What makes a business last nearly half a century or more?
Often it’s being in the right place at the right time — or buying the property before values shoot through the roof.
That’s true for Say Ray, the Palo Alto auto repair shop started in 1959 by Ray Longanecker, and certainly for Bell’s Books, started in 1935 by Herbert Bell, who had the foresight to purchase the building on Emerson Street in downtown Palo Alto 15 years later.
Whether going through economic booms or busts, or facing changing city and state regulations, local businesses have had to stay nimble to survive. To understand the secrets to longevity, the Weekly asked the owners or managers of five businesses in different industries to talk about some of the hurdles they’ve had to overcome and how they stayed afloat when other companies met their demise. The oldest of the five businesss was founded in 1904 and the youngest in 1987.
In the past 40 years alone, nearly all enterprises have had to figured out how to adapt to a new digital reality, whether by shifting gears as cars incorporated software and computers or competing with online commerce that devastated so many local brick-and-mortar stores.
And with the rising dominance of tech companies in the Valley, the biggest challenge to the longtime businesses queried for this article is hiring new staff.
The majority of the 28 employees at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in south Palo Alto command union wages, but even that doesn’t help them pay the high rents and real estate prices within a reasonable commute distance. Locating seasonal employees to keep up the grounds in spring through early fall is a special challenge, noted Marilyn Talbot, general manager.
“We can’t compete with Facebook or Google ... even though we offer a very good package of benefits and pensions,” she said.
The Cardinal Hotel’s secret to success has been its longtime workers.
General Manager Stephanie Wansek has been there 22 years; her head housekeeper tops that by 12 years. Others have been there longer than 20 years.
“We have a lot of longevity in our staff,” Wansek said.
“A lot of us that work here fall in love. It’s a great building,” she said, adding that when she goes on vacation, she’s always happy to come back.
“But it’s harder to retain newer people,” who can’t afford to live on their own nearby, she said.
While Piazza’s Fine Foods in the Charleston Shopping Center likewise boasts a number of longtime employees — not least the three brothers, sons of the founder, who run it — “we struggle with getting employees,” said co-owner Rick Piazza. Gone are the days when high school kids would bag groceries after school.
“It’s tough to make ends meet versus high tech,” he said. Plus, it’s not easy work.
“It’s a lot of physical labor. That can’t just be anybody. You need the right personality” to interact with customers, he said.
And sometimes the next generation just isn’t interested in taking over.
Although Peter Longanecker took over in 1995 from his dad, Ray, Peter’s two sons are pursuing different paths. For Bell’s Books, the best hope to carry on for the coming 40 years just may be the next-next generation — the grandchildren.
TIMELINE: 40 years & older — A salute to Palo Alto’s oldest businesses
Working on cars is in the blood for Peter Longanecker, who was tinkering with engines at 14, before he could legally drive.
He learned a lot from his dad, Meryl (Ray) Longanecker, who opened Say Ray Foreign Auto Service in 1959 in Palo Alto’s Ventura neighborhood. At first Ray specialized in Volkswagens and Porsches, the younger Longanecker said, but then went “full spectrum. He worked on everything.” By the late ‘70s he narrowed his car-repair service to Volvos.
By the time Peter Longanecker took over in 1995, however, Volvo quality had plummeted, and people were not buying as many.
“Now we do Japanese cars” including Lexus and Toyotas, as well as the newer, luxury Volvos.
“Volvo was more of a family car (in the ‘70s-’80s),” he said. “Now it’s targeting the luxury market so they are really expensive.”
Peter Longanecker, who grew up in Palo Alto and attended Loma Verde (now Juana Briones) Elementary, Terman (now Fletcher) Middle and Gunn High schools, has seen firsthand the changing demographics of Palo Alto, which now has a greater population of higher-end cars. He’s also seen the growing integration of computers into cars.
Besides learning at his father’s side, Peter Longanecker learned the trade by taking a two-year auto course at De Anza College, and as cars changed, he picked up classes at some parts companies, and he did a lot of reading.
