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.

Con una subvención estatal, MVLA busca incrementar el apoyo para los estudiantes

ARTICULO DE TOMOKI CHIEN, FOTO DE EMILY MCNALLY, TRADUCCIÓN DE RODRIGO SEPÚLVEDA SAGASETA 

Esta historia fue escrita y reportada originalmente en inglés. Todas las citas son traducciones.

Click here to view the original article in English.

Con fondos de la Beca de Oportunidades de Aprendizaje Expandido del estado de California, el Distrito Escolar Unificado de Mountain View–Los Altos buscará reforzar el apoyo académico y socioemocional para los estudiantes

Una gran parte de los fondos se usará para apoyar la recuperación académica de los estudiantes con falta de créditos y para el desarrollo profesional de los maestros.

El 1 de junio, el consejo del distrito aprobó un plan de gastos de $2,520,000, el cual presentarán al estado. Este plan incluye una asignación general del dinero, dejando los detalles para después; La superintendente adjunta de servicios educativos, Teri Faught, dijo en la junta de consejo que eso era lo que esperaba el estado, debido al poco tiempo que tuvieron. 

La subvención, que comienza este verano y dura hasta el verano de 2022, es parte de un paquete de ayuda estatal de COVID-19 destinado a ayudar a las escuelas a recuperarse de los efectos de la pandemia y hacer la transición al nuevo año escolar. 

Además de ofrecer oportunidades de escuela de verano para los estudiantes que necesiten recuperar créditos para cumplir con los requisitos de graduación, el distrito también ofrecerá “academias de verano” para estudiantes en el programa de AVID. 

“Es para los estudiantes que están [en] AVID, para traerlos al campus para desarrollar su habilidades para leer y escribir, desarrollar su comunicación y sus habilidades y confianza”, dijo Faught en la junta de consejo.

Faught dijo que este año, las academias de verano trabajarán con los estudiantes entrantes de AVID para darles más conocimiento. Las academias tendrán un componente centrado en las matemáticas, para apoyar a los estudiantes que han sido identificados por las escuelas intermedias que actualmente tienen dificultades en matemáticas.

El plan describe una serie de otros apoyos planeados para los estudiantes que lo necesitan, el cual incluye ofrecer un horario extendido de la biblioteca para permitir tiempo adicional para que los estudiantes trabajen bajo supervisión o con un tutor; un programa de recuperación de créditos en línea; y clases de apoyo según la necesidad.

Los fondos también se irán a entrenar a los maestros para “involucrar a los estudiantes y sus familias en el tratamiento de la salud socioemocional de los estudiantes” y construir comunidades de aprendizaje después de la pandemia.

El distrito también ampliará sus servicios con el Community Health Awareness Council.

Paly, Gunn to welcome three new assistant principals

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto and Gunn high schools are set to welcome three new assistant principals next year, which include Paly science teacher Erik Olah; San Jose Unified School District Assistant Principal LaDonna Butler; and Gunn Education Specialist Courtney Carlomagno.

Assistant principals at the high school level are responsible for providing leadership in curriculum, instruction guidance, facilities management and support services. The appointments were approved at a May 11 board meeting, and will become effective July 1.

Olah has worked for the district since 2008, and currently holds the positions of teacher, science instructional lead and Western Association of Schools and Colleges teacher on special assignment. Butler — a high school assistant principal at San Jose Unified and high school teacher of 13 years — will also take on the position of assistant principal at Paly. 

Gunn has appointed Carlomagno to one of its four assistant principal positions. Carlomagno’s decade-long career in the district began as an instructional aide in the school’s special education program, where she “fell in love with working with high school students” before receiving credentials to become a teacher. 

“As a teacher at Gunn, I became very involved,” Carlomagno said in an interview. “Even though I was in special ed, I was very much interested in what we could do for the whole student body to better support them.”

Carlomagno is interested in the issue of equity in Palo Alto Unified schools, and has worked on projects from helping form a student equity committee at Gunn to working with both district and city officials in creating the Palo Alto Equity Challenge. 

“What I’m hoping to do as a formal member of the admin team is I really want to bring all the lenses I have from all my experience … [and] make sure that when we are making plans and making decisions for students and staff, that we’re taking into account all the different types of experiences here and really making sure everything is accessible for every student,” Carlomagno said.

At the time of publication, the Post was unable to reach Olah and Butler for comment.

