Not so terrible: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra takes a different approach to playing ensemble music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY THE TERRIBLE ADULT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Wearing casual weekend clothes with their hair down, 70 people sit in folding chairs eating snacks and chatting about their week. It’s hard to guess from their appearance, but each of these 70 people is a musician, about to play hours of classical music. 

The Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO) is not your traditional music ensemble. The musicians may play the intricate compositions of Beethoven and Bach, but TACO is a non-audition orchestra, with members ranging from first-time players to veteran musicians. 

Founded in 2011 by Cathy Humphers Smith and her husband Kent, TACO strives to create an environment in which any musician can play comfortably and without fear of failure. Humphers Smith said they chose “Terrible” to be in the group name as a “humorous way to set the expectations that it doesn’t matter [how well you play], we’re in this for fun.”

According to Humphers Smith, traditional ensembles can be intimidating for novice musicians and difficult even for experienced ones. She said that because performance orchestras are obsessed with improvement and perfection, musicians often feel discouraged from playing. 

“You’re not performing for anybody, nobody’s buying a ticket, you’re not beating things to death to make them perfect,” Humphers Smith said. “You’re just enjoying playing music for the sake of playing it.”

(courtesy TACO)

Karl Swartz, who quit playing violin after his college ensemble said he’d have to practice for hours every day to be a part of their orchestra, said that TACO is made for people who want to play music “just for the fun of it.”

Though the group began with 20 musicians playing in Humphers Smith’s living room, it has grown to over 70 people attending each meeting and over 700 sit on TACO’s mailing list. Prior to the pandemic, TACO met monthly at the Los Altos Youth Center for three hours to play together.

“Our objective is to all start the piece at the same time and end it at the same time,” said Ola Cook, a flutist who joined TACO in 2012 after dropping the flute in 1997. “Whatever happens in the middle is okay.”

This mentality welcomes musicians who would be unable to participate in most orchestras, such as those who struggle playing full pieces because of medical conditions or inexperience. 

“There are fine musicians who play with performing groups who develop Parkisnons or brain tumors, and they can continue playing with TACO because it doesn’t matter, nobody is judging them, they don’t have to sound perfect,” Humphers Smith said. 

Mark Serjeant, a clarinet player for TACO, developed a sinus condition that makes playing full pieces on the clarinet difficult. He said the relaxed venue that TACO provides means he can continue playing music without worrying about sounding perfect or even being able to play the whole song. 

“I try to play at least one note per measure to try to stay in sync and TACO is the right place for me because they don’t care,” Sergeant said. “Occasionally, we have a song and I actually can play the whole song so it’s a great venue for me.”

Serjeant, who played clarinet in his college marching band said he “put the clarinet in the closet and never took it back out” after he graduated in 1972. That was until 2012 when he joined TACO after reading an article about the group. Serjeant said his favorite part of the casual atmosphere is that he can feel relaxed playing music.

“It’s not like you’re dragging the performance down, because we don’t perform,” Serjeant said. 

Humphers Smith said her organization contributes to a recent movement to make classical music more accessible. She said that classical music is losing audiences because of the procedures that are associated with watching a performance. 

“The listener has to dress up, buy an expensive ticket … There is a protocol for taking in classical music,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s an incredible thing to see a concert live, but they are losing audiences because it’s not seen as very approachable.”

Fourth of July “jam session,” 2021. (courtesy TACO)

Swartz describes their regular gathering as “jam sessions” rather than concerts, or even practices.

These sessions occur once per month when musicians, regulars and those new to TACO, gather to play six pieces of new music for three hours. 

According to Humphers Smith, who also serves as the group’s conductor, most musicians come up to an hour early to set up their instruments and mingle. Then, someone leads everyone in tuning their instruments. 

After tuning, the orchestra plays its set pieces for the session, which come out of the 400 arrangements that Humphers Smith has purchased from school orchestras; school orchestras “take the original music, and make it suitable for certain levels of learning,” which allows various skill-levels to play the same piece. 

“I want to be playing music that is famous and that people know, but I don’t want it to be so difficult that people can’t do it and they don’t have success,” Humphers Smith said.

Humphers Smith says she tries to vary the genres and types of music the group plays each session. According to Swartz, they have played showtunes, classical and pop, among others. Swartz said that TACO is more “adventurous” than the traditional orchestras he also plays in, which he said “constrain the music.” 

“When we play show tunes like ‘Oklahoma,’ I enjoy that a lot more than playing Mozart or Beethoven or all the Russian people whose names I can’t pronounce,” Serjeant said. 

This practice follows TACO’s guiding principle of making music accessible for all. Boasting a group of diverse community members, TACO prides itself on being open to all skill levels. The group is open to all ages, but the majority of participants are adults. 

“It’s important to have a place like that, otherwise adults don’t get an opportunity to play,” Humphers Smith said.

The wide range of musicians all come together to form a tight-knit community. According to Cook, the support from this group has built her confidence and inspired her to take risks with music, such as travelling to Scotland to perform with a Scotish orchestra, which she said she wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

“We’ll count under our breath for people who have a little trouble with staying on time,” Cook said. “TACO offers a community and an incredible opportunity for people to be able to get together with other musicians … and do something that’s uplifting.”

Many TACO musicians branch out and create chamber ensembles, coined the Taquitos, with other members who play the same instrument.

Cook said she appreciates the opportunity to connect with other musicians and have a forum to ask questions and share about music.

“Now, because I have this community of musicians around me, if I’m experiencing something odd I can ask ‘Does this sound right to you?’ or ‘Have you ever had this happen?’ and we can all help each other,” Cook said. “It’s really like an extended family.” 

