In-person school welcomes a new era of style for Los Altos seniors

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

After a year and a half minimized to pixel boxes, Los Altos High School students are finally returning to campus and showing off their evolved senses of style. These are a few stand-out looks from seniors the first week of the 2021–2022 school year.

Grace Kloeckl preserved at-home comfort for in-person school with her “Casual PJ Day” look. Caught striding briskly through the quad in baggy red plaid trousers, Kloeckl made a statement with her outfit about her appreciation of both aesthetics and utility.

“I really like baggy clothes because I’m the most comfy in baggy clothes and they’re also just fun,” Kloeckl said. “I feel like you can move with them.”

Paired with her bold pants (Urban Outfitters), Kloeckl wore a white tank top (Urban Outfitters), a butterfly necklace and Reebok sneakers which she called “the comfiest shoes I’ve ever worn.” She added an extra touch of pizazz with her blue mascara inspired by a friend.

“Adding little things like that to your style can really spice it up,” she said.

In the first week of the school year, Kloeckl has witnessed evidence of a widespread fashion evolution.

“I’m noticing that more people have defined styles,” she said. “A lot of people are taking risks.”

Reed Keenan’s passion for New York thrift shopping came through in his Tuesday look, which he titled, “Brown.” He wore a New York Yankees hat, plain black Gilden t-shirt, thrifted brown pants and Converse sneakers. The jacket not pictured was also brown; Keenan said this is “a super underrated color.”

Also underrated is the power of thrift shopping, according to Keenan. He used to shop at only the mainstream stores, but recently the accessible prices and sustainability of secondhand clothing won him over and he is staying loyal to his new style plug.

Keenan’s words of wisdom for novice thrift shoppers are, “Be selective, try different stores and different areas and a lot of it is just luck.”

His newfound appreciation for thrift shopping has allowed Keenan to tap into his unique sense of style rather than following the trends preplanned and by name brands.

“I think that through clothes, you can discover truly who you are,” he said. “I encourage everyone to do that however you want to. You should not care about what other people think about how you dress and it’s completely up to you. Just own it and be yourself.”

Lauren Grady thrift shopped before it was cool, and her outfit featuring preloved treasures shows it.

“My mom has always been shopping secondhand since I was a little kid and she used to be really embarrassed about it so I would always go with her,” Grady said. “I’m glad that it’s popular [now].”

On Monday, she wore a thrifted Giants shirt, off-white baggy “little boys’ pants in a larger size,” Reebok sneakers her mom picked out and a bracelet from a Peru hiking adventure.

Between having moved recently and waking up late, Grady’s outfit she titled, “I set my alarm for 7 p.m. by accident” was a rushed and low-stock invention. Still, her style shines through.

Others appear to be embracing their unique styles, too, and Grady has noticed a new collective confidence across the board with back-to-school looks.

“From what I remember two years ago, people weren’t as bold,” Grady said. “I see a lot of people standing out more.”

You can follow Lauren on instagram @laurengradyyyy.

Mayah Rengulbai’s Tuesday “AP Stats at seven in the morning kind of ‘fit” showed off her creative eye for hidden gems that can be found anywhere — the thrift store and Mom’s closet, namely.

She threw together the borrowed green button shirt, thrifted brown pants and Doc Martens before rushing out the door. Mornings without time for hesitation often supply her most original style ideas.

“I feel like [with] spontaneous [outfits], you kind of experiment with that spur-of-the-moment, ‘Let me see what looks good together’ [mindset],” Rengulbai said.

Instincts are the strongest force when it comes to guiding her choices, but Rengulbai also finds inspiration in the creative TikTok fashion community.

“There’s so much ease to just uploading a video and having other people see your style and gaining inspiration from other people online,” she said.

Like many others in her class, Rengulbai has come out of her shell more after the distance learning (and style studying) period.

“I literally wore just leggings and a hoodie every single day of freshman and sophomore year,” she said. “But I think even with [the pandemic], people being at home, really getting to curate their own style and gain inspiration from other influences is something we’ve all been able to do.”

Emelie Enser said that recently, her clothing choices have started to reflect the mood or season of life she is in at the moment. Since gaining stronger footing in who she is, expressing her internal state outwardly has come naturally.

Enser’s “Go Green” outfit featured layered necklaces from family members, a t-shirt with text reading, “Out of this World” (Pacsun), thrifted green slacks and Nike Air Force Ones.

She enjoys experimenting with vibrant colors and layering, often inspired by outfits she sees on Pinterest and TikTok, but Enser said her style “switches up a lot.” The past year has given her a chance to find a balance between comfort and style.