With state grant, MVLA seeks to boost supports for targeted students

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Haz click aqui para ver el articulo en Español.

The Mountain View–Los Altos Unified School District is seeking to boost academic and social-emotional support for students with funds from the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Grant. 

Much of the funds are set to be put toward supporting academic recovery for credit-deficient students and providing professional development for teachers.

The board of trustees on June 1 approved the $2,520,000 expenditure plan for submission to the state, which outlines the district’s planned money allocation in broad strokes, leaving the specifics for later; Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Teri Faught at the board meeting said that was what the state expected, given the quick turnaround time for the application.

The one-time grant — which starts this summer and lasts through the summer of 2022 — is part of a state COVID-19 relief package meant to help schools recover from the effects of the pandemic and transition into the new school year.

In addition to offering summer school opportunities for students needing to recover credits to meet graduation requirements, the district will also offer “summer academies” for students in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program.

“It’s for students who are [in] AVID, to bring them onto campus to build their literacy, to build their communication and their skills and confidence,” Faught said at the board meeting.

Faught said that this year, the summer academies will work with incoming AVID students to give the “lay of the land.” Academies will have a math-focused component, to support students who have been identified by the district’s partner middle schools to be currently struggling in math.

The plan outlines a number of other planned supports for targeted students, which include offering after school library hours to support extended time for students to work on academics under supervision or with a tutor; an online credit recovery program; and providing support classes based on need. 

Funds will also go toward training teachers to “engage students and families in addressing students’ social emotional health,” and building learning communities after the pandemic.

The district will also expand its services with the Community Health Awareness Council.

INdGO: Simple yet delicious Indian to-go food to satisfy everyone

STORY BY RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Gurinder Singh was stumped. The pandemic had crippled his Modesto banquet hall’s business, canceling all his bookings and making the 9,000 square foot operation far too costly to maintain — and the end of the pandemic was nowhere in sight. He had to shut it down.

So Singh found his life at a standstill. Should he take a break? Should he visit friends in Canada, Malaysia and Australia? Those questions ultimately went undecided, but it eventually became clear to him that he could no longer sit around at home: And the vision for INdGO was born.

Simple yet delicious Indian to-go food to satisfy everyone from an avid Indian food eater to a curious person hoping to start exploring the magic and flavor of the cuisine. Singh personally prepares and cooks this food to perfection, but also underwent the struggle of attracting people to his relatively unknown restaurant.

While INdGO — the name of which stands for Indian To-Go — radiates simplicity, Singh’s journey in opening the restaurant has been much more complicated.

Founded in the middle of a pandemic, INdGO is one among many restaurants and small businesses trying to survive the likes of few clients, rising prices and staff shortages, until things can fully reopen and people come back. 

INdGO boasts a classic menu with a few special add-ons including the likes of butter chicken, mushroom makhani, and for those wanting something simpler, fire-grilled salmon in a delicious coconut and onion sauce. 

Singh is pictured in his kitchen.

All his dishes are inspired by the journey and barriers he had to break early on. Having grown up in India, he said his parents expected him to become a doctor or engineer — but he wanted to be none of the above. 

Frantically, his parents sent him off to culinary school in Switzerland in hopes that he would find success there.

Initially, he was able to take advantage of Europe’s low drinking age and manage the school’s bar, but he quickly developed a passion for cooking. But he struggled with European cuisine, as it consists of much less seasoning than the food he was accustomed to, or as Singh described it, a mix of only “salt and black pepper.” To the disapproval of his professor, he would sneak seasonings like chili powder into his dishes.

With his newfound passion for cooking, Singh traveled around the world to destinations like California, Australia and India to share his culinary talents before ultimately settling down and opening up his own banquet hall near Modesto. It took Singh nine months to remodel and remake the place with many menu items; a stark contrast to INdGO. Although business was slow at first, Singh said he was fully booked for 2020. 

“But then the pandemic hit, and parties started canceling,” Singh said. “And then, I just said to myself, ‘I don’t know how long it’s gonna last,’ so [I] just [tried] to get rid of the place, because it’s a huge space and it [was] gonna cost more to maintain [it].”

But moving on wouldn’t be so easy, as Singh struggled to decide what to do next. 

Eventually, while visiting Mountain View, he found a small space that would fit his vision of a simple Indian restaurant — although the journey of INdGo would be anything but simple. 

