Tail of the Yak
2632 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94705
For many locals, Tail of the Yak is a wonderland. The shop in Berkeley, California, is home to elaborate displays of everything from antique jewelry and handmade paper goods to textiles from around the world. Perhaps more unexpected than the elaborate décor and the handmade goods, however, is the store’s longevity: Tail of the Yak opened for business more than 40 years ago.
Owner Alice Erb, who runs the store with her business partner, Lauren McIntosh, has been a fixture at the boutique since the early 1970s. She filled us in.
Can you tell us a little of the history behind Tail of the Yak?
We opened in 1972. It was started by three students of Tibetan Buddhism – they started the store in order to provide income for Tibetan refugees living in India who were making their traditional crafts, and also to bring in traditional crafts and devotional items for students of Tibetan Buddhism here in the United States.
How did you get involved?
I had just come back from Asia and happened to see this intriguing store that hadn’t been there three months prior. So I went inside, and there were all these wonderful things, which were quite exciting. So I introduced myself, and I became friends with the owners. Then it was sort of logical that I step in.
I first became one of their suppliers and took over in 1974. I was traveling and collecting textiles and jewelry from Asia at the time and bringing them back and selling them, and there was a very rich community of people in Berkeley who were interested, especially in textiles. I was bringing a lot of textiles back from central Asia – lots of ikats and suzanis and things like that, which, back then, in the early ’70s, people were learning about but hadn’t actually seen.
How would you describe what Tail of the Yak sells today?
We have things from all over the world – objects that are true to the culture and somewhat unusual. I don’t like things that are made in China that look like they should be from France. I try to find things that relate to each other, and that’s sometimes a provocative pursuit, trying to put together a story. It’s constant editing and constant sleuthing – always trying to go into obscure places and find both new and old.
Do you work with any local designers or makers?
We work very closely with several craftspeople, including Anandamayi Arnold, who has been making things for us since she was a teenager; she’s now about 40. She is our paper master. Her “surprise balls” are incredible: They go from simple ones we sell at Christmas for about $25 up to very complex, botanical ones that are several hundred dollars.
She only does things that are botanically appropriate to the season that she’s making them in; she won’t make watermelon in the winter, but she’ll make narcissus and pineapple guava and other appropriate things.
Lauren McIntosh joined you in running the store in the mid-1980s. Who does what?
I’m the person who is mostly responsible for doing the sourcing and the buying. Lauren makes silkscreened cards and other goods that we sell at the store, is involved with graphics and doing our annual calendar, and does all the visual arrangements. I find the things, and she puts them out in really beautiful displays.
What’s the story behind the store’s name?
It was named by a Tibetan holy man. The yak tail is an important part of the animal – it’s particularly auspicious – and the yak is a very important animal to the culture. The name is no longer quite as appropriate [because the shop offers goods from around the world], but we’ve kept it all these years.