Continuing with Quirky Berkeley’s exploration of Berkeley businesses with 50+ years here, I present the Berkeley Vacuum Center at 2108 Berkeley Way.
Ten years ago, maybe more, I started compiling a list of things that I love about Berkeley. This was well before Quirky Berkeley, but is probably the earliest common ancestor. The Berkeley Vacuum Center was on the list, and it still is, although I can’t find the original list.
The Berkeley Vacuum Center began life as Sam the Vacuum Man about 75 years ago, located on the 2100 block University, just east of Shattuck. After Charles Judy started Berkeley Hardware (which became Berkeley Ace) in 1945, he bought out Sam and operated the business as an annex to the main hardware store.
Enter the Seegmillers.
They grew up in Berkeley, sons of architect Weston Seegmiller and UC Linguistics Department secretary LaRue Seegmiller.
They grew up in Berkeley, mostly on Yolo Avenue.
Gerald graduated from Berkeley High in 1968. He worked as a field sales representative for Hoover.
Chris was Berkeley High class of 1972. As a 9th grader, he had a close encounter of the frightening kind during the People’s Park events. The after-school bus that brought him from the West Campus dropped him at Hearst, where he would catch a bus north. A line of National Guard and law enforcement stood between him and his bus. He explained his predicament; the law enforcement line parted, he passed through, and then shit got real. He went into sprint mode; his friend who stayed to watch ended up with Alameda County Sheriff Department birdshot in him.
In high school, Chris went to work for Judy’s Berkeley Ace vacuum store, which he ended up managing.
On November 1, 1983, the brothers bought the business from Ace. They have run it since.
In summary – the two brothers have worked with vacuum cleaners for almost 50 years.
For me, there is an elegance and beauty in the machines lined up. I know – you don’t sell the machine, you sell the clean floor. But they rock elegant.
For the customer who wants to try a vacuum cleaner out, there is this jar of demo sand.
Personality test – do you see clutter or organization? Or both?
And then there are the sewing machines.
There is an industrial beauty in the sewing machines, just as there is with the vacuums. The accessories are joyful as well:
The Seegmiller brothers are all about signs and clever slogans. They are quick to tell a new customer that the sewing business keeps them in stitches, or that their business is picking up.
They sell signs.
And they are amused by vacuum cleaner slogans from the past that use language that would be avoided today.
The British advertising agency Cogent Elliot came up with for the British market. “Sucks” has been normalized in American English over the last few decades, but the meaning here is hard to miss.
In 1919, Gerald Page Wood from Hoover’s advertising agency Erwin, Wasey & Company, coined this slogan.
The Seegmillers are also all about vacuum history.
They told me about the Vacuum Cleaner Museum on Highway 66 in St. James, Missouri.
It is operated by the Tacony Corporation, which manufactures all of its home vacuums and some commercial vacuums in St. James. They defied the national trend to outsource manufacturing offshore.
The Seegmiller’s have a collection of old vacuum cleaners stored on the rafters in the back room. It intrigues. One hopes that they will come down and go up somewhere someday soon.
They sell handmade products.
Gerald sells slingshots that he makes.
Chris sells pens and hem-ripper necklaces that he makes.
I said to Gerald that every time I have gone into the store I have been talked out of spending a lot of money. Rent, don’t buy. Repair don’t replace.
He said that this is their operating business model – be truthful and give good advice. That is what keeps customers loyal and coming back. “If you never lie, you won’t get caught in a lie.” Good plan!
Continuing into the future:
The wholesale redevelopment of downtown Berkeley does not bode well for the Seegmiller brothers and the Berkeley Vaccum Center.
This what is proposed for the site – 78 apartments on the top ten floors, retail on the bottom two stories, 91 parking spots,and 30 bike storage spaces. It is called L’Argent. L’Argent means money in French.
The project’s architect Jim Novosel says “We want to get a great, beautiful building,” Irony?
What would this mean for Berkeley Vacuum Center? Option one is to move, with costs approaching $100,000. Option two is to go dark for the construction period, which would result in a nearly complete loss of their customer base. Option three is to go out of business. No good options.
This shall not evolve/devolve into a diatribe, polemic, invective, tirade, stricture, rant, screed, harangue, or even rebuke. Just facts. But I’d sure hate to see the Seegmillers go out of business because of this “great, beautiful building.”
Can you see why I put the Vacuum Center on my list of things I love about Berkeley?
The vacuum store rocks quirky visually. The Seegmillers are Sons of Berkeley who are happy doing what they are doing. They are very good at it. They have been doing it for almost 50 years. They care about loyal customers and good service.
My Quirky Berkeley friend OH who suggested the entire old business line of inquiry also specifically suggested the Vacuum Center. Good idea and good choice!
I showed the post to my friend, who lately has been talking about packing up and getting out. He has his own list of what he loves about Berkeley. Thing is – half of them are crossed out. Gone. Physical and cultural and emotional. No longer present.
My friend says he has at least one more big project in him. He’s online a lot looking at real estate. I can’t judge how serious he is, and I struggle to imagine him giving up his Danish modern motif quarters and his growing Raymond Loewy collection to start all over simpler and different.
I know this – he spent a long time with this post. “I love my Dear Old Berkeley” he said, hoisting up his pant leg to show me the scar on the back of his calf from birdshot, hit by a Blue Meanie as my friend ran as fast as he could west down Parker between Telegraph and Chilton, May 15, 1969. (His brother Earl has birdshot scars on the back of his leg too, his from outside a blind pig on 12th Street in Detroit, 1967 – but that’s another twin story). My friend is scarred, but not terribly. But there you have his love for Berkeley – a Main Street Small Town Good People vacuum store on one hand, and People’s Park on the other. Go figure.
What about the post?
I have always loved Berkeley Vacuum store. It is wonderful. The owners/workers there are friendly, helpful and always fix whatever is broken. I will be sad to see that store leave. I hate these new supposed “great, beautiful buildings” that aren’t! Thanks for featuring the Seegmillers brothers and their wonderful store!
great story about one of my favorite local businesses. thanks for sharing their story. maybe someone will read it and come up with a good plan for saving the store/business.
Is the following too political? Am I diatribing here? We lost our oldest small local family-run in-business-for-a-long-time vacuum shop in Reno last year. I had spoken with the owner a few years earlier, who told me that (a) the local members-only discount warehouse store sold name-brand vacuums for less than it cost him to acquire them wholesale; and (b) if he wanted to continue carrying said name-brand vacuums, he had to agree to perform warranty service for next-to-nothing, even on vacuums purchased at said big store. I guess I’m saying that only grass-roots support can keep these little neighborhood gems up and running.
As usual, your love of local culture and history reveal a man with brains, heart and a soul. I share your curiosity and enthusiasm. Tomorrow I hop on my bike and explore. Thanks. Everything changes.
Thanks again, Tom. I also love Berkeley Vacuum Center. I got my sewing machine there in 1968
and when I take it in, they love to listen to the sound of a non-plastic-parts-machine. I’ve purchased a few vacuums there for various people. One day, went by and saw a spiffy walker
and other things out front when their elder died so I got the walker for my dad.
I love the fact that I can put a vacuum or sewing machine into my cart and roll it down
there from my house. Oh yes, and also knife sharpening. A wonderful business.
I just called today, I was told they retired today.I was in shock. I had the distinct pleasre of working with these 3 or 6 folks for the last 28 years. Yes, I have done over 17000 jobs from their referals bringing them countless pizza pies! I will miss them , but can only thinks, WHY DIDNT YOU AT LEAST TELL ME IN PERSON? BYE FOR NOW>>JONATHAN >> 1/15/2018- 1031 pm