Only a few weeks into running his new restaurant, Singh contracted COVID-19, and was forced to temporarily shut INdGO down. Luckily, only getting a mild case, Singh was eager to get back to his restaurant after his 14 day quarantine. Although getting back to work wasn’t as easy as he expected.

“My body would start hurting. I would work for 10 minutes and be out of breath,” Singh said.

Singh soon encountered other struggles like slow business, staff shortages and rising ingredient prices. He said that the staffing shortage has required him to “wear all kinds of hats,” from cooking and washing dishes to fixing broken machines. 

But Singh, who himself knew of the complexities of opening a restaurant, blames no one but himself for the rocky start. With critics often questioning if Singh was “crazy” for opening a restaurant mid-pandemic, Singh confidently responds, “I am crazy, yes.” 

Hopefully, INdGO isn’t one of the many businesses Singh predicts will have to close doors in the following months, and Singh will be able to continue spreading his charismatic and outgoing personality through his cooking.

“What are you going to do?” Singh said.“[Even] before COVID, this was a tough business. Now it will take some time to get [people] back.” 

“COVID has to disappear altogether. The prices of food have to come down and the employees have to come back,” Singh said. “That’s when we can get back to normal.”

INdGO is a take-out only business due to its limited space, but patrons can call at (650) 386-1725 or order online Tuesday–Sunday from 11:30 am–3pm and 4:20 pm–8:30pm on DoorDash or at https://www.in-d-go.com/.

Carly Heltzel contributed to the reporting on this story.

Paly junior explores cultural identity through poetry

STORY BY JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Most students probably view the poetry unit in English class as just another midday nap opportunity. But while her classmates were dozing off, this is where Jasmine Kapadia fell in love with poetry as a first grader — and since then, her poems and slam poetry performances have attracted audiences ranging from fellow Palo Alto High School students to Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Yousafzai was one of numerous influential leaders who nominated one individual they were inspired by on an Asian American Pacific Islander Inspiration List created by “Good Morning America” — and she chose Kapadia.

The Paly junior said she feels that slam poetry, a type of poetry that is composed for live performance, has given her the creative freedom to explore her favorite themes of what it means to be Asian American and allows poets like her to be “angrier” with language.

“The very first slam poem that I wrote was about this grappling between cultures and figuring out where I landed,” Kapadia said. “Since then, I’ve become much more comfortable in my culture with directly doing very Asian cultural things, whether that’s just straight up going into Mandarin in the middle of a poem, or whether it’s more subtle.”

Coming from a mixed Indian and Chinese background, Kapadia most often incorporates her unique cultural identity into her poetic work. Considering that not all of her readers relate to these experiences, she strives to avoid exaggerating their weight.

“It can be a fine line to walk between feeling like you are playing up the diaspora experience or playing up the Asian American experience, and being true to you,” Kapadia said. “Something I’ve had to figure out is, how much do I want to portray the Asian American experience? And how can I portray it without sort of commodifying trauma?”

Kapadia’s poem, “photograph of my 奶奶 in her youth,” that won a gold medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, is a perfect example of how she has woven her Asian American background within her poems.

The poem was inspired by a photograph of Kapadia’s 奶奶 (grandmother) in her Taiwanese home.

“I was able to tell a beautiful experience about someone that I really, really admire, but also represent my culture,” she said.

Kapadia submitted this poem and many others to a plethora of literary magazines, but despite all her success in doing so, Kapadia said she’s careful not to give in to the competitive nature of writing submissions.

“A lot of teen writers call it ‘the teen writing industrial complex’ because it’s set up on contests and publication,” Kapadia said. “Whenever I publish, there is a sense of that feeling like, ‘Oh, I want to get the next publication. I want to get even more,’ and it’s hard to not compare yourself to other authors’ bios.”

To help her escape these feelings, Kapadia often talks with many of her friends in teen poetry communities that she is active in. Kapadia said that the community is able to “comfort” her through the hardships of being involved with poetry.

Kapadia and other poets who are part of these poetry communities often had to learn about poetry through their own personal endeavors. 

As a contemporary poet, Kapadia advocates for the “modernization” of public schools’ creative writing curriculum — she said that reading poetry written by predominantly white authors held her back from realizing her personal literary style.

“We need to be teaching literary magazines, we need to be teaching slam poets,” Kapadia said. “There are so many amazing poets out there that may not be household names, but have words that are so beautiful and really need to be taught.”