This support extends to the community at large. Humphers Smith said that the holidays last year inspired her to collaborate with KMVT on their programming for seniors who had been isolated at home. Freestyle Academy student volunteers edited together individual videos from each musician and the final product, ten Christmas songs, was broadcasted on KMTV to seniors at home.

Although Humphers Smith said there was initially a huge learning curve with virtual concerts, she adapted and they played a second concert in a similar format with the TACO chapter in Los Angeles. Musicians each played a part of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

“Musicians have suffered like nobody’s business over this pandemic, it has just been such a burden on musicians in one way, and in another way, it’s opened the doors to so many people who are willing to put in the time to do technical work,” Cook said. 

Humphers Smith said that playing music provides an escape for people from their daily lives because “you leave all your problems outside and you forget about everything that’s going on in your life.”

“Playing with other people live means hearing the other voices and getting to know how you fit in. You’re a part of a group that’s creating something,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s transcendent.”

Parent group seeks to uplift Latino MVLA students

STORY BY RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

This story was originally reported in Spanish. All quotes are translations.

In a school district with a prominent Latino composition of 25.8%, the Latino Parent Outreach group aims to provide support to a disproportionate number of struggling students and their parents. 

Through sharing experience and working with the district to improve resources, LPO’s parent volunteers hope to make opportunities for higher education more attainable for Latino students.

LPO was founded four years ago with the mission of finding and addressing the causes of widespread low GPAs, low math grades and trends of chronic absence among Latino students. 

Although they mostly work in the Mountain View area, they are also willing to help any parents and students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Parents involved meet monthly in what they call “Cafecitos” or “Coffees” to discuss topics of focus and exchange knowledge, ensuring that parents with questions are able to talk with more experienced parents. The group is also able to help parents who have difficulties understanding English.

The organization has hosted events “celebrating the different cultures and countries that make up the Hispanic community,” said Marilu Cuesta, an involved LPO volunteer. These events include major celebrations in Mexican culture like Dia de Los Muertos and La Posada. 

“The goal of our group as parents is to open up new opportunities for Latino students and make sure they are going to school feeling happy and comfortable, knowing they can succeed by taking advantage of all the resources that the school and their teachers provide them,” Cuesta said.

In March, the group sent a letter to the district proposing 16 key action items in an effort to counter the continued academic underperformance among Latino students.

“The district has always known about these problems, but in reality, enough has never been done to close this unjust gap,” said Semi Gurbiel, the soon-to-be president of LPO. “We hope that they can help us with the ideas that we have given them, and that they accept and can work with us to increase graduation rates and help set up Latino students who work hard for success.”

These points include ensuring reliable internet service for students at home, clarifying resources to increase Latino student participation in academic programs, and expanding mental health support. The petition also suggests actionable, cost-free plans like instituting tutoring programs between model upper-classmen and newer students to help them achieve their goals.

This 16-point letter is the product of LPO parents’ collaboration and comprehensive analysis of the problems Latino students face. It also suggests resources like scholarships and internships with tech companies that could help combat the disparities. 

The district’s most recent renewal of its Local Control Accountability Plan calls to implement better internet access, academic counseling, mental health services and “culturally relevant education,” which all the sentiments of LPO’s 16-point petition.

“We face many challenges, mainly socioeconomic problems and a language barrier,” Gubriel said. “We have parents that have to work two or three jobs and are unable to keep their children on the right academic track like other parents can. And looking at the academic statistics of Latino students in our district is provocative and makes us want to give better opportunities to our children and our community.”

Rip, Scoop, Eat: Oren’s Hummus brings authentic Israeli cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

When visiting Oren’s Hummus, it’s hard to miss the quintessential “Rip, Scoop, Eat” slogan accompanied by cheerful images of children demonstrating the technique. In an effort to establish Israeli food as a cuisine staple in the Bay Area, the two leaders of this chain restaurant (and the poster children’s parents) display the approachable presentation at every location.

“We came up with the Hummus Eating Guide, which is to take your pita, rip it, scoop a big bite of hummus out of this bowl, and repeat,” executive chef and partner David Cohen said.

Cohen wanted to welcome a variety of diners to explore Israeli cuisine, not excluding those unfamiliar with the concept of eating a bowl of hummus as a meal, he said.

Oren’s Hummus began with Oren Dobronsky, a successful Israeli entrepreneur, when he decided to depart from his established career in tech and share his passion for the flavors of his beloved hometown, Tel Aviv.

Dobronsky and his wife, a restaurant professional, opened their first hummus shop on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Today, the chain has five restaurant locations around the Bay Area.

The management of Oren’s Hummus also offers alternate, scaled-down formats of the shop: pop-ups, express kitchens, and — to Cohen’s delight — farmers’ market stands.

When Cohen first moved to the Bay Area, he became enamoured with the Californian concept of farmers markets and harbored fantasies of offering a stand. When he became involved in Oren’s Hummus, Cohen saw the opportunity to fulfill that dream.

Finding opportunities to sell at numerous local farmers’ markets was “really a passion project to expand the brand, but also something [he] always wanted to do,” Cohen said.

Through these efforts, Oren’s Hummus has spread the love of authentic Israeli cuisine beyond their restaurants, making it available to a broader scope of customers. Even during the pandemic, the business distributed meals for public service workers and students in need.

“We [gave back to] the community by providing meals to schools that needed them because many school lunch programs and subsidy programs were closed,” Cohen said. “When kids were dropping off or picking up homework, they were getting a brown bag lunch of healthy Oren’s Hummus cuisine that we were preparing for hundreds of kids.”