“I was still figuring myself out freshman and sophomore year so I was wearing more regular clothing,” Enser said. “Then over quarantine I was kind of locked by myself for a while so I was trying to figure out who I was and I found clothing that represented that. Now I feel like I’m getting more energy seeing people again and my clothing became a lot more vibrant, so it kind of does express how I’m feeling at the time.”

In a “Mob Psycho 100” hoodie, Vans and double-knee Dickies pants (so they don’t rip when skateboarding), Matthew Hoke was caught for the interview with his pizza. He called his typical uniform “The Big Baller Look.”

“It’s just how it is,” he said.

If Hoke can’t skate in it, it’s a no-go. Concocting outfits isn’t something Hoke spends much time thinking about. Although his clothing shows personal flare, practicality and knee-versus-concrete durability comes first.

“I wear the same thing every day,” Hoke said. “I don’t think about it too deeply.”

Chloe Burcell’s mixed-era look, which she called, “How I’m Feeling Today” featured 90s-inspired baggy overalls (Urban Outfitters), a 70s-style halter top (Urban Outfitters), and a handmade necklace from her grandmother which carries family heritage.

“My necklace is really important to me,” Burcell said. “Culturally, I am white and native American. In California — especially coastal California — native people make necklaces out of abalone seashells. My grandma and my aunties make these necklaces. … I think it’s really cool that it’s made up of all the natural elements from California such as pink abalone, amethyst, volcanic stones and bits of amber.”

Burcell has been a pioneer of bold fashion, making big moves since freshman year, but she feels that more people have been stepping into their own recently.

“Even two years ago, it felt so much more nerve-wracking to make choices and strong statements with our outfits,” Burcell said. “I think it’s cool that people are finding the confidence to just not care and do what they want to do.”

Lately, Aida Yezalaleul has been “in a hat moment,” appreciating how this simple accessory can elevate an outfit. A pop of color among more muted tones has also been a useful tool for putting together a look, she said.

Yezalaleul’s uniquely titled, “Cat Going Out for a Walk Sheep” outfit featured a Brandy Melville shirt, bell bottom jeans from Urban Outfitters and a borrowed baseball cap.

The “serial clothes borrower” brings fresh flavor to the wardrobe she has become accustomed to by using items from family members to reinvigorate her fashion creativity. Sometimes, all it takes is a younger brother’s green-accented hat to lend a new lens and spark inspiration.

“Everybody’s like, ‘I have nothing to wear today,’ even though their closet is full of clothes,” Yezalaleul said. “So, it’s always good to take a peek where you haven’t seen.”

An outfit compliment from Yezalaleul — occasionally called from afar — is a sprinkle of glitter on any person’s day. Yezalaleul said giving and receiving these unexpected moments of appreciation is “a break in routine.”

“You never see it coming,” she said.

Julie Broch’s muted tone wardrobe alchemized into a last-minute, yet effortlessly cool ensemble. She wore a thrifted Michael Kors jacket (Goodwill), a thrifted t-shirt (ThredUp), thrifted trousers (Goodwill), One Star Converse sneakers and layered jewelry (Etsy).

“As long as you have [good basics], whatever you throw together will look fine.”

Through her thrift store chronicles, the seasoned secondhand shopper has learned the elusive skill of pinpointing potential in a heap of randomness.

“It’s kind of a hit or miss,” Broch said. “Sometimes I’ll come back with nothing but the other day I went to Goodwill and came back with like eleven things. So it kind of depends on the day. Just luck, I guess.”

Neighbors and endangered leafcutter bees swarm local grower’s untamed garden

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Local grower Phil Muller’s home is bursting at the seams with stems and seeds. Every time he latches onto a new plant curiosity, the garden gets a bit more crowded — flats of displaced plants block backyard paths, and his flower cuttings find their way onto bookshelves and neighbors’ kitchen tables.

In his defense, Muller said that spreading tiny seeds always seems harmless in the moment.

“Next thing you know, they all come up and I’m like, ‘I can’t kill them; I’m just going to pot them and see what happens,’” Muller said. “Well, what happens is I end up with twelve flats spread out … and now you have to kind of tiptoe to get to the office.”

Muller was fascinated from a young age by the natural world and its floral gems, especially the ones with “little faces” like violas and pansies, which he would always select on nursery outings with his father.

He now brings his own daughter to nurseries, where she decides apple varieties and loads the cart with parsley plants.

The garden Muller’s father maintained was a strictly controlled environment. Nightmares of mowing the grass in two directions as a kid banished lawnage of any sort from Muller’s current home garden, where he opts instead for a “let the garden go” approach.

An untamed garden is a peephole into the natural order for observational learning; Muller keeps a close eye on the creature demographic of his garden and the ways it balances itself. The endangered native leafcutter bees (the most effective pollinators in California), warrant special observation, photography and research.

