your slightest look easily will unclose me
though I have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose
– e.e. cummings, American poet, from “somewhere I have never travelled,gladly beyond”
I first discovered Gorgeous and Green (2946 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705, 510.665.7974) after receiving a beautiful set of reclaimed vintage earrings for my 50th birthday last year. The earrings came in a box with the letters “GG” stamped on the lid. The letters were Art Deco in style – the first G backwards, as if mirroring the other G – and on either side was a flourish of Art Deco-style flowers and greenery. Curious, I asked my friend who gave me the present where she got the earrings. She explained that she was on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley and came upon a floral shop that sold unique jewelry. Intrigued, I made a little discovery trip, and I’ve been back to Gorgeous and Green many times since.
Step inside: A Mix of gorgeous and green goods
The majority of Gorgeous and Green customers are neighbors who live in West Berkeley, although commuters who work in the area also come in during the week. On weekends, the shop is filled with visitors to the East Bay. It’s not uncommon for people to walk in and be unsure of what the shop is selling, admits owner Pilar Zuniga. Her concept is a mix of goods that she and other artisans have created that embody her distinct style – encompassing color, attention to design, vintage feel, sustainability, and the ability to be marketed and displayed in a beautiful and creative way. The gifts in her shop are either one of kind or “embodies the intention of the artist,” she said.
Thus, greetings cards displayed on a white-washed picket-fence gate hung on the wall are made by local, small-scale printing presses. Colorful glassware reclaimed from thrift stores and antique and garage sales dot the shelves throughout the shop. Hand-blown glass by local artisans is re-envisioned as planters for succulents and other plants. Body and bath products are made with natural ingredients and produced in an environmentally friendly manner. Zuniga stocks her shop with goods crafted by artisans whom she researches and finds on the Internet. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” she said, of her selections. She continues to stock what sells well, but tries to bring in new items.
She designs and sells her jewelry, which comprise vintage pieces that she incorporates into a new design. “I like to redo jewelry to make it better or to make it into something someone would enjoy,” she explained. “I’ve always been interested in art – painting, drawing, other craftwork, sewing, making jewelry – I got really into reusing reclaimed vintage. That was always a side thing,” she said. Zuniga showcases creations by other jewelry designers as well, most of which are fashioned from reclaimed materials. Gorgeous and Green carries M.E. Moore‘s jewelry, which I discovered in Zuniga’s shop.
Roots in sustainability
Sustainability is an important aspect, and Zuniga has ensured that it is expressed in her shop. The San Diego native developed her environmental consciousness when she was a student at UC Berkeley, which opened her up to thinking about the greater good of the world. Not surprisingly, she found her way into the nonprofit sector of public health as a career and remained in northern California because of the area’s “down-to-earth sensibility” and the fact that “everybody is really close.”
When Zuniga was planning her wedding in 2005, she had difficulty finding a sustainable florist, though today there are more environmentally conscious florists. She saw a need to fill and was energized by the concept. Though she enjoyed working with people and in the nonprofit sector, she was losing interest as she moved into management and got behind a desk. Zuniga started her company in 2007 with a focus on floral design and events while still working full-time. She took classes but didn’t go to school for floral design, though she also learned about the industry through her aunt, who was a florist. When she was younger, she helped her aunt with weddings. Zuniga was able to rely on various skills she had learned in her job – designing and evaluating marketing materials. She transformed her garage into her workspace and created gift items specifically for weddings, and her business took off in 2008.
“I really enjoyed the design and artistic piece of it, so I quit my job and opened up a shop,” she said. Zuniga had been eyeing her current storefront and convinced the landlord to rent the space to her in January 2010. Within three weeks, she had opened the first week of February, just in time to take advantage of Valentine’s Day. (In an anniversary of sorts and a repeat of history, Gorgeous and Green moved to its new location, 2946 College Avenue, near Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, this past February from its San Pablo Avenue location.)
At the onset, Zuniga faced significant financial challenges, which were exacerbated by the recession. She and her husband – who had started his business years before – had saved money, but in the beginning there were months when she made very little money or none at all. Zuniga logged 60 to 80 hours a week, seven days a week. Despite the grueling schedule and unstable earnings, by the end of the first year, when her lease was to be reviewed, she decided to try another two years. The holidays had buoyed her, and she added, with a laugh, “It could only get better from where it started.” That said, Zuniga burnt herself out the second year with her workload and made the strategic decision to hire people to help in the shop. Though staffing is one of the biggest line items in her budget, she believes the benefits outweighed the cost. Despite being “shackled” to the shop, she says the best thing about being a shop owner is flexibility. “I’m a hard worker, but I don’t have to keep going 110 percent all the time,” she said. She allows herself time to power down or take a break.
She has since pulled back doing events because of the time and effort involved and competition with larger events companies, and is investing more time showcasing her shop, which she feels needs her support to keep it going. This year she plans on cutting back on the number of events she produces in order to enjoy the few that she plans to take on. The wedding events that were the most memorable for her were the ones in which she was granted creative license. She has done a number of weddings at the Piedmont Community Center, but one in particular enabled her to use brilliant colors and planted materials such as succulents and ferns. “I really enjoyed having the space to do what I wanted to do,” she said. She also did a wedding in Moss Beach, which enabled her to enjoy the drive down the coast and then transform a garden into a vibrant place with washed-up wood that the bride had collected on the beach and had Zuniga incorporate into the floral arrangements.
Taking risks and “throwing up some dust and some dirt”
Zuniga touts the support of her husband as being very significant in her decision to start her own business. When she and her husband first got together, she was the breadwinner while he was trying to get his business going. When his San Francisco-based video production company, Corduroy Media, finally turned and grew, the strain of being the breadwinner eased. “We both have our own businesses now, but I don’t think I would have done it without his business doing well,” she said. When her husband’s business was going strong after its first decade, Zuniga felt it was now her turn.
She never questioned her decision to open her shop, buoyed with the philosophy that things would take care of themselves. She didn’t worry about being saddled with debt should the business venture not work out. “I’ve been there before and I’ve paid it [debt] off. You just move on and you learn from it,” she said, simply. “It’s just money. But it’s also a chance to be happy and to enjoy what you do and give yourself a chance. You’ll regret it if you don’t [try]. You’ll always regret it.”
If she hadn’t made the change, Zuniga emphasized that she would have missed out on the entire experience – the difficulties and challenges, the enjoyable times, and especially the fact that she overcame so much to get to where she is now. “I continue to do so [overcome adversities], and I surprise myself,” she added. “You just have to put yourself out there.”
Turning serious for a moment, Zuniga noted that society teaches women to eschew being a risk taker. “Part of it is genetic, part of it is maintaining your uterus as a safe space because you want to have children at some point or you might not,” she said, with a laugh. “Evolutionarily, it works that way.” But Zuniga has grown comfortable with embracing risk. “It’s okay to take a risk and not be sure and make big mistakes,” she said. It may not work out, but she says, “At least I jumped on it. I threw up some dust and some dirt, and it will eventually settle.”