Life-size bears in Downtown Los Altos have residents roaring with excitement

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS BY MIA BASSETT

For an average person, seeing herds of 8-foot-tall bears stalking downtown corners might be frightening, pee-your-pants scary even, but not for the accustomed residents of Los Altos. The Los Altos Rotary Club’s most recent public art project has scattered dozens of painted fiberglass bears around the city, some life-size, and each with a theme unique to the bear. 

This project, brainchild of Los Altos Rotarian Carol Dabb, was inspired by the Chicago CowParade, a public art exhibit that displays painted cows around some of the world’s biggest cities, and was adapted to express California pride. 

Dabb said she chose bears because they are the state animal, but also because bears have “human qualities and you can give them human-like personalities.” She decided that bears are easier for people to relate to than dogs or cats, for example. 

There are currently 54 painted bears in four sizes: the towering 8-foot grizzly bear, the 5-foot black bear and the 36- and 20-inch baby bears. Each bear is painted by a local artist selected by the rotary club, in a lineup that includes high school students, hobbyists and professional artists. 

Each bear is sponsored or purchased by local rotarians, residents and businesses, and put up for auction online — they’ll be auctioned live as well during the Hibernation is Over Party in October 2021.

Proceeds from the bears go to benefit various charities supported by the rotary club. But the project is also supporting artists who have been hit hard during the pandemic, unable to sell art and in turn fund their craft. Each artist receives a 25% commission from the bids on their bears. 

According to Dabb, there were “a lot of naysayers at the beginning” — people thought the project was too big, that the bears wouldn’t be attractive and that they wouldn’t get people to sponsor or bid on the bears or make any money. A hush has fallen over the skeptics since the success of bear bidding, with every bear being bid on. 

“I just knew it would work,” Dabb said. “But people don’t understand art. They don’t understand how important art is in our lives, how much joy art brings into our lives, how much conversation with each other art brings into our lives.”

Perched on columns and benches and lurking behind buildings, the bears liven the streets of a city that’s just starting to wake up after months in the den. 

“It brings such a positive vibe for the town,” said Jane Lombard, a cardiologist and the first sponsor and artist to volunteer. “In the evenings, I see families walking around and doing bear treasure hunts with their kids.”

Families may spot a bear strumming his ukelele, or a holding a fishing line. But the meanings behind these charming bears are more than what meets the eye. 

Artists were given prompts to follow in their painting, and depending on the theme, could take creative liberties with the style of the bear. Rachel Bidinger, a Los Altos High School senior who got involved in the project after hearing about it from the National Arts Honor Society, received a private commission for her painted bear titled, “Grandpa Sam.”

The personal commission was a birthday present for a Rotarian’s husband, and Bidinger said the bear was meant to represent him. Bidigner worked closely with the buyer to design a bear with a yellow hat, his favorite shirt and a pair of Hawaiian print pants. Pawprints adorned the bear’s back to represent each of the recipient’s grandchildren. 

“I really liked working with the individual and trying to understand what vision they may have in mind for design,” Bidinger said. “Something that’s really important for artists is to be able to help someone visualize what they can replicate in the art.”

Lombard painted “Grinn N Bear It,” “Hang 10” and “Tahoe Blue.” She first heard about the project during a Rotary meeting and later approached Dabb offering to sponsor a bear. Although at first, Lombard said she was skeptical of the project because of Los Altos’s size compared to Chicago, she decided it was a great “picker-upper” during lock-downs. 

Her first bear, “Grinn N Bear It” is dedicated to first responders, splattered in symbols of the local fire departments and EMTs surrounded by poppies and quails. According to the bear’s description, it is a grinning bear to symbolize “hope and solidarity.” 

“I think art needs to evoke feelings in you, whether it’s rage or thought and I think those bears do that, because a lot of them [show] what our community is going through,” Lombard said. 

According to the Los Altos Bears map, the “Field Guide Bear” honors the Los Altos Public Library, with the background painted with local grasses and butterflies native to Santa Clara County covering the bear like a “living encyclopedia of butterflies.”

The “Historic Los Altos Bear” by Ayla Studio is covered in iconic Los Altos buildings. Featuring the Community House, Neutra House and the railroad station, the bear pays homage to the rich history of the city. 

Relaxed and tan, Lombard’s “Hang 10” bear is posing in front of a Hawaiian flower surfboard. The installation is a 5-foot-2 brown bear meant to represent the quintessential California look. 

“The bears are very local,” Lombard said. “They’ve got a lot of local lore and history.”

Although Lombard is a relatively experienced painter, she advanced her skills both technically, dipping her toe into graffiti methods, and conceptually, with what she described as a growth in her “artist’s spirit.”

“I grew in thinking of images that would evoke emotions,” Lombard said. “Of course, the bears are positive, but I had to find a [balance].”

For many bear painters, it’s their first time participating in a public project like this one. 

“It’s definitely a new experience being able to see the value that others see in my work,” said Bidinger.

“It really brings the community together: sponsors, creators and also the audience,” Lombard said. “The bears are a work of love.”

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.

VIDEO: A look into MVLA’s current in-person learning program

PRODUCED BY KAITLYN HUANG, MIA BASSETT AND CATHRYN KRAJEWSKI, MUSIC BY TOMOKI CHIEN

High schoolers in the Mountain View–Los Altos High School District returned to campuses earlier this month for learning in “stable groups,” participating in remote classes in a study hall supervised by substitute staff.

In April, students across the district are slated to make an optional full hybrid return, where they’ll rotate through classes as in a normal school year for four full days a week.

Here’s a look at the district’s current progress.