“The reason why they’re better at pollinating is because of the way they carry their pollen,” Muller said. “Her underside is all hair. She’ll go up to the sunflowers and literally do a belly rub, trying to get all of her body covered. Whereas, honeybees pack it on their knees. ‘The bee’s knees,’ right?”

A leafcutter bee. (courtesy Phil Muller)

Most of Muller’s learnings have come from dedicated observation, but he occasionally consults a bee Ph.D. for expert — albeit dryly analytical — responses identifying species, decoding behavioral patterns and once explaining bee house construction.

In Muller’s experience, the gardening community is responsive and enthusiastic to lend not only experiential knowledge, but also connections to other local green thumbs. Muller said locality is such a determining factor that some niche answers can only come from other gardeners in his area.

The community is also a dangerously exciting source of new projects when, for example, the American Fern Society offers up spores.

“I’m like, ‘Oh! How do you grow a fern from spores?’” Muller laughed. “I just all of a sudden get geeked out, but then I have to [remind myself], ‘No no no, wait.’ … I was just going to be down the road and inundated so I pulled back the reins.”

Muller returns the favor to the fellow home gardeners in his neighborhood by offering them his heaps of productive seedlings and fresh flower cuttings.

“When you have 20 flats or more of plants in the backyard, there’s not room for anything else,” he said. “So, I need them to go. It really comes down to: I planted too many.”

During the pandemic’s shutdown of nurseries, Muller fashioned a driveway nursery as a way to unload his bounty of plants, which ended up becoming a beacon of hope for home growers and flower-loving families. Neighbors could pick up any plants for free, while Muller and his daughter watched excitedly from the window.

“Every time we put something out, it all goes,” Muller said.

The driveway nursery debuted a folding table full of young sunflowers ready to be planted. Within four hours, the table with a “Free Sunflowers” sign had cleared, restocked and cleared again.

One frenzied customer was apparently a bit too enthused and snagged the folding table itself, prompting a “Please return my table” sign in the vacant driveway.

“Everyone knew that my table was missing,” Muller said. “So I would be out here watering and even the mailman asked, ‘Did you ever get your table?’ … It’s kind of an inside community joke.”

In response to his nursery, Muller received thank you notes, three pots of bearded iris and lots of questions from neighbors he had never met before about how to grow the plants they had picked up. Connecting with his community through a shared passion “breaks a barrier,” he said.

The driveway nursery’s popularity begged the question from Muller’s family: “Why don’t you sell the flowers?”

But to Muller, turning his flower cutting hobby into a business would take the lightheartedness out of it, introducing stress and expectations. For now, his early mornings in the garden followed by stealthy flower deliveries to a sleeping, bee-averse daughter’s room are all he wants.

But Muller said he is far from ruling out the idea of selling flowers altogether. He and his wife, Leda, have already visited properties in Washington to consider for a Dahlia farm. The flower farm would be two to five to 20 acres, depending on who the answer is coming from (Muller or his wife).

For the sake of maintaining the peaceful personal value of a home garden, Muller keeps a humble vision for the flower business as a stand selling cuttings in town.

“[The garden] centers me,” Muller said. “It’s a place [in any season] I can come out and cycle through. I can come out and watch that leafcutter for five minutes and all of my troubles aren’t really as bad as they could be, right? Because she’s trying to get the next generation to survive and then she’s going to die. I feel kind of connected to it.”

To home gardeners just starting out, Muller offers these words of advice:

“Be fearless but also grow the right plant in the right place,” he said. “…Basically find the conditions you have and get plants to grow well in it. Don’t worry if you see anything considered a ‘pest’ to the gardening community as these pests are considered food to other insects such as ladybugs. We can’t have one without the other.”

And like the tree Muller first planted as a tiny seed, a new gardener’s skill can grow little by little — barely noticeable at first — until it’s 15 feet tall.

Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines proves typewriter enthusiasts are not alone in this world

STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH

The unique aromatic experience inside Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines (a combination of inks, oils and cleaning fluids) makes the store feel like a portal into its era of inception: the Click-Clack-Ding-ing 1950s.

This smell is quite familiar to owner John Sansone, who makes every typewriter repair himself with his perpetually ink-stained fingers. Once a family business, the shop has been Sansone’s solo endeavor since 2008.

Sansone’s father bought the pre-existing business in the mid-1960s. He always had a number of part-time mechanics passing through to tinker on the machines in addition to Sansone and his three sisters, who all worked at the shop at some point in their lives.

With lessons from the specialized repairmen and the occasional class at typewriter manufacturers like Smith Corona, Sansone succeeded in becoming a one-man arsenal of expertise formidable enough to carry the family business.