Kapadia was lucky enough to find literary magazines and a diverse set of poets through her personal adventures through poetry and said she feels that poetry must be “for everyone,” and that everyone, including her, has a valid voice that is worth listening to. 

“I came into more of a personal style,” Kapadia said. “Just in understanding that, as an Asian American, my experiences are worth reading about and that I have value in poetry as well.”

Aurum and authenticity: Modern Indian restaurant strives to bring hidden gems of Indian cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

No restaurant displays what the gold standard of authenticity can be more than Aurum. With a name literally meaning gold in Latin, the modern Indian establishment in Downtown Los Altos strives to showcase Indian cuisine just as pure as its namesake.

Aurum was founded in December 2020 by owner Anupam Bhatia and chef Manish Tyagi, who, according to Tyagi, see themselves as “ambassadors to Indian cuisine.” They use modern adaptations of classic dishes to deviate from the standard, popular and sometimes “incomplete” portrayal of Indian cuisine found on most Indian menus.

“The Indian restaurant scene is pretty backward because it’s a very stereotyped menu,” Tyagi said. “That’s where Aurum pitched in and tried to break that boundary.” 

In addition to authenticity, Aurum emphasizes the importance of presenting its dishes in a visually appealing manner.

“People eat with their eyes, so the food has to look appetizing,” Bhatia said. “Presentation is such an important part of your whole dining experience.”

A popular dish of Aurum, the creatively titled Mr. Potato Chaat, exemplifies that quality of presentation in a modern twist on the popular Indian snack. Going against tradition, the potato is spiralized, but accompanied by the usual yogurts, chutneys and spices. 

Working to craft a menu with dishes like this chaat in mind, each option is crafted and heavily tested before it is permanently added to the menu. For this, Aurum trusts its customers.

“[Guest] feedback is so important, and that’s how we try to change and adapt to what the local client wants,” Bhatia said. “Positive criticism is one of the most important things you can have in your life.”

From his personal experience, Bhatia believes that adapting to your environment and understanding your clientele’s needs is an uncompromisable aspect of success. Bhatia took these needs into consideration when he was scouting a location for the new restaurant. 

“[The Bay Area] has a loyal customer base,” Bhatia said. “I looked at Los Altos and people love Indian food. There’s a lot of diversity of population we have here.”

To serve this population authentic Indian cuisine, Bhatia partnered with chef Tyagi, who’s been in the industry for 20 years, and has worked at several restaurants. He met Bhatia at the chain Amber India, where they became professional acquaintances as well as good friends.

Described by Bhatia as a “damn professional,” Tyagi said his life has been filled with cooking. From a young age, he said he helped his family in preparing food for guests.

“I belong to a very ‘foodie’ family,” Tyagi said. “My mom is an excellent cook, and my dad is a very passionate cook.”

Tyagi graduated from university with a degree in hospitality and he said his journey toward a cooking career wasn’t easy. Many times, Tyagi said the overwhelming workload and “cutthroat” nature made him want to give up.

But Tyagi’s perseverance eventually led him to compete in the cooking game show BeatBobbyFlay, where contestants compete against Master Chef Bobby Flay and a panel of renowned cooks judges their meals. He advanced to the final round, where, using the same creativity and experimentation he now applies at Aurum, he snagged the win.

“I put my own perspective on a traditional dish,” Tyagi said.“I created the Saag Paneer Lasagna there. Chef Bobby Flay was making the traditional style of an Indian dish, and I was making a non-traditional style… [but my] flavor profile was very Indian, and that’s where he was lacking.”

The success of his dishes on the show influenced the modern yet authentic flavors Aurum strives to serve.

Tyagi, who runs the kitchen and “back of the house,” works closely with Bhatia, for whom hospitality is a priority. 

Bhatia’s savvy comes from his 26 years in the restaurant industry, and although like Tyagi, he struggled with the demands of the career at first, he said that the sense of improvement was inspiring.

“Your sense of learning every day, sense of achieving something every day, your motivation towards making the business successful … and your zeal and enthusiasm just keeps you [working],” Bhatia said.

He started his first restaurant, Broadway Masala, in 2013, and one year later founded Spice Affair. Bhatia’s knowledge and experience in the industry assisted him in planning for the restaurants’ survival through the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, opening the restaurant was a huge risk, but I would say it was a calculated one,” Bhatia said. “The confidence was that the product was good, and the offerings were good.”