“It was really applying what I already knew,” he said, noting that working on cars means understanding how to get fuel and air into an engine.
“Back in the ‘70s there were no onboard diagnostics, but by the late ‘80s (that) became more mainstream. You pull up a code and it points you in a general direction, then you use your knowledge and skills to draw a conclusion on what will do the job,” he said.
“Today’s cars are rolling computers. ... You can fix things by changing out the software,” he added.
“The products are getting better: performance, reliability, gas mileage,” he said, but “it comes at a cost. Everything is more complicated, more expensive (to fix).”
As a business owner on Ash Street, he’s also been a front-seat witness to changes in his edge-of-Ventura neighborhood. His property, which his dad purchased in the 1960s, backs onto the Fry’s Electronics parking lot. While the city and local residents may want more housing on the property, he’s not so sure that the property owners are willing to give up the business income they get from the retail space, he said.
But he knows the wheels of Palo Alto development move slowly, so he’s not spending a lot of time worrying about who his new neighbors could be.
At 60, he has no plans to retire soon, “but I don’t see doing this when I’m 80,” he said.
He does acknowledge that business has been slowing down in the last six or seven years. He can now book an appointment within a week.
“It used to be three weeks. Times change,” he said.
And although he personally drives a GMC pickup with the newer bells and whistles, he said he turns off the “stay-in-lane” and cruise-control features.
Say Ray, 3251 Ash St., Palo Alto, 650-493-8480, sayrayautorepair.com
“Any book you haven’t read is a new book,” reads the sign in the window of Bell’s Books, a Palo Alto institution that’s grown from young Herbert Bell selling textbooks to Stanford University students in 1935 to a well-established antiquarian and rare book shop run by his daughter, Faith Bell.
Nearly 350,000 mostly second-hand volumes are shelved from the floor to the lofty ceiling, organized by 500 subject areas. Glass-fronted cases are scattered throughout, often containing the rarest of leather-bound books, perhaps a miniature Shakespeare collection.
Bell’s stocks brand-new Caldecott-winning children’s books and paperback fiction, along with volumes gleaned from estate sales, private collections and people downsizing, Faith Bell said.
In other words, one can purchase a new paperback copy of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” for $8.95, a hardback version for $18.95 or a first edition for $4,500.
At one time there were 27 bookstores between Mountain View’s San Antonio Road and Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, many with niche specialties (occult, women’s, Jewish). Now there are about five, she said.
“The rise of Silicon Valley is a big shift. There’s an expectation that things will be crisp and bright and fresh, even for used books. ... They have access to whatever they want online.
“Sales dropped significantly when people started buying books online,” she said. “There were years of struggle.”
Even so, Bell has resisted inventorying her books on a computer, and she also keeps no written records of who bought what — a direct result of a Homeland Security demand to turn over those records a few years back.
With no list of her books on a computer, there are no online sales, no Bell’s Books eBay store.
That’s fine with Faith, who has worked at the store since 1983, first with her father until he died, and then alongside her mother, Valeria Bell, until her retirement in 2014.
Every bookstore has to change over time, she said.
“The community has different demands and interests,” and what appealed to the Palo Alto community in the ‘40s or ‘70s is not the same as today, she said.
Like other purveyors of books, she tried hosting some events in the past to draw in customers, but the store’s physical setup makes them very difficult.
“The front display table weighs over 300 pounds — it’s 18th-century oak,” she said, adding, “I’m not really interested in providing that kind of entertainment; what we provide is fascinating enough in itself.”
Fortunately, steeply rising rents have never been a major challenge for the store, since Herbert Bell was smart enough to buy the building, now designated Category 2 on the city’s Historic Register, in 1950.
Ultimately the personal service Bell’s offered overcame the pull of the Internet, and customers — at least her store’s clientele — value the experience of picking up the book, feeling it, smelling it.