Around the same time, the resurgence of a charming, distraction-free mode of writing began to shift Sansone’s business back to its founding focus: typewriters, which have since remained the shop’s primary source of revenue.

In the late 2000s, old typewriter repairs started coming in again — not from original typewriter owners, but rather a new generation of typewriter enthusiasts inspired by the tool’s dueling utility and novelty.

“They like the history of it and all the great books that have [been written with it],” Sansone explained. “It’s kind of romantic and you can touch it and feel it.”

These young typers occasionally come into the shop to exchange typewriter knowledge. Sansone has been in the repair business so long that at times, he said the joy they derive from what was considered mundane for most of Sansone’s life even surprises him.

“They like the noise of the typewriter,” Sansone said. “They like the real bell sound … They don’t see anything mechanical anymore, so just to see a spring and a lever go up is a real thrill to them. — And have a real bell sound. You know, everyone wants the bell.”

Before the young typers came around, business had plateaued and Sansone was focusing mostly on printer repairs. The propagation of affordable, advanced computers sowed doubts in many onlookers about the longevity of typewriters. Sansone said many people still have misperceptions about the typewriting community.

The shop is really just as it appears, Sansone said. He spends his days simply, answering calls and repairing machines. And once in a while, someone will purchase a typewriter.

“People think I’ve got something going on in the back or it’s a meth lab back there or something,” he joked.

Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines window display.

The display of the shop gives window shoppers a peep into the retail typewriter collection Sansone curates and maintains. These are only the “good, usable machines;” Sansone said he doesn’t carry anything rare because of the risky investment.

Most of the shop’s retail typewriters come from local estate sales, the best of which come from elderly residents of Los Altos Hills clearing out their dusty hunks of metal before moving out.

“[Some will have a] 1930 Royal that has been sitting in the closet for 50 years and they just don’t know what to do with it,” Sansone said.

The repair side of Sansone’s business takes up more time than the collection. In his earlier days of repair projects, nothing was unfixable to Sansone — he would spend hours puzzling until he unraveled the issue. But recently, he has needed to start turning away some repairs of older typewriters.

“60 year old typewriters have different problems than when they were 20,” Sansone said.

Sansone’s true passion in his business is building relationships with customers over time. He has a great appreciation for the long-time customers that have turned into old friends. These are the customers who have been with the business for decades and who, too, are familiar with its trademark anachronistic scent.

Because of the significant obstacles that come with owning and operating a typewriter business, Sansone said he is proud to have kept his family’s business alive with the help of his old faithful clientele as well as the unexpected magnitude of young typewriter enthusiasts.

“Somebody comes in with their typewriter and they think they’re the last one on Earth that has a typewriter,” Sansone laughed. “You’re not alone in this world.”

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.

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.”

Los Altos High librarian and published Y.A. novelist Gordon Jack shares with students his love of storytelling

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTO COURTESY GORDON JACK

With ears alert and pen poised to capture realistic characters in his novels about high school misadventures, Gordon Jack is a keenly observant author undercover as a librarian.

In the Los Altos High School library, he’s able to both draw inspiration from and teach students with his passion for telling stories. Visitors give Jack a window into the authentic language and characters of high school, such that he strongly based one main character in his 2018 novel “Your Own Worst Enemy” on a real-life library regular, he said.

“What [being a school librarian] allows me to do is see kids unfiltered,” Jack said. “Kids in a classroom immediately put on a [classroom-appropriate] persona. …Whereas, in a library, I don’t go around shushing people, so it’s really kind of a student space. … If I just walk around and eavesdrop on conversations, I can kind of pick up on language and just stuff, you know.”

But students aren’t the only ones with library alter-egos. Gordon Jack has published two books for young adults and just recently wrapped up his second draft of a new novel. Mr. Jack is but a humble and passionate librarian. He said he prefers to keep the two separate.

“Sometimes it’s a little awkward, you know, because they have to both check out and return the book to the person who wrote it,” Jack said. “I try to keep a low profile and not ask them, ‘Hey, did you like it? What did you think?’”

He is more interested in hearing students’ writing than what they might have to say about his own; Jack has worked to cultivate the library as an inspiring space for young writers using his extensive background in English education.

Jack started out as an English teacher at Mountain View High School then Los Altos High before teaching and designing the English curriculum at the Freestyle Academy for seven years. During his time at Freestyle, Jack took a leave to teach at The American School in Santiago, Chile, for a year.

Everything about being an English teacher was a dream, Jack said — apart from grading papers. He admitted that transitioning between schools was partially motivated by his desire to combat the unfortunate reality of grading with the excitement of new environments.