Bhatia carefully engineered every detail of a takeout-only menu with Tyagi, making sure the items were optimal to be enjoyed at home.

Bhatia asked Tyagi to work with him on Aurum after August 1 Five — the restaurant Tyagi was working at — closed due to the pandemic. The pair had faith in their vision and worked together to create a menu with dishes specifically created to stay fresh, reheat effectively and travel well.

Starting out with only this take-out menu, the restaurant quickly attracted customers. The positive responses in the first several months were at times overwhelming, but encouraging, Bhatia said.

When the state allowed indoor and outdoor dining, they began to expand their menu, focusing more on the presentation of the dishes. Aurum facilitates a positive customer experience through their colorful interiors and casual atmosphere.

Aurum’s colorful interior.

“While the restaurant didn’t want to get into a white-tablecloth, very fine dining restaurant, we also didn’t want to get into a run-of-the-mill restaurant,” Bhatia said. “We wanted to be upscale; we wanted it to be colorful; we wanted it to be fun.”

With humorously named dishes, mural-covered walls, and close customer relationships, the atmosphere reflects Aurum’s driving principle of bringing people joy through Indian cuisine.

“Feeding people is one of the best feelings you can get,” Bhatia said. 

PAUSD expands summer school opportunities

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Palo Alto Unified School District is expanding its summer school program to serve students facing “adverse learning and social-emotional circumstances.”

Funds for the program come from Assembly Bill 86 signed by Governor Newsom in early March, funding expanded learning opportunities grants for districts like PAUSD in serving student groups including low-income students, English learners and foster youth. 

According to the final plan presented at last night’s board meeting, PAUSD’s high school program will span six weeks of summer, throughout which credit recovery courses will allow students with insufficient credits to recover two courses per three-week session. 

Additionally, “kick-start” courses that come with credit are intended to “help students lighten the regular school year course load,” according to the plans. A variety of uncredited courses not typically offered — from public speaking to Shakespeare and acting workshops — will also be offered.

The final plan outlines around $7.2 million of planned expenditures in order to carry out this expanded program. 

The district plans to extend the program to 2022, and says decisions for that “will be determined at a later date and will reflect the needs of the students based upon the coming school year.”

Students petition for academic and wellness reform following Mountain View High death

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Note: Resources for persons feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can be found at the bottom of this story.

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District are petitioning for reform that they say will better ensure the district supports students’ mental health needs, initially prompted by the passing of a Mountain View High School junior earlier this month.

Broadly, students have called for decreased homework loads and other measures meant to alleviate academic stress, as well as a range of solutions to bolster the district’s mental health support.

The circumstances of the death that prompted the petition are not yet public, and students have since disassociated the petition with the passing itself. An original foreword to the petition assumed the cause of death to be suicide, and criticized the school for not properly addressing this most recent death as well as two others over the course of the past three years which were publicly confirmed to be suicides. 

In an interview, Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer stressed the importance of avoiding spreading rumors about the passing out of respect for the family’s privacy and grieving process.

“We certainly do know, though, that that we have lost students to suicide on the Mountain View High campus in the last few years,” Meyer said. “And it is certainly a reminder of how significant that loss is to young people.”

Mountain View senior Marina Reynaud, who created the collaborative document with over 250 signatures, backtracked from that a day after she started circulating the petition. She said that after receiving feedback from another Mountain View student, she decided to change the premise of the petition because it was not her intention to use the deaths to her “benefit” and amplify her own message.

A new foreword to the petition explicitly notes that it “is not intended to be attached to the recent deaths of our MVHS peers.”

“What we are trying to do however, is spread awareness to the administration on the amount of students who do or have dealt with mental health problems during their time in high school,” the foreword continues. “Mental health is a huge issue at Mountain View (and many other schools) that should be addressed.”

HOMEWORK AND COURSE LOAD

One of the most detailed action items on the petition — and a seemingly recurring talking point in the student mental health discussion — is a call for decreased homework loads.

“Teachers should give less homework: It would be beneficial to students’ stress levels if teachers were forced to only assign 30-45 minutes of homework per day,” the petition reads. “Then, the rest of the students’ time can be allotted for studying and extracurriculars.”

