| | By Julie Anderson
Enter Etui at 2518 San Pablo Ave. and you'll discover one of the most beautifully curated stores in the East Bay. Reminiscent of a 16th-century cabinet of curiosities, the store contains all manner of unexpected and beautiful objects: metal beetles made out of old watch parts, velvet lampshades, tiny porcelain teacups, white silk shoes from 1910, hand-dyed textiles, and rolls of richly textured crepe paper elegantly tied and stacked in a dazzling array of colors. Many of the objects in the store are made by local artists, like the metal insects by Sparrow Song, the lampwork bead jewelry by Alexis Berger, or the giant paper irises by Lynn Dolan. The rest are mostly one-of-kind antiques or art supplies to make the crafts taught at the store.
That's what makes Etui so special: Not only does it sell really interesting and unusual objects, it's also a workshop space where you can learn to make many of these objects yourself. Uncial calligraphy, marbleized fabric boxes, and flapper headpieces are among some of the more eclectic crafts taught at the store.
"If there's anything that links the types of classes being offered here," said Bethany Carlson Mann who co-owns the store with Alice Armstrong, "it's that they're usually more product-oriented." In other words, you're likely to come away from a workshop with something you can use, display, or give as a gift.
The store opened in May, a couple months after the closing of Castle in the Air on Fourth Street. In fact, Mann and Armstrong used to work at Castle in the Air and decided to open Etui in response to the former shop's closing. "We were still passionate about teaching classes and having a store," Mann explained. A friend suggested the name "Etui" (pronounced "Eh-twee") for the new shop and it stuck. Like an actual etui — an ornamental case used for holding objects beautiful and useful — Etui the store is an elegant container for beautiful and useful things. But it's also a container in another sense: It holds the space for people to come together and create community.
This sense of community is abundantly evident in Lynn Dolan's workshops on paper flower making, which have already attracted quite a following. Dolan teaches how to make a different flower or fruit in every workshop, and the results are gorgeous, as is evidenced by the many examples of her craft for sale in the store.
In early July, Dolan was offering a class on paper figs that open into tiny gilded boxes. Students in the workshop found themselves at one of two big metal tables in Etui's classroom. It's a big, sunny space with a high ceiling and skylights, where plants and flowers abound: potted plants, a bouquet of dahlias and salvias, paper hollyhocks, and a giant painting of a purple iris. And just for good measure, there's an old-fashioned typewriter, a giant medical dictionary, and a couple of nearly life-sized wool ewes. In such a space, it's virtually impossible not to feel both playful and inspired.
Dolan immediately put the students at ease with her welcoming spirit, easygoing nature, and unassuming expertise in paper flower making, an artistic tradition that dates back to around 100 B.C.E. in China, when paper was invented. As do all good teachers, Dolan had the eight students introduce themselves. Surprisingly, only two of the students were from the East Bay; the rest came from San Francisco, the South Bay, and one was even from Puerto Rico. Apparently, this kind of geographic diversity isn't unusual. "Students come from all over — New York, D.C., Chicago — there aren't a lot of places like this in the U.S.," Michaele Thunen, one of the students in the class, said. She herself was a Berkeley resident for 43 years, then moved to Chico, but she comes back regularly for classes at Etui. "One of the most fun parts is the socializing," she added.
In Dolan's workshop, many of the students already had considerable experience in crafting. Fortunately for those who did not (read, this writer), nobody seemed to mind rookie questions and requests for help. Indeed, thanks to the camaraderie amongst classmates and Dolan's considerable patience as a teacher, it was possible for even the most inexperienced of students to emerge from the workshop with a paper fig that looked like it might have come off a fig tree in one's own backyard. Or, almost like that.
"We're not trying to make exact replicas," Dolan explains. The point is, rather, to show off the properties of the exquisite crepe paper used to make the ersatz fruit and flowers.
Currently, classes are only being offered for adults, but plans are underway to offer ones for children, too. Mann said that they're working to develop kids' classes with the Ecology Center, possibly involving growing things and the creative re-use of discarded objects. The owners are also exploring the possibility of a summer camp for kids next year.
Ultimately, Etui isn't just a store, but a place to learn, create, and meet other people. "My philosophy of shopkeeping isn't about selling lots of stuff," said Mann. "Amazon does that. What we offer is a way for people to come together and keep the artists they love in their community living and working."
Etui is already well on its way to becoming just this kind of space. Mann and Armstrong really love the West Berkeley location and enjoy meeting the local dog walkers, kids, and neighbors who stop by for a chat. If you happen to be in the area, stop by. You won't be disappointed.
Etui classes have resulted in potted mignonette strawberries by Lynn Dolan, Saint Somebody shrine by Charlene McNally, felt appliqué holiday stocking by Bethany Carlson Mann, and gamebox collage by Alice Armstrong. Photos courtesy Etui.