Eccentric new Berkeley Curiosity Shop has 45,000 costume jewelry pieces

Curiosity Shop, a store offering everything from Czech rhinestones to stick pins used as a form of self-defense during first-wave feminism, opened at 2214 Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Dec. 24. Credit: Joanne Furio

A pithy summary of what’s to be found inside Berkeley’s new candy-colored Curiosity Shop near Civic Center Park is displayed in bold lettering just above the front door: “100,000 THINGS YOU DON’T NEED.”

Curiosity Shop, 2214 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley

According to its eccentric owner Bryce Kalousek-Maritano, who once dabbled in copywriting, the store has two other slogans: “Cool. Stuff. Cheap.” and “We Buy/Sell/Trade/Repair and Appraise Small Useless Objects.” 

All three capture the essence of this jam-packed store, which doubles as a gallery celebrating American feminism. 

The shop opened on Dec. 24 in a historic early 20th-century building on MLK Way that once served as the home of the Black Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party, and some of its offerings have a political bent, like the vintage buttons emblazoned with rallying cries displayed on the front door. 

The store is dripping with merchandise, its windows crammed with bracelets, necklaces and paintings. Inside, the “good, cheap stuff” can be found from floor to ceiling, in baskets and display cases, on the walls, doors, windows — even hanging from the ceiling. 

Prices start at 10 cents for a small tumbled stone and go up to $8,000 for a painting by the Belgian surrealist Suzanne van Damme. But mostly, Kalousek-Maritano says, “I sell dollar things and five-dollar things.” 

More than anything else, Curiosity Shop features a jaw-dropping assortment of costume jewelry, what Kalousek-Maritano believes is the world’s largest. 

“I’ve scoured the internet and found people who claim to have the largest collection of costume jewelry and they have 1,500 pieces,” he says. “I have about 45,000.” 

The collection includes Roman fibula, or toga clasps, which he says date from around the second century, and medieval crosses, each of which sell for $30. There are rows and rows of chain bracelets, necklaces with pendants, groovy square chain necklaces from the ’70s and kitschy plastic necklaces, bangles and earrings, arranged by color. (If you’re dressing for a period costume party — or just love the character of vintage pieces — this is the place to shop.)

Kalousek-Maritano designed some of that costume jewelry in a previous life — and he has had many. He’s a former hippie UC Berkeley dropout-turned-graduate who earned a master’s in cognitive science, taught psychology at the college level and, along the way, traveled and persevered as an itinerant shopkeeper who’s had 20 incarnations of the store he first opened in Escondido in 1966. Then called Libra of California, after the astrological sign, the store morphed into the Curiosity Shop in the late ’80s and appeared in various West Coast locations, most notably on the Venice Beach Boardwalk and in a caboose in Corvallis, Oregon. A pop-up version sprouted on Telegraph Avenue in 1995. 

Despite the owner’s intriguing and far-flung background, Kalousek-Maritano eschews the spotlight and refuses to be photographed. 

“The store is not about me, but the stuff and, socially, about the women who painted these paintings,” he says. As to why he’s created such a shop? A 2017 article in The Corvallis Advocate reveals that both his grandmother and mother were active in feminist movements. ​​His Czech grandmother was a union leader in the Chicago women’s garment industry who attended salons with the likes of Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His mother was a novelist and later a blacklisted Hollywood writer who tried to organize the comic book industry during the postwar era. He followed in their footsteps by being a strike organizer for the Writer’s Guild of America and the California Teachers Association.

Visiting the shop requires a leisurely pace to fully take in the menagerie: a large array of Czech rhinestones, both clear and colored, vintage textiles dating as far back as the 18th century, Native American jewelry and beadwork, sheet music, crystals and rocks, vintage souvenir spoons, stained glass flowers, seashells, baseball cards, a kids area with mini dinosaurs, plastic balls and stickers, and candy sold by the piece. 

The ephemera, jewelry and artwork from America’s feminist movements (1848-1920 and 1960-1970s) lend a museum-like feel to the place, with Kalousek-Maritano acting as curator.

The ephemera, jewelry and artwork from America’s feminist movements lend a museum-like feel to Curiosity Shop. Credit: Joanne Furio

There are pins (“ERA YES!”), embroidered samplers with feminist slogans, stick pins used as a form of self-defense during first-wave feminism ($20 and up) and reprised as statement jewelry during the second wave ($5). Paintings that celebrate women as artist or subject include the work of 10 contemporary artists he promotes, among them awyn, Defergi and Ehren Snyder. “I’m also going to be handling local, contemporary artists,” Kalousek-Maritano says, “but I just got here.”

While it’s true that visitors may not need anything this eccentric shopkeeper sells, a walk-through will likely reveal something, as its name suggests, to pique — and perhaps satisfy — one’s curiosity. 

Curiosity Shop, 2214 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. Hours: daily, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Joanne Furio moved to Berkeley because it has sidewalks. She specializes in design in all its incarnations, innovation and the arts.