"Alice Waters is Berkeley's own Pied Piper," says Alta Tingle of her friend the California culinary legend. But in this Bay Area town, Tingle's cropped white hair is as easily recognized as Waters' beret and just as often followed. Twenty years ago, Tingle opened a shop called The Gardener in the flats of Berkeley. What has come to be commonplace—a store in a warehouse building offering goods from around the world to please all the senses—was anything but common in 1984. If Waters led the American table back to the garden, Tingle held the screen door open and invited the garden to "come on inside," sending a fresh breeze through decorating that has shifted direction over two decades but never left. The cross-pollination of interior and exterior that Tingle espoused took hold like a weed soaked in Miracle-Gro. She opened a second store in the Napa Valley town of Healdsburg in 1998 and recently set up a third in San Francisco's newly restored historic Ferry Building, along the Embarcadero. There the offerings change seasonally, like those of the renowned farmers' market outside.
Aptly enough, The Gardener has offered small garden tools like the hori-hori, a wooden-handled weeding knife from Japan, from day one, but Tingle spent the last 20 years explaining why, in spite of its name, the shop is not just a garden-supply depot. There are also oversized napkins and colorful tablecloths, big bowls and generous platters, Italian ceramics and handblown glass.
"It's about the connection between the garden and other areas of your life," says Tingle. From the first, she selected things that conveyed the feeling that "even if you couldn't step out the door and into a garden, you had something that helped you stay in touch with it." For example, the polished Indonesian river rocks and glass pebbles that Tingle has always stocked: "I find customers kneeling beside a bucket of them, digging their hands in, savoring their smooth feel." Her friends at the Japanese restaurant next door pick through them carefully to select just the perfect shapes for chopstick rests.
"Gardeners have a distinct sensibility," explains Tingle, who, having gardened all her life and been a landscape designer prior to opening the store, understands it well. "With gardening, you need to be able to think in so many dimensions to see the future; it requires a leap of faith." Tingle's spirit comes through in every facet of the store, from the scent of jasmine and the copper Noah bells with wooden clappers to tables that reflect their maker's hand and eye. "It sounds hokey," she says, "but life is a celebration. By that I mean cheering not the special occasion but the everyday," like the arrival of the season's first ripe red tasty tomatoes. "We are all lunatics here about the farmers' market and good, fresh food."
At her deep-brown-shingled house in Berkeley, built in the sixties to complement the two fabled Bernard Maybeck buildings that flank it, friends gather frequently and spontaneously, to cook together and set a table with all the things one finds at The Gardener. Connecting the dots has always come naturally to Tingle, who can no more explain the roots of her visual and tactile gifts than she can remember not having them. As a child in Newton, Massachusetts, she spent hours poring over art books at the home of an art patron neighbor. At the age of eight, she was taken to Mexico and fell in love: "It marked me, this place that is so close and so foreign," says Tingle. "There is a grace about the people, the way they arrange everything," which is surely no small influence on the stimulating yet relaxing atmosphere at all three of her stores.
"I don't have a trained eye, but it is discerning," says Tingle. And the success of The Gardener certainly depends on it. "First you need a point of view and then you have to stay true to it," she adds, admitting that it probably helped that she was in her forties when she started The Gardener. "By that age you've edited a lot of things. Today people run after trends and end up with nothing. There's a mad scramble to copy things rapidly and cheaply." Tingle has confidence that sticking with the original is the rewarding path. "Sustainable is an overused word, but we are drawn to things that have integrity and honesty, that make us feel most comfortable." Just like Alta Tingle herself.
At 1836 Fourth Street, Berkeley, California; 510-548-4545; www.thegardener.com.