Today Bell’s Books has settled into its niche, focusing “much more in the antiquarian or rare realm. We could sell hundreds of paperback fiction for one rare book,” she said.
Her customer base, too, has evolved over time.
“We have constantly changing clientele. We are delighted to see younger customers delighting in the store. Our aging clientele kept us going; now we have families in on Saturday or couples on Friday date night who realize how unusual this is,” she said.
She even has out-of-the-area customers who’ll “take a vacation day once a month and treat themselves to something unusual,” she said.
A major draw is interacting with longtime staff.
“You should never underestimate the importance of loyal, hardworking, long-term staff. They shape the business as much as the owners,” she said.
Besides Faith, whose interests lie in books on books (binding, publishing), 17th- to 19th-century literary figures and social reformers, including Utopian communities, there are five other employees with a broad range of interests.
Tärna Rosendahl, a 13-year employee, is a linguist with expertise in modern and medieval world history. Her daughter, Emma Beckman, started working at Bell’s while in high school. Now a college graduate, she too is a linguist as well as a reader of true crime and crime fiction.
Kris Falk and Kevin Shlossberg both joined the store after Bookbuyers closed in Mountain View three years ago. Falk has a doctorate in music composition, but Bell said he’s solid in Classical thought, Latin canon, Tibetan Buddhism, as well as early 20th-century European literature. Shlossberg “is brilliant at remembering where everything is in the store,” Bell said. He also knows a lot about modern poetry, speculative fiction (a cross between science fiction and fantasy, dystopian), natural sciences and Eastern philosophy.
And Bell’s husband, Christopher Storer, is a retired philosophy professor. One can ask him about Western philosophy, social sciences, engineering or the building trades, she said.
At 64, she has been able to pare down her 14-hour days, enabling her to meet other personal and professional obligations.
“I know of booksellers who’ve dropped in their tracks, and that’ll probably be me,” she said.
Bell’s Books, 536 Emerson St., Palo Alto, 650-323-7822, bellsbooks.com
Many things have changed at Alta Mesa Memorial Park since it was established in 1904, but the serenity and beauty of the 72-acre private cemetery along Palo Alto’s southern border stay the same.
Just a dozen years ago, a new chapel was added to accommodate 168 people; today plans have already been approved by the city of Palo Alto to build a new reception center that can seat 300 for memorial services, noted Marilyn Talbot, general manager and corporate secretary.
Construction, which will include two outdoor courtyards, could start in the spring and take about a year to complete.
In the 39 years that Talbot has worked at Alta Mesa, first as a counselor, she has seen the premises expand to include a full mortuary, crematory, mausoleum (cremains and coffins) and columbarium (for cremains only).
About 800 funerals take place on weekdays (mostly Mondays and Fridays) each year, and another 400 services are offered, such as cremations, in which the ashes are taken away by loved ones.
“We do a fair amount with the VA (Veterans Affairs) and local hospitals,” she said.
These days, unlike in years past, about 65 to 70% of services offered are cremations rather than burials, she said, depending a lot on the ethnic background of the family.
“People want to follow their traditions,” she said, pointing to the Chinese, Jewish, Latino, Muslim and Sikh people who are buried at Alta Mesa.
While in 1904 a gravesite with perpetual care would cost $25, today’s rates are closer to $12,000 for a burial and $3,000 for cremation. Prices for funerals or cremations include contributions to the endowment fund (now at $38 million, up from $15 million in 2007), which pays for perpetual upkeep.
Although Alta Mesa has been located in the same spot for 115 years, almost across the street from Gunn High School, it is constantly evolving. Recently a scattering garden has been added, where people may leave a loved one’s remains.
A new columbarium offers creek vistas and a skylight.
“The most popular (locations) are those that can be ‘viewed’ by the deceased,” she said.
“More thought is given to how the person lived: Would they want to be under a tree, or if they were always cold, would they want to be in the sun?” she added.