“The grading papers sort of took its toll on me, which is why I bounced around and did different things,” Jack said. “It’s really hard, especially if you have a family or an interest in doing anything besides grading papers to do anything else.”

Jack said he never developed the necessary expediency to be an efficient grader because he always preferred to study student work as he would a manuscript and give feedback. The ambitious curriculum he engineered didn’t make things any easier. In one case, his idea for students to write in a daily journal entry quickly became overwhelming to grade.

“I remember, that first week I took home 120 journals and I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t do this; this is crazy!’” Jack said, laughing.

Eventually, grading became such an obstacle that he searched for alternatives to teaching English and was grateful to be able to transition into the role of librarian at Los Altos. This way, Jack said he could continue to be involved in his sphere of interest but also free up time previously spent grading for family and writing books. In addition, he is able to lead small classes, clubs and seminars for students through the library.

He said having the freedom to offer classes with more student-directed curricula and without the consequence of ungodly grading hours was the ideal situation for him. One such class he led was a creative writing seminar during the latter semester of the 2020 school year in which students practiced developing and revising their own work as well as critiquing others’ works.

“My theory is that all of freshman year should be storytelling,” Jack said. “I think that’s going to help you be a better writer; that’s going to help you discover your voice. It’s going to help make you more fluent in writing so when you get an expository assignment, you feel like you’re just ready to go and you don’t look at it as [being as] formulaic as you maybe would have if you didn’t have that.”

Jack put this concept into practice when he taught a class for writers in need of more basic skill development. He said he concentrated most of the curriculum on storytelling assignments to challenge students stuck in the checking boxes mindset of writing.

“The traditional English curriculum emphasizes expository writing and analysis,” Jack said. “While that’s important, I don’t think it should be emphasized as much as storytelling.”

He explained that in becoming better storytellers, students become better writers by learning to apply ingenuity and creative thought processes to even academic papers. Fluency in all types of writing is much easier when you know how to tell a story, he said.

“You take those storytelling choices that you make and you bring them into expository writing and it just frees you up to have a more creative experience in that particular mode of writing,” Jack said.

So while his years as an English teacher may be in the past, Jack continues to share his love of storytelling with students in the library.

“The place where students really discover their voices, their interests, their passions, is when they’re writing things that are meaningful to them and I think for a lot of students, those are stories,” Jack said.

Jia Hiremath crafts keepsakes and makes friends through letter writing

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS COURTESTY JIA HIREMATH

Jia Hiremath once sent a letter so heavy that it took six stamps — even though it only needed to travel a few streets away. The envelope, with calligraphy of the recipient’s name adorning the address line, contained a personal letter along with stickers, washi tape and other cute bits of stationery for her pen pal to use in their own creations. Apparently, the Palo Alto High School sophomore regularly sends stuffed envelopes like this to her 18 penpals.

“I go through more stamps than the average person,” Hiremath said. “I don’t know why.”

The stationary and decoration are part of the fun, but Hiremath said she finds the exchanges most rewarding for the genuine connections that come from taking time to write vulnerably. The art of letter writing has made a resurgence among Hiremath and her pen-palling peers with a new, less utilitarian take — using elaborate mail art as a way to make friends. 

“It’s something that you make and then send out and never see it again,” Hiremath said. “You want your pen pal to have a nice letter from you. I think it inspires you to write well and decorate it in different ways and find your style.”

Hiremath’s visual style shows through in her creative layering of unconventional materials including doilies, translucent stickers, washi tapes and even rough-edged pages torn from books.

Hiremath poses for a photo. (courtesy Jia Hiremath)

Hiremath said that for contemporary letter writers, the physical medium offers something no other modern communication technology does: the opportunity to connect through artistic keepsakes.

“When you receive a letter, that’s the only letter you’re going to get that looks like that and you can have that for however long you can keep it — hopefully forever,” Hiremath said.

Her interest in letter writing was first sparked when she “fell down the YouTube rabbit hole” of artists using mail as a creative medium. But it wasn’t until Hiremath was in Arizona away from her best friend for a few weeks that she decided to explore this interest. The friends communicated by letter because it felt like the most personal way to stay in touch, Hiremath said.

“It’s a really cool way to expand your relationship with someone or make genuine relationships if you’re open,” Hiremath said.

Once Hiremath discovered her passion, she sought to find more pen pals through Instagram, which is how she has gotten in touch with most of her correspondents. Since August, Hiremath has been writing to the same 18 people. She said that her current pen pal pool size strikes the right balance of being personal and broad. Hiremath said she has been surprised at the depth and authenticity of pen pal connections she has made through Instagram.

“I think everyone has been really nice because [with] letter writing, it’s really easy to express our feelings and be vulnerable,” she said. “I’ve only had good interactions and met kind people.”