But the more consumers Oren’s Hummus has aimed to reach and feed, the more difficult their mission for consistency has become.

“Of course, it’s always a challenge to make sure that the guest is receiving the same bowl of hummus in Palo Alto that they are in San Francisco and in Los Gatos,” Cohen said. “There’s the challenge of maintaining a consistency in the guest experience and the quality of that component to the overall restaurant operation.”

Despite the importance of consistency, Oren’s Hummus does not cut corners by using no-fuss equalizers like packaged hummus or reheated pita bread; freshness always comes first, according to Cohen.

The attention to detail across all locations stems from the restaurant’s commitment to quality and authenticity. A unique aspect of this is using spices that have been sourced from the Middle East.

“The quality of our product is second to none, everything is mixed every day,” Cohen said. “The hummus is mixed in every location every day, sometimes twice a day. Pita is baked all day long so that it’s always fresh and warm and fluffy. The baba ganoush and the other dips are made every morning. The falafels are fried to order. Everything we do is about freshness.”

The Cobblery: Quality craftsmanship stands the test of time

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH AND ARYA NASIKKAR

For the sole operators of the family-owned Cobblery on California Ave., engineering innovative and often slightly experimental solutions to a wide range of repair requests is the core of the business.

Manager and seasoned crafter Jessica Roth has taken on challenges like redesigning a backpack strap for someone in a wheelchair, elevating a denim belt with a one-of-a-kind leather embellishment and reconstructing an old favorite shoe pair to accommodate orthopedic needs.

Roth is pictured in front of her shop. (Dana Huch)

“I will try anything. I am a trier. I am a ‘It never hurts to ask’ person,” Roth said. “And sometimes I surprise myself.”

She and her family learned the craft of cobblery (a term Roth contends that her mother coined) entirely from generations of self-teaching and relayed lessons. Shoe repair is an unusual trade in that the only way to become a cobbler is through inheritance or apprenticeship.

Roth owns and operates the Cobblery on California Ave. in Palo Alto alongside her husband and her brother-in-law. Her family also owns the European Cobblery in Downtown Los Altos.

“I don’t know how people get into the trade if you’re not born into it, to be honest,” Roth said.

Fortunately, the passionate crafter found herself at home in the family business early on in life and spent hours after school exploring the possibilities of the materials. Roth described her serendipitous, play-oriented apprenticeship as “learning without knowing that we were learning.” In the playroom for her and her siblings in the back of the store, Roth made tiny doll shoes and purses out of real leather.

“My parents always encouraged us to get creative with the supplies,” she said. “It was like our iPad.”

With this harnessed enthusiasm, Roth was able to surpass the skill of her mother at a relatively young age. Nevertheless, every day in the shop offers an opportunity to continue improving.

Roth is pictured in the Cobblery workshop. (Dana Huch)

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and I’m still learning new things,” Roth said. “I’ll come up with things and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t been doing it this way for so long!’”

One of Roth’s alteration specialties is resizing tall boots to fit various calves. She had done this for about 18 years with a tedious, imperfect process of measuring boot and calf circumferences until one day her inner inventive craftswoman stepped in and revolutionized a no-measure, perfect-fit guaranteed method. Roth improvised during a fitting by folding and using tape to resize temporarily while the client was wearing the boot before completing the alteration.

“I couldn’t wait to tell my mom,” Roth laughed. “I was like, ‘Wait until you see what I figured out!’”

In addition to the early mastery of her trade, growing up in the family store on California Ave. and interacting with customers gave Roth a sense of home in the business and a connection with the community.

One unexpected way Roth gives back to the artistic community that supports her family’s business is through her micro-grant public art installation, the Poppy Project. With funding from the City of Palo Alto, Roth teamed with a graphic designer and a local print shop to create decals that could be placed on sidewalks and structures. These scattered installations feature the state flower along with thoughtful words, brightening the full stretch of California Ave.

An installation of the Poppy Project is pictured. (Courtesy the Cobblery)

“Some of my words were mental health-oriented: ‘Awareness,’ ‘Courage,’” Roth said. “…I just wanted to lift people’s spirits.”

Curious crafters in the community also benefit from Roth’s “underground” nighttime classes which teach at-home repairs and offer open-ended workshops for those who want to create something using the shop’s materials.

“It’s super informal,” Roth said. “It’s not a running event or anything; just anybody that wants to learn … I will make the time to [teach them].”

In the future, she hopes to expand her workshops into summer camps or structured classes, in part inspired by a beret-making class Roth attended in Paris which planted new seeds for these ambitions.

Despite the delight the Cobblery brings to its community, staying in business as a small craft shop is a struggle in the tech-central Palo Alto region, where space isn’t cheap and interweb presence is imperative.

The Cobblery’s word-of-mouth way of business has not changed much since its founding in 1940, and is not exactly tailored to the modern world, Roth said.

“We’re really not tech savvy here,” she said. “We’re really cobblers.”

But even so, in the past decade the Cobblery has seen a demographic shift take place with new patrons gaining interest in their craft. In contrast with the usual older clientele who were attached to shoe repair by tradition, a younger generation is drawn to the business due to its environmental conservation and sustainability factor.

“Shoe repair was a dying trade,” Roth said, with an emphasis on “was.” “I have new hope because of the new generation wanting to not throw things in landfills, but for a long time we became a very disposable society.”

Roth explained that support for local craft businesses is a strong force in shifting towards sustainability on a large scale. Quality and repair are at the heart of shrinking human impact.