Wildlife thrives on the campus, with three bucks munching on the flowers left by visitors. It’s not uncommon to spot jackrabbits, hawks the size of eagles, deer, coyotes and a bevy of “very destructive” squirrels, she said.
With 28 employees, Talbot’s biggest challenge is keeping full employment.
“I have had a hard time (filling) jobs in the last year or so. Most applicants live far away,” she said, noting that more than half the employees live in the East Bay and a few live in Boulder Creek, Felton or Gilroy.
The privately owned memorial park has 38 stockholders.
“We’ve never gone corporate,” she said.
Following the closure of Roller & Hapgood & Tinney in 2013, Alta Mesa now runs the only mortuary in the city.
Even with 80,000 interred at Alta Mesa, 21 acres, many planted in apricot trees, are still undeveloped. Talbot doesn’t think it will be full for 200 years — “way past my lifetime,” she said.
Alta Mesa Memorial Park, 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, 650-493-1041, altamesacemetery.com
A lot has changed since John Piazza Sr. opened what was then called Park Merced Supermarket with his three sons — John Jr., Gary and Rick — in 1987 in the Charleston Shopping Center.
First was the name, according to Rick Piazza.
“Our customers didn’t relate, so we changed it to the family name,” he said.
Piazza’s dad came from Sicily at age 12 in 1933, opened a small store in San Francisco by 1946 and then worked for years for the Brentwood markets. Ultimately, he opened a market in 1979 with Rick’s older brothers in the Park Merced neighborhood of San Francisco, hence the Park Merced name that they brought to their Palo Alto store.
But much more than the name has evolved over the decades. Today’s customers are mostly millennials with more spending power, Piazza said — that means a greater emphasis on “organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), dairy-free, wheat-free, no preservatives.”
Piazza’s added an online shopping option with home delivery in 2017, responding to competition from bigger chain stores. Business has increased “even more the last six months,” Piazza said. Customers pay the same prices as in the store with no delivery charge.
“We are constantly re-inventing ourselves,” he said. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying in this business.”
“We have to keep up with trends in the marketplace, and possibly carry more ethnic foods, or more vegetarian options,” he said, noting, “Meatless and plant-based burger items are now a big category, and organic is always growing.”
Today’s market offers more premade foods, such as marinated meats that can be picked up and tossed on the barbecue. And the store is developing relationships with smaller wineries and local breweries, Piazza said. Recently, a new executive chef and kitchen manager were hired, with plans to expand food service options.
Each of the three brothers has his areas of responsibility: John Jr. oversees meat, floral, Starbucks and any remodeling projects; Gary runs the food service, cheese, deli and the off-site kitchen; Rick manages the store directors and does “a little bit of everything.”
“We are very lucky we all get along well. It’s family and friends first, business second,” said Piazza, whose family opened a second store, in San Mateo, in 1997.
The brothers grew up in the grocery business, as have many of their employees. Some are retired now; others continue to work part-time as they age.
“We struggle with getting employees. It’s tough to get local kids to work. Grocery stores are all fighting for employees,” Piazza said, noting that with so many high-tech jobs locally — and high-tech salaries — it’s hard to compete.
Piazza sees the store’s biggest challenge as finding good people who are good with customers.
Although they do not own the property, the Piazzas were able to enlarge the store by taking over the space next door in 2013. This enabled them to keep up with local competition by expanding the meat, wine, beer, liquor and dairy areas, as well as vegan and vegetarian items.
“(It) would have been difficult to compete since Whole Foods, Sprouts and Safeway opened in the last few years. We really needed the space,” Piazza said.
Piazza, who graduated from Gunn High School, still sees old classmates come into the store. All three brothers have worked at the market since they were teenagers, and Rick’s children could be seen there as young as 12, helping to carry turkeys or push carts to customers’ cars. His oldest son, James, who’s worked in the store since age 10, is now part of the management team.
With crews on site from 2 a.m. until 10:30 at night receiving merchandise, stocking the shelves and serving customers, Piazza said, “It’s not easy. This business never sleeps. We’re open 364 days a year.”