Hiremath said she often finds pen pals easier to confide in than friends with whom she goes to school or shares social circles in person because she knows her letter will remain between the two of them. Her secrets are most certainly safe 6,000 miles away with her most distant correspondent, who lives in Hungary.

Hiremath has met many different types of people through her fascination with letters, and she said much of the magic comes from seeing her different pen pals’ personalities shine through visually. Down to the handwriting, everything knits together to create the quality of “realness” in a letter that allows deep bonds to form in the exchange of just a few pages.

“It’s kind of developed into something new,” Hiremath said. “With the rise of technology … letter writing has been turned into more of an art form than before and I think that’s really cool.”

West Currier escapes from life’s distractions into an igloo

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Along with the actual pandemic has come a consequential pandemic of widespread ennui, excuses and unenthusiastic throwing-ins of the towel. But surrendering to the opportunity for a socially acceptable laze-cation was never an option for West Currier.

When the Woodside Priory School junior isn’t busy with school, it’s hard to guess where he can be found. Possibly doing a 16-pitch rock climb up the Grand Teton in Wyoming and perching 3,000 feet above the Jackson Hole Valley on a rocky precipice. Perhaps belaying over chasms thousands of feet deep. Or maybe building an igloo-like structure and living in it for three days, which was his most recent adventure.

“I just think it’s healthy [to spend time in nature],” Currier said. “We’re — especially now — on computers all day and we’re very distractible. It’s nice to take a trip away, get a bit more grounded, get off your phone and just have a good time in other ways.”

Currier has been camping with his parents and three brothers for as long as he can remember. The whole family has an appreciation for nature escapes from the usual fast pace of school and work life, but snow camping is another beast. Persistence in the face of soaking socks and gloves is something West, his brother Cal and father, James, have in common.

West Currier is pictured on his journey to the campsite. (courtesy West Currier)

In February, the three Curriers set out for their third annual three-day snow camping trip in an area near Kirkwood Ski Resort, just south of Lake Tahoe. The family woke up at 3 a.m. to drive to the snow then hiked out with homemade sleds carrying equipment, arriving at the site just in time to construct their shelter before dark. 

By venturing into the wilderness (not to mention without a tent) they trade out homey comforts for rugged and primitive substitutes like the igloo-house they sleep in. They spent the afternoon building a cave of snow called a quinzhee by amassing a snow bank and digging it out to be hollow. This process typically takes four or five hours.

James and Cal Currier are pictured in front of their quinzhee. (courtesy West Currier)

“The main challenge is that you’re wet the whole time,” Currier said. “With a tent you can always get a moment away from the dirt or rain. With snow camping, your shelter isn’t particularly dry or comfortable because it’s made of snow. There’s not really a break from the raw wilderness.”

But the struggles of raw wilderness are opportunities to overcome tangible adversity, which is a grounding experience. Instead of worrying about deadlines and the ergonomics of a constantly occupied desk chair, snow-campers’ minds are occupied by practical needs. Currier finds the challenges that arise in nature a refreshing contrast from the everyday noise, he said. And in moments when there are no problems to be solved, the space for stillness expands.

“It’s so much slower paced than our normal, day-to-day lives,” Currier explained. “A lot less happens than you’d expect. When you hear stories and look back, you always remember the exciting moments, but when you’re out there, it’s a 14-hour day and … there’s not actually a lot to do.”

West Currier is pictured cooking bacon over a fire. (courtesy West Currier)

This different cadence brings awareness to the inner peace reflected in nature, and Currier said the mornings are an especially strong connection point because “everything’s waking up” and there is a quiet serenity that is missing from the stagnating routines of life at home.

He recalled a fond morning memory from camping in a lake region of the Sierras.

“The sun was rising over this lake that was covered in steam and there were fish jumping and birds chirping,” Currier said. “We were like, ‘Oh God! Are we in heaven?’ … We just sat in the doorways of our tents looking out for hours.”

After some time, Currier said you settle into this mode of living and become a resident of the wilderness, liberated from the distractions of modern life.

Naturally, a place without these distractions is also a place without its comforts. But for Currier, the allure of nature life exists not despite but because of the hard work and determination it requires.

On one occasion, a storm of rain, wind and lightning transported the Curriers’ entire camping setup into a nearby lake and they had to recover it all after the storm had passed. He summed up his recount of what many would consider a disaster with the surprisingly unsarcastic comment, “That was fun.”

Days like this make him feel grateful for the comforts of indoor life that he usually takes for granted, Currier said. The nonstop obstacles of wilderness life bring a new glow to dishwashers and comforters when they return home.