“We should care about our Earth,” Roth said. “We should definitely try to keep things around for as long as possible. … I think that buying nice things and keeping them around for a long time is not only good for you and your foot health, but you’re not being wasteful.”

The Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 410 California Ave., Palo Alto. The European Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 385 State St., Los Altos.

A modest guide to the Sunday morning Mountain View farmers’ market

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTOS BY CARLY HELTZEL AND ARYA NASIKKAR

It can be hard to navigate the more than 80 diverse stands at the Mountain View farmers’ market — each stocked with an array of fresh produce and quality products — but it’s hard to go wrong.

Here are some booths to look out for at the Mountain View Transit Center every Sunday morning:

AVILA FARMS

(Carly Heltzel)

Among the first stands you’ll spot is Avila Farms, a Hollister-based family farm that sells seasonal and year-round vegetables such as zucchini, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots and beets. 

Jeannette Avila, who works on the farm and at farmers markets, said that with their large family of eight all helping out, Avila Farms has expanded from the five-acre space her parents first bought in Watsonville to the 23-acre Hollister property they have operated on since 2002. Her parents first founded the farm after her mother moved to the U.S. from being a farmer in Mexico.

Smiling, Avila said she most enjoys interacting with customers at the farmers’ market.

“You see them more like friends and family, not just customers,” Avila said. “And they tell you how they made their produce or what meals they had with the vegetables, and it’s really nice to hear.” 

WEST FLOWERS

(Carly Heltzel)

Aside from food, the vibrant and full-bloomed bouquets of flowers at the family-run West Flowers Farm stand catch eyes further into the market.

While the choice between newly in-season sunflowers, soon-to-be-sold-out dahlias or full petaled rose-like ranunculus can be difficult, the TLC put into each one is clear.

“We love what we do and it shows in our flowers,” said Alma Calderon, daughter of West Flowers’ founders.

Her parents started the business over 30 years ago and have established relationships with their clients — going so far as to even trust their customers to pay for flowers at the next weekend’s farmers market. 

The flowers are freshly cut every night at their nursery in Colma and arranged in bouquets by Calderon’s mother. She described her mother as having a great eye for flower arrangements, with each bouquet ending up “different in its own right.”

“The whole thing that we’re doing here, it works well because my mom and dad just care so much about the growing and the people that they sell to,” Calderon said. “That’s what makes it successful, us wanting to be here every weekend with all the clients.”

A typical farmers’ market day means Calderon and her family all wake up at 4:30 a.m. to load the truck with everything picked out the night before, carefully selected based on customer preferences. They arrive around 7 a.m. to set up the stand before opening at 8. Calderon said the rest of the day goes quickly, because she’s doing work she’s passionate about.

“We just love working together and love being here,” Calderon said. “And we love seeing the expression on people’s faces when they come in to buy things.”

RODIN RANCH

(Carly Heltzel)

One of the most unique vendors at the market is Rodin Ranch, a family-run Almond farm that sells raw, unpasteurized almonds, flavored almonds, dried fruits and a plethora of almond butters.

The Modesto-based farm’s most popular items include the butter toffee almonds, or the more imaginative chili lemon flavored almonds as well as the honey roasted almond butter.

Vendor Charlie added that his family has been selling at the Mountain View Farmers Market for over 17 years now.

“I like the customers, the vendors, the vibe, the families that come in with kids,” Charlie said. “Yeah, just everything.”

LIVE EARTH FARM

(Carly Heltzel)

The 140-acre Watsonville-based Live Earth Farm has it all. The all-organic certified produce includes year-round vegetables and sold-out berries, stand worker Erin Harris said. She added that she “hands-down” likes their berries the best.

Harris, who used to work in the fields at Live Earth, said they rotate various crops on the 50 acres of farmable land so that nutrients are properly and naturally restored to the soil.

When asked about her favorite aspect of the farmers’ market, she said that the intra-vendor bartering system is always a fun way to get her morning yogurt, but she appreciates the overall “vibe” too. 

“It’s a nice little community,” Harris said. “You get to meet a lot of people.”

RAMOS FARM

(Carly Heltzel)

In a small Fresno County town called Sanger, Ramos Farms was founded almost 7 years ago and has been selling fruits at the farmers market ever since.

Specializing in stone fruits and citrus, depending on the season, Ramos Farms has “any stone fruit you can think of,” according to vendor Hugo Ramos, but he said he is partial to the “funny looking” and baseball-sized yellow peach variety called “Sweet Dreams.”

Ramos said he most enjoys teaching people about the nuances of the stone fruit world and having the opportunity to interact with so many customers.

“I love talking to people,” Ramos said. “I like meeting them and seeing what’s new [and] what they should learn about, what color [the fruit] is, how it should ripen up, anything like that.”

Parting with a simple message, Ramos said he encourages everyone to eat more fruit, citing health benefits — and of course that delicious taste.

COUNTRY RHODES

(Carly Heltzel)

As vendor Omar Cisneros described it, Country Rhodes is a “one stop shop” for all your produce needs, growing everything from avocados and cucumbers to tomatoes and watermelons.

And although Cisneros said his personal favorites are the figs and grapes, he said that Phil Rhodes, the son of the farm’s founder and its current owner, is known as the “Tomato Man” and tomatoes are considered their specialty. 

The family-owned farm was founded in 1945 by Phil Rhodes’ father in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley called Visalia.

Cisneros’ typical day at the Farmers’ Market mirrors that of most other vendors, he said, which largely includes running around the stand, getting everything organized, and serving their produce to as many people as possible. 

At almost every stand, the vendors seemed to agree that interacting with customers and providing a vital service is a mutually fulfilling experience.

