Merchants go public with Meet The Street

Palo Alto mayor hopes inaugural retailers' street fair will be replicated

Call it a block party that the whole city is invited to attend. Palo Alto will kick off its inaugural Meet The Street event on Oct. 8 from 5-9 p.m., with food, fashion, music and more.

Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman is hoping the free downtown festival will give retail and personal-service businesses located on side streets more visibility -- and will be the first of many such parties in the city's retail districts.

"This is the genesis of a series of events. ... We have a lot of businesses that have been here for a number of years, and they deserve the city's support for persevering during the up-and-down economy. And the newer businesses we also want to help and highlight," she said.

Bryant, Ramona, Emerson and Waverley streets will be filled with live music, Irish dancing, chalk art and other activities and giveaways. Businesses on University and Hamilton avenues between those blocks will also be part of the festivities.

Zola's, The Chocolate Garage, Pizzeria Delfina and Nola will offer free tastings, while Lure + Till Chef Patrick Kelly will give cooking demonstrations at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. at 180 Hamilton Ave. A fashion show emceed by designer Susan Graf will present merchandise from boutiques Phyllis, Leaf & Petal, Cassis and S. Graf Ltd. at 6 and 8 p.m.

Three Palo Alto institutions will celebrate anniversaries at the event. The Cardinal Hotel at 235 Hamilton Ave. will observe its 90th with a 1920's-themed event; theater group Palo Alto Players will mark its 85th year by performing from the musical "Chicago"; and Bell's Books at 536 Emerson St. will fete its 80th year with exhibits and demonstrations of book production, calligraphy, bookmark making and live gypsy music by the band Left Bank/Rive Gauche. Constance Hunter, a Santa Cruz bookbinder who does restoration work for the store, will demonstrate bookbinding, and local author Theoni Pappas will sign books.

Owner Faith Bell has worked at the store since she was "a little tiny person learning to run the cash register" and recalled making runs to get Chinese food from the Golden Dragon restaurant for her parents. Her mother, who is 88, turned the store over to her last year, she said.

She applauded Meet The Street for putting the spotlight on merchants on downtown's side streets.

"This event is wonderful. It is really focusing on giving people the opportunity to spill out onto the streets and rejoice in what we do," she said.

Palo Alto merchants have lamented their seeming invisibility since at least the 1930s, when Bell's father opened the bookstore, she said.

"I just found my father's letters from 1934, which I found touching and amusing. In one letter, he wrote about watching students and workers in the City of Palo Alto walk by in search of cafes. It sort of hurt his feelings. He had these beautiful displays of books, and people were only interested in reading menus," she said.

Adams Holland, co-owner of Timothy Adams Chocolates at 539 Bryant St., said he's welcoming Meet The Streets.

"I think it's a great thing to do because it involves our neighborhood," he said.

The chocolatier will host a chocolate-making demonstration. People will learn about the chocolate the store sources from all over the world, the different percentages of cacao and how to make a ganache -- a bonbon filling -- and the coverature, or outer chocolate coating. There will also be free samples, he said.

Holman said she was struck by the number of small businesses that have been operating for 30 years or more.

"There has been a lot of conversation in the last year about the changing 'scape of retail. But I think the longstanding presence and attraction of businesses on our streets are very strong indicators of the value of personal relationships and hands-on customer service," she said.

The City Council this year has passed new policies aimed at preserving the city's retail and personal-services businesses, she said. The city now has an ordinance largely prohibiting ground-floor retail space from being used by other types of business. On Sept. 21, the council approved a restriction on new chain stores on California Avenue.

If this Meet The Street is successful, Holman hopes it can be expanded to other downtown streets and to the city's other retail districts, including California Avenue and Midtown.

More information about Meet The Street is available at cityofpaloalto.org/MeetTheStreet.

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