After three years of pandemic-based hiatus, the Solano Stroll returned to the Bay Area on Sunday, September 11, bringing with it a day of entertainment and business.
“The Stroll started off as a sidewalk sale,” said Robert Abrams, a potter and one of the volunteer board members for the Solano Avenue Association. Now, 40 years later, it is a central part of the Albany and Berkeley communities, an opportunity in the form of a street fair for stores to promote their business to upwards of 250,000 people, according to Abrams.
More than profit, the primary drive of many organizations at the Stroll is to build name recognition and to secure potential future customers.
Once the costs of acquiring a booth were factored in, John Aronovici and the Berkeley Historical Society he helps run only broke even on the day, but he considers the Stroll a great success for the Society.
“We’re one of quite a few organizations that are there for more social reasons, not economic reasons,” Aronovici, a retired teacher, nurse, volunteer historian, and Berkeley High School class of 1950 alumnus, said. The Berkeley Historical Society has had a booth manned by Aronovici at the Solano Stroll for 15 years, and uses their booth as an opportunity to get passers-by interested in Berkeley history. They set up stands next to other volunteer and political organizations where people could purchase books and postcards of early Berkeley.
“People aren’t buying history books like they used to,” said Aronovici. This year, the Society’s postcards and old photographs were a big draw.
What was missing from Aronovici’s recollections of earlier strolls was a large parade, which he says is directly correlated with an increase in security. Barriers prevented cars from entering the street and law enforcement was scattered throughout the crowd. Aronovici mourned not being able to show up to the stand in an antique car. “It was much simpler [before],” he said.
Joining businesses and organizations were bands. BHS Jazz set up a rolling list of its own jazz combos, who played from noon to 5 p.m., while other volunteers in the jazz program went through the gathered crowd and sold raffle tickets. BHS Jazz also had a booth where people could purchase shirts to support its upcoming trip to Cuba. The program reported record profits this year, and cited it as one of the major fundraisers of the year.
Other musicians were able to enjoy the crowds and their wallets too, including Jeanne Schuman, vocalist for the Midnight Kitchen Blues Band, a quintet based in the Bay Area and specializing in music across the blues spectrum.
“(We) enjoyed sharing our ‘blues you can use’ music with a diverse and engaged crowd … (that) sang along with us and danced while we played,” Schuman said. This was the band’s first time at the Solano Stroll, and they were impressed with the responsiveness and efficiency of those running it. To get a booth, they submitted an application with recordings of their live music. And with that booth, they “were able to raise a combined total of more than $1500 for Albany-Berkeley’s Together We Will and Alameda County’s Meals on Wheels.”
From a sidewalk sale to a day-long extravaganza of local food, politics, nonprofits, music, and business, the Solano Stroll has grown through the external aid of its supervisors and the internal enthusiasm of its participants. “My goal is to help [local makers] make a living doing what they like to do,” said Abrams. In both his gallery work and his work on the Solano Avenue Association, he helps promote to the Bay Area the endless creativity and tenacity that its residents, like the Midnight Kitchen Band, the BHS Jazz program, and the Berkeley Historical Society, bring to the city.