“My favorite part is coming out here and bringing fresh produce to people who would otherwise have to go to grocery stores and get everything pre-packaged,” Cisneros said. “Being able to bring fresh produce to people makes my day.”

Local non-profit Mentor Tutor Connection continues to serve Mountain View and Los Altos students through pandemic

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN AND RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO COURTESY MENTOR TUTOR CONNECTION

A wedding or baby shower guest list typically includes parents, neighbors and long-time friends. For some former Mentor Tutor Connection students, their mentors — thanks to their patience, kindness and advice — also make the guest list.

Mentor Tutor Connection is a nonprofit that seeks to “enhance academic and life skills for students” by offering tutoring for kindergarten through eighth grade students in Los Altos and Mountain View school districts and one-on-one mentoring for students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Tutors either work one-on-one with students in math and language arts in their classrooms, or, through the Reading Fellows program, a more individualized program where they meet with students many times throughout six weeks to help them with their reading ability.

The organization’s mentors work for years to build personal relationships with high school students, many of whom are first generation college bound students.

“The mentoring program pairs a caring adult from the community, an adult who is non-judgemental, who will be there for the student,” said Carol Olson, executive director at Mentor Tutor Connection. “Our mentor program is focused on whatever the student needs or wants.”

Mentors are usually brought in by other people in the organization, but can be just about any experienced adult with a little extra time, a desire to help others and a lot of patience. Mentors go through a careful training and preparation process before being matched with the right student 

Once paired, mentors help their students with school work, time management, college applications and generally are able to guide and share their experience with students.

“Over time, the students trust [the mentors] more and more, open up more and more, and eventually you’re having this huge impact on them because you show up,” said Sally Chaves, president of Mentor Tutor Connection. “You didn’t raise [the student], but they’re just a special person that becomes like family.”

While at first glance it might seem that the organization only serves students, the mentors also benefit mostly by virtue of them being around students, and being able to give back to the community. 

“It’s nice to know I’m helping [my student],” mentor Leslie Micetich said. “She just wants to talk to someone else beside her family. Me too.” 

Micetich has been a mentor since April 2020. Despite having endured the pandemic with her mentee, she still found ways to support her student. She mailed a birthday card, made fudge on a video call and even set up a meeting with a special education teacher, which is her student’s dream job. 

Not all transitions to the pandemic were smooth, as some mentors struggled to figure out how to meet with their mentees online, and everyone was facing some hard times. 

“[The teen’s] lives were turned upside down, they’re feeling isolated, they’re often hit by economic hardships, or they have to take care of their younger siblings who are in class,” Olson said. “They are struggling [to] engage with school, whether it’s tech or having a private place, there are pretty significant stressors.”

It is only now that vaccinations are occurring and restrictions have been lifted in California that mentors will once again be able to meet with and support their students properly. 

“I find it very rewarding,” Jeff Purnell, a mentor said. “[I get to] use my privilege to help others who haven’t had nearly as much privilege as I have had.”

To contact Mentor Tutor Connections, click here.

Palo Alto Bell’s Books continues decades-long mission to match the “right books with the right people”

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Browsing through the ceiling-length shelves of Bell’s Books feels like opening a box of historical treasures; the variety of books a customer encounters might include first edition Steinbeck or Twain novels, an early grimoire (book of spells) once considered effective in summoning angels or a collection of Pablo Picasso artwork signed by the renowned 20th-century artist. 

Throughout 86 years of operation, Bell’s Books has evolved from its beginnings as a college textbook shop to the new, used and rare bookstore it is today. Today, Faith Bell is Bell’s Books’ second generation owner. 

Faith Bell is pictured in front of a Bell’s Books display.

While the store orders new books from publishers in response to consumer demand, Bell said that she has always specialized in stocking used and rare collectibles.

“Our love is really with the antiquarian books,” she said. “We always like to find unusual or unique or rare material in unusual topics. The joy is in finding things that people haven’t seen before.”

Bell defines truly rare books as “ones that you simply find, almost never,” using the word “rare” sparingly and opting for “scarce” a majority of the time. Books can be truly rare, she said, for factors like their beauty or limited number.

Bell’s Books is also sometimes interested in provenance — the identity of a book’s previous owner — whether this is a notable individual or an interesting, anecdotal one; one example is the subject of English folk song “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.” 

“I have a book that belonged to the real Bobby Shafto with his bookplate in it,” Bell said. “I came across his bookplate and went ‘Oh my gosh! It is, it’s the real one!’ Because it has his manor house, and where it was and the time period’s right. So it’s funny, the little things like that.”

Two bookcases — where certain titles are kept for fragility or value — are pictured. 

The process of collecting and selling used books starts with a phone call, in which a Bell’s Books staff member questions the potential seller about their collection’s genres, size and condition. With this relative understanding, Bell’s Books staff arrive wherever the books are stored, curate a selection and make an offer.

“I have to figure out which [books] are likely to go quickly, in which case I can pay well for them, or which of them are still going to be sitting in my warehouse years from now,” Bell said. 

Many staff members are knowledgeable in their unique intellectual fields — whether something like philosophy or true crime — which assists Bell in book-buying. At any given time, thousands of boxed-up books in the employees-only back of the store are in the process of being cleaned, researched and priced after purchase. 

“One of the things that makes this area interesting is that there are more people per capita with multiple advanced degrees in this county than there are anywhere else in the world,” Bell said. “So, it means that people with very specialized interests have fascinating libraries and we’re able to access those.”

Despite the growing digitalization of books, Bell is firm in the opinion that print books hold great value to their readers. However, she noted that libraries of Stanford professors she used to visit were much more vast before the popularization of digital books.