Piazza’s Fine Foods, Charleston Shopping Center, 3922 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, 650-494-1629, piazzaslovesfood.com
Step into the lobby of the Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a time warp.
The high-ceilinged lobby is rife with original touches (designed by Birge Clark and William H. Weeks): an immense skylight, gilt columns, a patterned ceramic-tile floor, Oriental rugs, Batchelder tile surrounding the fireplace, wrought-iron torchieres — even the original switchboard where Bjarne Dahl used to tend the telephones.
Built in 1924 and owned by the Dahl family since the 1940s, the Cardinal has gone through several phases over 95 years, including a somewhat seedy era when it was partly a residential hotel.
Today about 60% of the Cardinal’s guests are related to Stanford University, whether they’re coming for admit weekend, graduation, a reunion or a small conference, according to General Manager Stephanie Wansek.
For some of those occasions, rooms book up nearly a year in advance.
Back in the day, a room could be reserved for as little as $4 a night. Today there are 29 rooms with shared bathrooms down the hall, as well as 35 rooms with en suite bathrooms. The shared rooms go for $159/night on weekdays; a queen room with a private bath costs up to $399. (This includes breakfast at Bistro Maxine, just around the corner.) Rooms are close to half price on weekends.
The lobby may be vintage, but to keep up with the competition, the 64 rooms underwent a major renovation in 2006-07, with new plumbing and electrical, and another renovation in 2013-14 when all rooms got a new look, she said.
Today’s rooms sport high-speed Wi-Fi, large-screen TVs and fresh coffee. There’s no parking on site, which at one time was a problem for the hotel.
“Uber has been a dream,” Wansek said. Between the nearby Caltrain station, ride services and proximity to Stanford, guests often don’t feel the need to have a car, she said.
In her 22 years managing the Cardinal, Wansek has seen how the hotel has weathered economic ups and downs. With the 2008-9 downturn, Wansek did very proactive outreach, Googling Stanford events, connecting to conference organizers and offering competitive rates.
On the up side, “there were three or four years when we could have charged anything. We did not. ... We are mindful of wanting to retain business,” she said.
Another struggle has involved tax increases: Wansek and other local hoteliers banded together last year to try to defeat Measure E, which proposed a hotel-tax hike from 14% to 15.5%. The group argued that the rate, the highest in the state, would harm Palo Alto hotels, which had already seen a tax-rate increase in 2014 and with it, they said, a rise in vacancies. (In the end, voters approved Measure E.)
Future challenges are less from other hotels and more from a growing Airbnb presence in Palo Alto. The Cardinal no longer consistently sells out for graduation, though it does for homecoming.
A growing market is for weddings, since younger folks don’t mind staying in shared-bathroom accommodations, she said.
“(People) can plan less for guests because of the location,” Wansek said, pointing to all of the nearby restaurants and bars and the Stanford campus.
Planned changes include refreshing the façade and adding air conditioning in 2020.
Cardinal Hotel, 235 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, 650-776-7101, cardinalhotel.com
Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at email@example.com.
So often when people reminisce about Palo Alto, they recall the local small businesses that they used to frequent.
As much as neighborhoods, schools, city services and nonprofit organizations do, retailers make up the fabric of a community. Mention an old business, and it evokes a certain era: Liddicoat’s, Palo Alto Co-op, Rapp’s Shoes, the Good Earth, Bergmann’s Department Store, Duca and Hanley, Uncle Otto’s, Del Alpes Restaurant, Palo Alto Bowl.