According to the 2019–2020 Mountain View student handbook, students in college preparatory and non–UC recognized honors classes can expect up to 2–3 hours of “focused, undistracted homework per week” in each class, which averages out to 36 minutes a night at the top end.

AP and UC-approved honors courses should generally assign 4–5 hours of homework weekly — an average of an hour a night at the top end — the handbook also states.

In an interview, Raynaud reaffirmed her assertion that homework needs to be further limited, but said that there’s more nuance than what’s written in the petition.

“I think sometimes there is homework that’s just kind of busy work that I do agree should [be limited],” Raynaud said. “But homework that is like reading a textbook or actually learning things, I think there’s really no way to shorten that. Especially for AP classes, there’s a certain amount of work you have to do.”

Mountain View junior Abbie Reese, who wrote about overwhelming amounts of homework and the pressure to take AP and honors courses on a widely circulated Instagram post with 700 likes, agreed that AP course loads are inevitably going to be difficult.

“In terms of homework, of course AP teachers have content they need to teach and … it is a harder course,” Reese said. “I think it does get a little iffy when it falls into the category of none of your students can get this done on time and most of them are reaching out to you and saying, ‘We don’t have enough time for this.’”

When asked why students would choose to take AP and honors classes if the college prep homework load is in line with what they see as reasonable, both Raynaud and Reese contended that students are pressured to take AP and honors courses that they can’t handle.

Students, Raynaud claimed, are primarily pressured by their parents and other students, but she also asserted that pressure from some teachers pushes students toward unbalanced course loads.

When asked, Raynaud couldn’t think of any specific school policies or recurring actions the school takes that explicitly encourage students to take courses they can’t handle, but said that it’s “small things” from teachers.

“Today, and I don’t think this was intentional to hurt someone, but my teacher was like, ‘Oh, fill out this form and tell me which AP tests you’re taking.’ And that was under the assumption that everyone in that class was taking an AP test,” Raynaud said.

Raynaud said that the question was posed in an AP class — but that she still thought the implication was harmful.

Reese said that she feels that some of her teachers, though certainly not all, encourage her to take AP and honors courses that she can handle academically, but not in the broader context of the other courses she takes and her own wellness.

She said that her academic counselor has generally done a good job of guiding her toward balanced course loads, and Raynaud suggested that the district hire more academic counselors so that each counselor has fewer students to work with, allowing them to make more individualized and better-informed recommendations to students when choosing courses.

Superintendent Meyer said that while she’s not aware of any policies at the district level specifically about encouraging moderation in course load, there has been conversation on the subject and academic counselors generally guide students toward balanced schedules.

“I do believe that all of our counseling departments do emphasize the importance of balance,” Meyer said. “And counsel students towards making sure that they have a variety of experiences that may include courses that aren’t AP and extracurriculars, and to make sure that they have time within their day.”

The petition also calls for teachers to “plan their schedules so that tests and projects don’t overlap”; implement a “growth mindset” grading system; and allow for more lenient late work policy, although the specifics of those items are unclear, and Raynaud wasn’t entirely certain what she’d want them to look like — some of those points weren’t written by her, as it’s a collaborative document.

“The conversation of balance has been constant,” Wellness Coordinator William Blair said. “Part of our course selection process includes a time management worksheet … that we give students [and] we encourage our teachers to have the conversations with the students about balance, and what’s an appropriate load. … The philosophy of having a balanced workload, I think, is something that we’ve been promoting.”

Meyer said that there has been discussion about limiting AP courses — a suggestion that Reese made — but no specific policy at the moment.

She noted that the district needs to both ensure that students don’t feel compelled to take AP courses but also support “perhaps the smaller number” of students who benefit from and excel in AP courses. She also said that it’s important that the district “open access” for students who aren’t in advanced AP courses at the moment.

Raynaud, for her part, said that she’s undecided on the idea of capping AP courses, because she suspects students might look to pile on other activities like clubs and volunteer organizations to make up for having fewer AP courses.

“I think it just kind of takes away the school part of the stress,” Raynaud said. “But I think … in the end, you’re just going to still be doing a bunch of things for college applications.”

Despite no concrete district-wide policy, the Mountain View student handbook “encourages students to consider the number of AP classes they enroll in, keeping in mind that real college courses frequently require self-directed study that can, at a student’s option, far exceed time specified here.”