Currier plans to continue taking on new opportunities to retreat into deep wilderness. He said he is excited for the possibility of a three-week Himalayan adventure with his dad and brother in the coming summer. (Monsoon season may be a hindrance, but will not stand in their way). Another ambitious plan in the works is to hike Mount Whitney (30 miles, 14,505 feet of elevation) in one day.

Currier explained that there’s something thrilling about being in a completely undesirable wilderness circumstance. It’s a different reality from slumping mundanities, and replenishes life with a reviving inhale. He embraces the unexpected struggles of rugged outdoor life like wet boots and sinking quinzhee roofs with enthusiasm.

“Part of the reason I love snow camping is not because it’s super enjoyable but because you can really enjoy the struggle of it,” Currier said. “You’re like, ‘What are we doing? We’re living in an igloo and sitting on snow benches!’ It’s kind of crazy and you just enjoy the craziness and enjoy the hardship.”

Artist of the month: On the canvas, Solomon Wechter creates his own world

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Los Altos High School junior Solomon Wechter was awakened when he discovered his passion for painting — but it wasn’t until recently that he got in touch with his artistic creativity. 

Now, he says he doesn’t know what he would do without this form of expression.

“I don’t like being constricted at all as a person,” Wechter said. “A painting is kind of like my own world. I can do anything I want.”

Wechter primarily paints abstract portraits that don’t feature specific people, but are invented from his imagination. The untamed, gritty portraits are full of contrast and surprising choices in anatomical representation (faces evocative of industrial machinery, extraneous or absent limbs, exposed skeletal structures, etc.). He attributes one element of his unique visual style to his use of bold, “non-blended” colors layered directly onto the canvas.

Wechter’s painting “Crossfit King.” (courtesy Solomon Wechter)

“I had done doodles in class before, but I never really took it seriously [until] I watched a documentary about one of my favorite artists,” Wechter said. “At the time I didn’t know anything about him. I was intrigued.”

That documentary was “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” which examines the life and work of Basquiat, an American abstract painter. The coils seen in Wechter’s painting “Crossfit King” were inspired by a similar motif he noticed in many of Basquiat’s pieces.

Once the seed was planted, Wechter began to absorb art with a serious fascination, becoming inspired by artists like Frances Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly.

Observation has taught Wechter everything he knows about art. He never had formal instruction, and instead took to visiting art museums — something he said he found unbearably boring as a child. Along with his new appreciation for this activity has come the ability to interpret art more interrogatively, visualizing the decisions the artist made and reading into the why behind them.

“[I’ve gotten better at] understanding the language that art is written in,” Wechter said.

Wechter’s painting “Untitled.” (courtesy Solomon Wechter)

Wechter’s own creative process also involves purposeful decision-making. While he paints, he said he thinks much more about the color pallet and composition of a piece now than he used to. Originally, he said he committed his immediate instinct to the canvas, which kept the process organic, but not intellectual.

“I’m definitely more educated with making my decisions,” Wechter said. “I understand why I should do something versus when I started out, I was just doing [stuff] for no reason. I was going off of much less thought.”

However, Wechter has held onto his organic flow through making the process more conscious. He said he starts with only a vague concept and a blank page, and the idea emerges along the way. The fruition of this idea into a finished painting can take anywhere from four to 50 hours.

“I never really know where something’s going,” Wechter said. “It’s all just adding and taking away what I don’t like and keeping what I like.”

Wechter paints over parts of a piece that don’t feel right until he is satisfied. He said that the face in his painting “Crossfit King” likely has 100 layers under it.

“Something is complete when I have made all the decisions I can make [with] my knowledge,” Wechter said. “If I look back at an old painting there’s a lot of stuff I would change — if not everything — because at the time my knowledge didn’t stretch out as far.”

Wechter’s painting “Untitled.” (courtesy Solomon Wechter)

In the future, he wants to expand his media by exploring sculpture, and he even has a “very far out there idea” of creating a mechanical sculpture with moving parts.

Wechter said he does wonder why he didn’t find his way to art earlier, as he sees himself having the “temperaments” of an artist: visual creativity, imagination and appreciation for beauty.

“It’s not like anything else that I do, so I’m really glad it happened because it’s definitely something that I need to do,” Wechter said. “If I couldn’t make art I don’t know [what] I would fill that need with.”

Chloe Burcell and Justin Emgushov are each other’s fashion consultants and biggest cheerleaders

STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH

Cameras flashed as Los Altos High School junior Chloe Burcell turned away from the paparazzi. Sporting a black tank top, black sweatpants and wearing dark sunglasses, Burcell was trying to maintain a low profile.