Those businesses are all gone, but many others have not only survived but thrive today. With the list below, the Palo Alto Weekly, which launched in 1979, salutes fellow enterprises that are as old or older in the Palo Alto area. Some started in the city but moved out, like Stanford Electric Works and Shady Lane, while others moved within the city. While every attempt was made to find small businesses that fit into this category, the list is evolving. We welcome you to add your business to our roster by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Books Inc. 1851
Alpine Inn 1852
Shreve & Co. 1852
Mills Florist 1903
Alta Mesa Cemetery 1904
Stanford Electric Works 1914
Peninsula Creamery 1923
Cardinal Hotel 1924
Cardinal Barbershop 1925
Stanford Theatre 1925
West Coast Glass 1928
The Barn Wood Shop 1929
Cardinal Bicycle Shop 1930
Menlo Park Funerals 1930
Palo Alto Bicycles 1930
Palo Alto Medical Foundation 1930
Bill Young’s Automotive 1932
Economy Cleaners 1932
Vance Brown 1932
Palo Alto Dental Group 1934
Bell’s Books 1935
President Barber Shop 1936
European Cobblery 1940
Mac’s Smoke Shop 1940
See’s Candies 1940
Michaela’s Flower Shop 1945
Calfornia Paint Company 1946
University Art 1947
Hengehold Motor Co. 1948
Kirk’s Steakburgers 1948
Crippen & Flynn Woodside Chapel 1949
Edwards Luggage 1952
Ludwig & Fawcett, Inc. 1952
Ernie’s Wines and Liquors 1953
Town & Country Village 1953
Travelodge Palo Alto 1954
Alhouse King Realty, Inc. 1955
Campus Barber Shop 1955
Peninsula Optical 1955
Wilbur Properties 1955
Country Inn Motel 1956
Dinah’s Garden Hotel 1956
Stanford Shopping Center 1956
Winter Lodge 1956
Gallery House 1957
Midtown Realty 1958
Round Table Pizza 1959
St. Michael’s Alley 1959
Say Ray Foreign Auto Service 1959
Village Cheese House 1959
Crowne Plaza Cabana Hotel 1962
Menlo Park Inn 1962
East West Bookshop 1963
Mid-Peninsula Animal Hospital 1963
Glass Slipper Inn 1964
Old Pro 1964
Danish Concepts 1968
Menlo Atherton Auto Repair 1968
Treasure Island Stamps & Coins 1968
Aquarius Theater 1969
Gryphon Stringed Instruments 1969
Maximart Pharmacy 1970
Akins Body Shop 1971
Franz Termite Control 1971
Country Sun Natural Foods 1973
Great American Framing Company 1974
Hobee’s Restaurants 1974
Special Handling Pottery 1974
Sundance the Steakhouse 1974
Wellings & Co. 1974
Antonio’s Nut House 1975
Shady Lane 1975
The Fish Market 1976
LaBelle Day Spas & Salons 1976
Dave Tanner Inc. 1977
Arnoldi Jewelers 1978
Fuki Sushi Restaurant 1978
One-to-One Tutoring Service 1979
Language Pacifica 1979
Kurz Roofing/J.Kurz Construction 1979
Wesley United Methodist Church, 1873
Menlo Church, 1873
First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, 1893
The Woman’s Club of Palo Alto, 1894
City of Palo Alto Utilities, 1896
First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, 1900
Palo Alto City Library, 1902
Palo Alto Humane Society, 1908
Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, 1910
Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, 1914
Pacific Art League, 1921
Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, 1926
California State Automobile Association, 1930
City of Redwood City Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department, 1937
Peninsula Volunteers, 1947
Family & Children Services, a division of Caminar, 1949
Bay Area Funeral Consumers Association, 1952
Palo Alto Friends Nursery School, 1954
Palo Alto Swim Club of PASS, 1955
Town of Woodside, 1956
Oshman Family JCC, 1960
Mountain View Central Business Association, 1961
Golden State Youth Orchestra (formerly El Camino Youth Symphony), 1963
Community School of Music and Arts, 1968
Stevenson House, 1968
Acterra: Action for a Healthy Planet, 1970
Heart For Life, 1970
Transcendental Meditation Center, 1972
La Comida, 1972
Environmental Volunteers, 1972
Adolescent Counseling Services (Formerly Palo Alto Adolescent Services Corporation), 1975