The handbook suggests that students who find themselves spending significantly more time than the expected 4–5 hours a week on homework in an AP or honors course speak with their teachers “for help examining their study habits and strategies and for other resources.”

On the topic of homework, Meyer said that there’s research to do moving forward, specifically pertaining to whether homework is contributing to actual mastery of the subject, as opposed to being extra work that’s reinforcing content that’s already solidified.

“So there’s that question around, at what point are you having diminishing returns for homework, and is there a way to assess perhaps differently so students don’t feel compelled to … complete a task as opposed to master the subject?” Meyer said.

“I think we need to look at the stress that comes with feeling compelled to take a very full load of very challenging courses,” she added. “But at the same time, we also need to look within those courses to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do.”

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Alongside the discussion surrounding homework and course loads, the mental health services that the school provides are also a dominant part of the petition and broader conversation.

The petition specifically calls for hiring more therapeutic counselors so that students “don’t have to be on a waiting list” and can “find a counselor that is a good fit for them instead of placing them with the counselor … available at the moment.”

Raynaud, who said she wasn’t completely familiar with the district’s existing infrastructure, also suggested hiring licensed psychotherapists to work in conjunction with the district’s existing support. 

Blair, the district’s wellness coordinator, said that in general, there aren’t any waitlists for the support services that the district offers.

In broad terms, the first step to accessing the district’s services is to fill out the district’s referral form, which can be done by the student in need, a friend, teacher or any other community member. 

“[The intake coordinator] meets with the student to kind of determine what the best support looks like,” Blair said. “Sometimes it’s academic counseling support, sometimes it’s support with social services or therapeutic mental health support. Sometimes it’s more at the administrative level, sometimes it’s about helping to foster communication with teachers and with family. So there’s a wide range of what the need may be.”

The district partners with CHAC, Uplift Family Services and Stanford Psychiatry to provide one-to-one counseling and therapeutic support with a general policy of providing short-term care for students, and later helping with the transition into more long-term care as needed.

Blair acknowledged that the district’s services might not always best serve students, and that the district is “happy to help” students find support elsewhere as needed.

“Almost across the board with all of our providers, we have increased services in the 2021 school year, and we’re expanding services as we hit [next year] as well,” Blair said, speaking of the district’s increased caseload capacity with its partners. “We’re building the infrastructure.”

“We have strong academic counseling, strong college and career counseling and strong therapeutic services,” Meyer said. “But there are the day-to-day stressors and the things that may not qualify you for clinical therapy, where you might need to go talk to someone and think it through and have someone objectively share support.”

Meyer said that the current model in some ways supports those “day-to-day” stressors, but that the district is still talking about the best way to support those needs.

Reese, who said she wasn’t entirely familiar with the support that the district provides in partnership with organizations like CHAC, suggested that the district offer therapeutic counseling services similar to the way it offers academic counselors, although she acknowledged it would take a significant amount of time and money.

Students would be paired with a wellness counselor for their four years in high school just as they are with academic counselors, which Reese contended could help remove some of the barriers like reluctance or lack of information that might prevent students from accessing support.

“I don’t know how well this would coincide with some of the other systems being proposed … But just as a baseline, every student would know exactly … who [to] you reach out to if you’re having a hard time,” Reese said.

Meyer said that the district this year shifted its academic counseling services to include more social emotional learning components, which in fact aligns partially with what Reese suggested.

“Our academic counselors have infused more social emotional support opportunities within their counseling yearly schedule,” Meyer said. “So that involves having time to talk to the students about their goals and and how it’s going with them — more of a check in and shifting away from only talking about what courses you need to graduate and be UC-ready, to really exploring what they’re interested in, what their strengths are and adding in that social emotional component.”

Blair said that many students do reach out to their academic counselors for mental health support, and Meyer added that many teachers, assistant principals and principals fill that role as well.

“I want to say … prior to needing that [clinical] support, our teachers do an excellent job of creating a welcoming environment within their classroom … recognizing that that relationship has to be built to optimize the environment and to optimize learning,” Meyer said.

Blair also cited student leadership classes, freshman orientation programs, academic counseling, tutorial centers and college and career centers all as being a part of broader “preventative” services that foster well being in the student body.

“My message is, if you have a need for support, please reach out, and we’ll do our best to get you connected with the appropriate support,” Blair said.

MOVING ON TOO QUICKLY

Although not included in Raynaud’s petition, a number of students have criticized what they say was a failure on the part of the district to properly address the death.

