Everyday Orinda – July 2023


My Phair Lady

    What if we built a float for the 4th of July parade devoted to “People Who Transacted Actual Business at Phair’s.” Fitting, as back in its heyday, Phair’s held an annual “Fifth of July” sale, according to a 1974 issue of The Contra Costa Times.
    This “phloat” would surely create intrigue, as it’s difficult for many of us to imagine the lonely brick storefront as anything other than an overlooked has-been. But just like the proper setting in any classic ghost story, Phair’s was not always lonely and decaying. Just the opposite – Phair’s was once the lifeblood of Orinda.
    Documented as our very first store, Phair’s was born in 1924, a general merchandise establishment crucial to attracting and servicing the original inhabitants of the fledgling community of Orinda.
    This business was owned and initially operated at a loss by Edward DeLaveaga, a passionate early developer. As Orinda flourished, the store evolved from selling the necessary goods and implements of the Great Depression era to more of an upscale grocery store, to yet another transformation in the 1970s, offering fine China, crystal, silver, specialty gift items and a bridal registry.
    Phair’s enjoyed glorious decades of popularity and profitability, shining as brightly as the golden bird featured on its logo.
    All this, yet an entire generation has grown up in Orinda only knowing Phair’s as an abandoned, and dare I say, haunted building.
    Of course, I don’t have proof the old building is haunted. I’m just saying it has all the makings of a perfect haunt. You wouldn’t catch me within 50 yards of it alone after dusk.
    Think about it. The space has remained isolated and virtually untouched for almost 25 years. A quarter of a century. Word spread among spirit realtors: Phair’s? Now there’s a fine spot where The Living will never disturb you. Unless you count a few mischievous kids, easily scared away. Plus, those squirrely hooligans never tattle, seeing as how their parents will suspiciously demand answers to “What in heck were you doing around that empty old Phair’s building in the first place?”
    We should be proud as Phair’s is OG retail wasteland. (OG slang: someone or something that is original and authentic.) She’s comfortable in her solitary afterlife, like a resilient widowed grandmother who refuses to remarry.
    Rich with transformative potential, it has garnered zero results. There have been a few worthy attempts over the years. Fountainhead Montessori Preschool had high hopes of setting up shop in 2013, but after much controversy, the project was stymied. Traffic congestion and zoning were cited, but to me, this supports my haunted theory: young children are noisy and rambunctious. The ghosts made that idea go away.
    Whatever her fate, facelift, funeral or status quo, this Grand Dame deserves a salute. Find her between Orinda Motors and Szechuan Chinese Restaurant on the Village side of the 4th of July parade route.

Mimi Bommarito can be reached at editor@theorindanews.com.

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