“Call me a Luddite, but I think having access to information that doesn’t require electronic devices is important,” Bell said.

For Bell, her family and staff, the feeling of looking up at walls of books and knowing they are all “waiting for you whenever you want,” simply can’t be replaced by e-books.

“I very much enjoy the physical book,” Bell said. “The aspect of paper and binding, typography, ink. And that’s something I really love to share with people. Putting together … the right books with the right people, is a lifelong goal and joy, and I’d say that all my staff share that as the dominant force in their lives.”

Bell’s Books is open in downtown Palo Alto every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 536 Emerson Street.

A slice of California: State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria serves locally-sourced passion

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Enter a new state of mind: the embodiment of all things California, tossed into the form of a family-owned pizzeria.

Known for its distinct Californian dishes and family-friendly dining experience, State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria embraces the entire founding family’s passions. The Downtown Los Altos restaurant — and Palo Alto counterpart — offer an eclectic array of specialty pies, California brewed beverages and even ‘90s arcade games. 

“This is something that I’m passionate about … I love making pizza, and I love playing pinball, and I love craft beer, and I love local produce and we do all those things,” chef and co-owner Lars Smith said.

Chef and co-owner Lars Smith is pictured in the State of Mind kitchen.

As chef, Smith carefully assembles State of Mind’s frequently changing menu, experimenting with in-season, local produce. The newly available summer menu features some of Smith’s current favorite dishes, including the “Been All Around This World” pizza topped with summer squash and the award-winning “Elotero” pizza, inspired by Mexican street corn.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing every day [with] a menu that never changed,” Smith said. “I love, every three months, having to put out a new menu… It’s just exciting for me.”

The entryway view of State of Mind’s open kitchen is pictured.

Unlike many family-owned restaurants, State of Mind opened a second location, called State of Mind Slice House, located only a half mile away from Smith’s childhood home in Palo Alto.

With almost the entire Smith family being born and raised within the Bay Area, the locality of both sites are significant to the family’s personal connection to the community. 

Opening a family-owned restaurant like State of Mind was a long-held dream for the Smiths, with two generations of restaurant business experience backing them up.

“When my dad started getting close to retirement, he [said] ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about a family restaurant,’” Smith said.

Nearly every member of Smith’s family helps run State of Mind, whether it be choosing which beverages to serve, hiring or managing finances. Even Smith’s eight-year-old son helps out by building new tables for the restaurant with his grandfather.

To the family, State of Mind isn’t just a restaurant and source of income, but a part of who they are: a way for them to funnel their passions and connect with the community.

“I bring my kids here on my days off and my brother is here playing pinball on his days off,” Smith said. “This place is very authentic to who we are and our experience, and it’s really, really fun to share that with other people.”

Smith is pictured tossing pizza dough.

Smith’s pizza making experience began with a job at Pizza My Heart, which he started a few months after graduating high school. Initially, he intended to use the job as a launching pad to a different kind of career in dining. 

“I had this idea [that] ‘I’m going to do something great and then work for a really fancy restaurant,’” Smith said. 

He attended college and majored in history, but soon returned to the culinary scene. After dipping a toe into the world of fine dining, he found himself drawn back to the more casual, accessible charm of Pizza My Heart.

“I fully embraced it,” Smith said. “I loved it, I worked my way up in the management and corporate structure of the company [and realized] I really like pizza. And I really like wearing a t-shirt and jeans to work,” he said.

Despite the happiness that Smith found at Pizza My Heart, he had other ambitions.

“I always had in the back of my mind, ‘I’m going to do something on my own someday,’… with the goal of owning my own restaurant or food truck catering,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted to do my own thing.”

Fulfilling this dream, Smith established State of Mind with his family members and two former Pizza My Heart co-workers: his wife and his business partner. 

Along with the two co-owners, Smith brought a vision for a more casual environment from Pizza My Heart. He regularly interacts with customers as they bounce between seating, the bar and the arcade.

The possibility of opening a third location, still within the South Bay Area, is something which the co-owners are looking into, following the success of their second restaurant location. 

“We would like to expand thoughtfully and sustainably for us in ways that make sense, [so] that we could still keep the family values we have: treating employees well, highlighting local and seasonal produce,” Smith said.

However, Smith said that the restaurant won’t expand outside of the local region, staying true to State of Mind’s roots and mission to serve the diverse community that they hold close to heart.

“We’ve created a place that’s open for everybody to come,” Smith said. “It’s all about neighborhood and community and celebration.”

State of Mind currently offers indoor dining and a fully open bar and arcade in adherence with county COVID-19 guidelines. You can order online here, visit State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria at 101 Plaza N, Los Altos, CA 94042 or visit State of Mind Slice House at 3850 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

Passion and resilience keeps Books Inc. thriving for more than a century

STORY BY DANA HUCH AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Books Inc. founder Anton Roman struck it rich during the Gold Rush, he used his loot to build the chain’s first bookstore and publishing house in Shasta, California. 170 years later, Books Inc. remains the oldest independent bookseller on the West Coast.

But lately, the bookstore has had its fair share of struggles. On March 16, 2020, all businesses received a 24-hour’s notice that they were required to close up shop by the next day for an undetermined amount of time. For most of the two months the shutdown lasted, Books Inc. managers and staff were in the dark, not knowing what lay ahead for the business, their coworkers and themselves.

“There were so many questions and so much anxiety and fear,” Seamer said.