Reese, who was notified of the death the night prior by a mutual friend and said she was close to the student in middle school, felt that her teachers moved on from the death — as well as the two others in recent memory — far too quickly, and didn’t give students enough room to process it.

“I went through swinging back and forth between feeling numb and sad,” she said. “And then obviously, I had school the next day, and I was just kind of thrown back into a normal schedule. … And it was like, ‘I don’t really know how to process right now, because I feel like I need time to talk about what’s going on.’”

She said that while she thought one or two of her teachers addressed it well — including her first period teacher — the “vast majority” of the staff she interacted with “mentioned it in passing,” then carried on. She added that friends told her that some of their teachers had misgendered the student, which she found particularly frustrating.

As for what specifically she wanted from her teachers, Reese said that she would’ve liked more space to discuss and share feelings.

“This is kind of a weird comparison, but in my AP U.S. history class when [the Capitol insurrection happened], we were given time at the beginning of class to kind of discuss how that made us feel because a lot of us were getting really bad anxiety over it,” she said. “I think I’d like to see some of that — you know, a lot of us need some time to process, maybe share our thoughts to our teacher, get some more personal words.”

Meyer said that since being notified of the student’s death, the district has engaged in daily consultation with experts at Stanford University, the HEARD alliance, Kara and CHAC through Blair’s office to inform best policy.

“We rely very heavily on their guidance,” Blair said. “We’re following best practices set out by the professionals.”

After receiving news of the death, the district sent a message to the community notifying of the loss, and prepared a statement for first period teachers to read in their classes the next day. Blair said that teachers were encouraged to allow space for processing, and added that several support sessions were held for teachers who felt they needed additional guidance navigating the issue.

“Everybody grieves differently, and I think that’s really important,” Blair said. “Some students need the space to process and to talk, [and for] others, part of the grieving process is to not be in that space of processing.”

The school staffed the library with CHAC support staff to provide a space for students who needed additional processing, and also made available a Zoom link for similar support for remote students to “honor all responses to grief.”

Blair said that staff support meetings were also held for Los Altos High School teachers to prepare them should the topic come up in conversation, but Los Altos teachers were not instructed to read Meyer’s statement notifying of the death — which was in line with the expert consultation.

“I do have to say this feedback [about moving on too quickly] is really appreciated,” Meyer said. “Because we’re speaking to our advisors, but we want to make sure that the students have a voice in this as well. And if they’re telling us they need more, they need more.”

NEXT STEPS

Moving forward, Meyer and Blair pledged to have continued conversations about the district’s role in supporting student mental health.

“It has been devastating to see our students mourning, our families mourning and our staff mourning,” Meyer said. “And to that end, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to not only work to prevent any tragedies, but to support the students who are here and mourning with us.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Blair said. “We become educators because we love young people, and we love students, and we want them to thrive. … And it’s difficult watching our young people when they’re struggling. … We want to be there to help them through those struggles and through those challenges.”

Both Blair and Meyer expressed gratitude for the students who have reached out to them with suggestions moving forward, and encouraged students to continue to speak out.

“One of the things that we continue to plan with a more heightened urgency is to have a systemic way to reach out to students and to use their perspective and voice for district-wide improvement,” Meyer said. “One of the reasons that we recently reorganized the district office for the community outreach specialist was to have a systemic way to do that, and to honor the voices of those who are in the classroom all day and have a better vantage point than we do.”

The district recently appointed Los Altos English teacher Michelle Bissonnette to the new role of community outreach specialist, which will be responsible for communicating with and gathering feedback from the community to inform policy across the district.

Meyer said that, in the short term, she plans to share the feedback from students about where their stress comes from and what they think the district can do moving forward with teachers and the board — and to assess in those conversations how, or whether, the district should implement change.

“We knew before, but there certainly is an outcry,” Meyer said. “Students definitely have shared with us that the stress that they’re feeling within the day is very difficult. And so we have to honor and respect that voice and do what we can to support them.”

“It’s an ongoing collaboration,” Blair said. “It takes time, it takes thoughtfulness, it takes a concerted effort — and I think we are all committed to that. It’s the ongoing collaboration that I think will get us to where we want to be.”

Any person feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a crisis counselor, or text “HELLO” to 741741. The Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District’s student referral form can be found here in English, and here in Spanish.