Thankfully, the paparazzi was only her joking boyfriend, Justin Emgushov, wearing a hoodie, sweatpants and a flannel. The Wilcox High School junior was playing into their outfit theme for that day: celebrities caught on camera in public.

The couple plans fashion themes as their creative way of building complementary outfits. Burcell said that dressing in pastels, classic preppy and matching sneakers has not only been a source of entertainment during quarantine, but also serves the practical purpose of looking cohesive as a pair.

Together they decide on a source of inspiration to draw on or a color pallet for their looks. Burcell said she likes the way she and Emgushov look together; themes encourage a collective confidence, even on rougher days.

“I was having a really bad breakout,” Burcell said, referring to the reason behind their incognito theme. “We wanted to go out together but I think my biggest insecurity going out is probably having a breakout in the hot summer. … It’s just the worst situation.”

With their paparazzi theme, Burcell and Emgushov made light of the fact that neither of them were feeling their best.

Their appreciation for fashion, in fact, was part of what forged their strong initial connection. As the topic provides much to talk about, they have enjoyed critiquing the styling in music videos, creating a Pinterest account for sharing ideas, perusing thrift stores and even making a dress together with spare fabrics.

Burcell and Emgushov occasionally have conflicting opinions on fashion due to their contrasting tastes. Emgushov describes his style as somewhat “grunge” but also “put together.” His wardrobe contains an abundance of Dickie’s slacks and graphic tees but also colorful sweaters and collared shirts.

Burcell, on the other hand, takes inspiration from the ’70s and old Hollywood glamour. She gets many of her ideas from the fashion she sees in movies and television and has a “deep love for pastel colors,” she said.

Despite differences in style, or perhaps because of these very differences, Burcell and Emgushov said they were immediately intrigued by the creativity of each other’s stylistic expression.

Burcell and Emgushov are pictured in color coordinated outfits. (Dana Huch)

Burcell’s journey with fashion began at the age of six when her grandmother taught her to sew. This way, Burcell had clothes that were completely her own, which thrilled the young fashionista with a distinct vision. Her early interest in unique clothing still shines through in the idiosyncratic statement pieces of her wardrobe such as the red corduroy flares she wears in the photo above.

“I don’t have to have confidence to dress up because dressing up gives me confidence,” Burcell said.

For Emgushov, dipping his toe into the world of fashion came later, at what he called “a time of chaos”: eighth grade. He cringed when recalling the style choices he made in that era, namely, his jeans-and-dress-shoes outfits. Emgushov put together these early ensembles when his concept of “fashion” was limited to an L.A. subculture he saw in YouTube videos. Now, he is inspired by looks of the ’80s, — though Burcell would claim his style is more mid- to late-’90s — as well as by musicians such as Frank Ocean and Harry Styles.

Emgushov said he and Burcell have some overlap on the preppy side of their styles and a passion for similar colors. The distinct color pallet of the movie “Moonrise Kingdom” was something the couple noticed they both often emulate in their outfits. For Burcell and Emgushov, inspiration also comes from each other.

“We have a very good way of bouncing off each others’ ideas and coming up with things that are exciting for both of us,” Burcell said. “A lot of the time we do consult each other.”

This consultation often involves exchanging pictures of their daily outfits. They encourage each other, but Burcell also said neither of them are shy about providing opinions on what’s not working in the outfit.

“[Our advice] is never to feed another person’s ego or insecurities; it’s always to help benefit the other person,” Burcell said. “I think that’s one of the most important things in a relationship.”

A typical bit of feedback from Burcell might be “switch the shoes,” she said. Emgushov, on the other hand, is less focused on the details of fashion continuity and admires any outfit carried off with cool.

“I think anybody can make anything look good with the right confidence, like, even if it looks wack,” Emgushov said.

The relationship has also been a sounding board to try out different styles, they concurred. The source of support they provide for each other allows them both to take risks with the safety of someone backing them up on their wildest ideas.

Emgushov said that when he goes out with Chloe, he dresses with her in mind — not the judging eyes of strangers — because she appreciates his individual style. In fact, it wasn’t until Burcell’s encouragement and guidance that he embraced his interest in makeup as an avenue for exploration.

“I think I could rock [makeup], so it’s just figuring out how to do it and how to do it well,” Emgushov said. “We’re making a safe space to experiment.”

Burcell also feels comfortable navigating uncharted territory for self-expression with Emgushov cheering her on. Having always had short, straight eyelashes, Burcell said wearing fake eyelashes — an idea Emgushov gave her — has been a fun change.

The couple has cultivated acceptance and creative support in their relationship which allows them both to discover new ways to express their unique styles.

“I think what is so cool about us is that we are able to give each other feedback and try new things without any judgement or embarrassment,” Burcell said.