Loyal patrons of Books Inc.’s ten locations around the Bay Area, too, were concerned for the future of their neighborhood bookstores, so they took Books Inc.’s website by storm to fight for the business. Never before had their modest website operation experienced such a flood of book orders. Within the first week of stores closing, Books Inc. needed to expand its website staff of two people to 20 in response to the incredible surprise.

“That’s really one of the main reasons that we were able to keep going,” Seamer said. “All of our customers, because they couldn’t come into our stores, found us online and continued to support us that way.”

With this support, Books Inc. was not only able to stay in business, but also keep the entire staff employed and on health insurance through the lockdown. Seamer said managing through that period of extreme uncertainty has been his proudest work.

Shelves at Books Inc.’s Mountain View location.

Gold and resilience established the bookstore we know today — but mostly resilience. The pandemic was certainly not Books Inc.’s first time overcoming opposition. Transitions in leadership, ruthless corporate competitors and even the earthquake and fires in San Francisco during the early 20th century have all failed to wipe out the little juggernaut.

The outpouring of website support in response to the shutdown reflects how much customers appreciate Books Inc.’s attention to individual communities and their character.

“Each one of our neighborhoods is very unique and we want our bookstores to really reflect that community, carry what that community wants to buy and really be a part of that community,” Seamer said. “So we strive to keep each store very different from the others. There’s no cookie-cutter model.”

The Palo Alto location in the Town and Country Village shopping center, for example, emphasizes books for children due to the family-friendly atmosphere. The store’s staff has a knack for children’s book selections and an entire room is dedicated to children’s and young adult books.

The Mountain View location, on the other hand, has a stronger tech and industry focused selection due to its proximity to the Google campus and other tech companies.

Maintaining collections tailored for locals is part of Books Inc.’s mission to “bring a love of reading in as many ways as we can to as many people as we can,” Seamer said. But letting locations remain independent while maintaining the unity of the company can be a challenge, as providing resources requires centralized organization. Books Inc. relies heavily on the passionate staff of each location to provide feedback and run stores with some curative freedom.

“Bookstores … attract book people,” Seamer said. “The people who work in our stores love books. They love being around books; they love talking about the books they enjoy and hearing from our customers about the books they enjoy.”

Tucked among the spines of books on Books Inc.’s shelves, friendly notes from staff members and children recommend their favorites to perusers. Recommendations are not a one-way street for this unique independent bookstore, with booksellers paying close attention to feedback from customers to make sure that the selection reflects what the community wants to read.

A staff recommendation tucked in a shelf.

Human interaction plays a major role in creating value for brick and mortar stores like Books Inc. When shopping online, no seasoned reader is there to answer a customer’s questions about whether this book is the perfect gift for the niece they see twice a year or recommend a hidden gem based on the customer’s favorite book.

“It’s a place you can come and experience the discovery of something new,” Seamer said. “I think that’s what I love about bookstores, myself, is walking into any bookstore and knowing that somewhere in there there’s going to be something I love that I had never heard of before.”

Books Inc. makes this delight accessible to the community beyond storefronts through their nonprofit efforts and collaborations with local schools. With their book fairs, Books Inc. generates money to donate to local schools by setting up popup bookstores for students and parents. In a normal year, there are about 50 of these events at schools throughout their various locations’ neighborhoods.

Another way Books Inc. extends the love of reading to its communities has been through the esteemed events hosted in their stores.

“We love hosting events from the smallest to the largest,” Seamer said. “There could be one evening I’d be hosting somebody who lives in the neighborhood that self published a book and ten people show up and it’s just a great private party in the store. I love that Books Inc. can provide that. The next night, we do maybe Hilary Clinton and we have 2,000 people lined up around the block.”

During his years as events coordinator of the Books Inc. store on Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco, the two largest events Seamer was involved with both attracted the same size audience of around 2,000 people. The comparable throngs came to meet Hilary Clinton in one case and in the other, a social media sensation, Doug the Pug.

“It was a really fun event,” Seamer said. “I have never seen so many dogs in a bookstore.”

Though the pandemic has inhibited events of this sort for a while, Books Inc. has continued to host well-attended book talks virtually.

“It’s a hard time to look too far ahead right now,” said Seamer. “Who knows what we’ll be able to do a month from now… We do look forward to the time when we can have large events in our stores again.”

As restrictions have eased, Seamer has witnessed the Bookstore Renaissance after the Dark (P)ages. With operations reopening, Books Inc. celebrates their resilience in enduring such a challenge.

“It feels like we can see the other side of it and to have been part of helping lead our company through that while keeping all of our staff employed has just been… I get choked up a little bit thinking about it,” Seamer said. 

After a previous generation of booksellers recovered from a historical natural disaster, Books Inc. seems to once again have surmounted momentous opposition with the pandemic shutdown. Thanks to its resilience and importance to the community, Books Inc. remains a cornerstone of west coast book culture.

“On behalf of all of Books Inc., we just cannot show our appreciation enough for how much support we’ve received from everybody at all of our stores,” Seamer said. “We wouldn’t be here without our customers and without the support they continue to give us.”

From records to books, Linden Tree’s 40-year legacy of creating memories for children across the Bay Area

STORY BY MIA BASSETT AND CEDRIC CHAN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Linden Tree Children’s Books has transported children to a world of storytelling for generations, almost becoming a bona fide rite of passage in Los Altos. But few remember its origins as a record store 40 years ago.

Founded by Dennis and Linda Ronberg in 1981, Linden Tree fulfilled their vision of a children’s music store, operating out of their home in Seattle. When the couple moved back to Ms. Ronberg’s hometown, Los Altos, they decided to take the next step and open a storefront on State St.

Now, a new location and two sets of owners later, the records are gone from the shelves, but the store has maintained its original vision as a resource for Los Altos families.

