepler’s and created a new model for bookstores that’s winning awards, critical acclaim and great media coverage all over the world,” Madan said. “In addition, we are regularly approached by bookstores from all over looking to learn from what we have done so they can apply some of our innovations to their organizations to better serve their communities.”
In an economic sense, businesses were initially established to offer goods and services to consumers. Instead, Kepler’s rich history has allowed them to extend their priorities beyond pushing thoughtless purchases and explore and strengthen customer relations, a topic many contemporary companies struggle with. “Our view is that Kepler’s belongs to the community,” Madan said. “We act as stewards, and our job is to ensure that the organization is optimally serving all its stakeholders including our staff, customers, authors, publishers, vendors, partners, landlord, and the community.”
As the attitude towards shopping and dining continues to change and constantly adapts to new tastes and styles, it leaves the small, local, family favorite shops behind. Although there are not as many mom and pop shops left in the area, those that are still standing are running strong and continue to attract new customers daily. The iconic buildings that hold traditions and family memories might eventually be replaced, but the impressions and sentimental memories are imprinted in the minds of those who cherished them. As we bid goodbye to more mom and pop stores every year, the value of those that remain increases, causing their significance to rise among citizens. Now, it is more important than ever for the community to work together save the remaining hometown gems or else it won’t be long before we say “so long, mom and pop” forever.
Check out this map to discover some mom and pop shops in Palo Alto and its surrounding cities!
Map by Ashley Guo and Sophie Jacob