COMMUNITY

Most Los Altos children grow up browsing the shelves of Linden Tree for new books or sitting in its large, cozy chairs and reading for hours. But the community that Linden Tree has created around a love for sharing stories stretches beyond the borders of its home city.

“People from 20 or 30 miles away will come to our store because that’s the only resource,” Mr. Ronberg said.

Linden Tree has seen generations of children grow up — some have even returned to become employees, said Lisa Blanchette, who has worked at the store since the Ronbergs first opened shop. It’s a testament to the dedication that Linden Tree has inspired in its community, extending beyond just a place to buy books.

Part of the Linden Tree experience, customers and employees said, is having conversations with employees who can tailor suggestions individually.

The exterior of Linden Tree in Downtown Los Altos.

And these recommendations have become friendships too, said Linda Parish, who has been taking her daughter to Linden Tree “since she was chewing on books.” Over her years of visiting the bookstore, Parish said she has gotten to know several of the employees, even texting some on a regular basis.

“I think [the kids] just adore knowing someone in the store, who knows their name and knows their interests and can make recommendations for books,” she said.

“I think that’s really what sets a store like Linden Tree apart, … not just from other bookstores and other retail stores, but it also sets us apart from online shopping,” Saccheri said. “I’ll confess I’ve used Amazon for 20 years and the recommendations are just as bad now as they were 20 years ago.” 

These interactions aren’t just limited to shopping, either. Part of what has kept customers coming back to Linden Tree time and again has been the events — from movie nights to author visits to writing workshops — that the store regularly hosts. 

IMPORTANCE OF BOOKS

Almost three decades after Linden Tree began planting roots in the Los Altos community, the Ronbergs made the decision to move on in 2009 because of Mr. Ronberg’s illness, and sold the store.

The future of Linden Tree was thrown into flux, however, when it went up for sale again in 2019, but found few bidders. Fortunately for the store, former LinkedIn employee and local parent Chris Saccheri and his wife Anne, who visited frequently with their daughter, weren’t quite ready to let one of the last independent bookstores left in the Bay Area die out, Saccheri said.

“I feel like everybody has a moment [where] you hear that something you love like a business is in trouble and you’re like, ‘What if I got together some friends and we bought that,’ but nobody ever does it,” he said.

Determined to break that trend, Saccheri reached out to his former LinkedIn coworker Flo Grosskurth, and together they purchased Linden Tree, stepping from tech industry into literature. 

“I think our first goal primarily was just keep it in business and prove to ourselves — and to the world around us — that a small, independent bookstore can still be profitable and can survive in the age of Amazon and online shopping,” Saccheri said.

Their vision, Saccheri said, is to get children excited about reading and revive Linden Tree’s community through its events.

“The community is kind of depending on you to carry this thing forward … and you want to live up to that standard [the previous owners set] for great service and a fantastic, welcoming environment for kids to come in and get excited about books and reading,” Saccheri said. “It was definitely scary — it’s still kind of scary — but I think the best things are a little bit scary, right? That’s where the fun is.” 

It’s been a difficult undertaking as a children’s bookstore, which Saccheri described as a “niche within niche,” but it’s also helped keep business alive for Linden Tree by attracting customers from faraway cities.

Shopping for books in person — or perhaps just hanging around the store — is an irreplaceable experience, defying increased accessibility to digital books, Blanchette said.

“A lot of children … are growing up with so much screen exposure, and a book is a way to not encourage so much time in front of a screen,” Ms. Ronberg said. “When ebooks started to happen, the demise of the physical book was predicted. And it’s just not the same, holding a book, the way a book smells, the turning the page yourself.”

PANDEMIC

By early 2020, Grosskurth and Saccheri had finally started learning the ropes of the store, and in around March, they hosted their first Linden Tree book fair. A raging success, it left the two optimistic about Linden Tree’s future in the community, Saccheri said. 

Then they were struck by COVID-19. 

“I remember very distinctly driving home from that book fair and being like, ‘I think we’re finally getting it. Like, things are starting to click,’” Saccheri said. “I was so optimistic on that drive home, and then a week later we had to close the doors completely.”

The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the bookstore, which had only dabbled in the online retail market. Despite having an online inventory and purchasing system, Linden Tree only attracted a couple online orders a month, at most.

The interior of Linden Tree in Downtown Los Altos.

Fortunately for the store, its loyal customer base transitioned to online shopping as quickly as Linden Tree closed its doors, and online orders skyrocketed. But without any robust infrastructure to handle the orders, Grosskurth and Saccheri took a traditional approach: doing things by hand.

With each drop-off, employees would load up their trunks with up to a dozen bags of books and drive them to customers’ houses. Saccheri said that for him, it became an opportunity to get to know new parts of the community that loved Linden Tree so dearly.

“Los Altos is sneakily big,” he remarked with a laugh.

Purely online operations remained in effect for three months, until easing restrictions allowed gradual steps back to normalcy. Recently, Linden Tree has been able to start hosting the book readings and other events that have made it so beloved by children in Los Altos.

“It was fantastic, being able to see the kids get excited and react to those readings, and it was really fun for the authors too,” Saccheri said. “It was [a couple of the authors’] first times actually getting to read their books face to face with children, seeing their reactions as they read. And that’s what it’s all about.”

These in-person events put on by Chris and Flo are carrying on founders Dennis and Linda’s original vision for the store as a community-building resource for Los Altos families. 

“They’re young and enthusiastic, and they’ve done an amazing job keeping it going and really making it a wonderful store again,” Ms. Ronberg said.