Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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The Prairie Skyscraper

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In the soft and green rolling hills of Osage County, described by TV’s Pioneer Woman as the ‘middle of nowhere’ is Bartlesville, Oklahoma: the oil capitol, headquarters of Phillips 66 and the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper.

Price Tower, named for pipeline company owner Harold Price, is one of only 2 vertically oriented structures Wright built in a lifetime of low slung, horizontal buildings

A road trip detour, after I’d read about the Prairie project sent me to explore Osage County and check out Price Tower.

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It’s situated a little out of the original downtown. Not too close to other tall buildings and in a funky office neighborhood with company headquarters, old shopfronts and a noisy restaurant or two.

To see these lovely older buildings in Bartlesville, is to understand the power of the oil and gas industry in Northern Oklahoma. In 1904, just 7 years after the first well was dug, there were 150 oil companies with an office in Bartlesville!

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Price originally envisioned a one to four story structure, possibly designed by Cliff May who had already built a home for the family. His sons, however, were influenced by local architect Bruce Goff to get the absolute ‘best architect….Get Frank Lloyd Wright’.

After a phone consultation, and in the thrall of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” the family traveled to Taliesin West in Phoenix where Harold was impressed to note that the house Wright had built was 35 years older but similarly modern to the family’s May home! FLW convinced them that a tower would cost no more per square foot than a small boxy office building, and pitched a multi use concept with rental office suites and apartments along with the corporate headquarters. Brilliant salesmanship.

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By late August 1952 with the site secured, Wright began work on the plans. It grew to a 19 story tower rising from green parklands and tree lined streets.The metaphor of “a tree that escaped the forest” was consistent with his use of green copper vertical shutters, and a tall slender structure. 

At the International Petroleum exposition in Tulsa, Wright unveiled a model and announced the project. The May 1953 event drew 250,000 visitors, many oil executives, fellow oil producers and Price’s clients. Lots of buzz.

Construction, with the inevitable cost overruns, was completed and the building opened to the public in February 1956.

It was the most famous new building in America, with visitors coming from around the world to see Wright’s Prairie skyscraper. Although tall buildings were nothing new, multi-use high rise offices and apartments, particularly outside  the major cities, were unusual.

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Visiting now, the coolest thing about Price Tower is that it contains a hotel, operated by the non profit that runs the building and adjoining art center (designed by Zaha Hadid). Not luxurious but a singular Oklahomey Frank Lloyd Wright experience with a ‘behind the scenes’ docent tour as part of the deal.

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So you stay in one of the corner suites, travel in one of the 4 minuscule triangular elevators ( 2 people and a small suitcase max!) and then hang out in the Copper Bar and cocktail as the sun sets over the prairie. The crowd is eclectic…lots of young IT professionals who work for Phillips 66, design aficionados who drive to Bartlesville specifically to stay in and photograph the building and itinerant academics and workers who are tired of the hotel chains. 

Over Manhattans we met a Navajo linguist who gave us a list of out of the way sites to explore, visitors from Tulsa celebrating an anniversary and sharing lots of Osage legend: like where George Clooney liked to eat during the filming of “Osage County” ( Frank and Lola’s), what the Pioneer Woman is REALLY like, how the Tom Mix museum is the most fun museum in the county and be sure not to miss the Bison Preserves.

So much good stuff!

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http://www.pricetower.org

Old friends, Bob and Kanye.

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I moved the “stereo” to a new place.

Tucked under the bar in the entrance to my home.

It works visually, snug on an unused shelf and means the old cabinet in the living room could fill with glasses (I have a thing for glasses).

And in a completely unworthy and serendipitous way I have fallen in love with listening to music again.

Now the sound spreads out the door. Onto the steps where in a similar fit of art direction I placed the most comfortable chair in the house: a leather butterfly chair.

And in a house of chairs, THIS seems the best place to sit, read and listen.

I can hear music in my office, but in a different way then from the computer, and it floods the living room and kitchen and out into the garden. It’s so easy to switch on when I walk past out to grab the papers. Back to the chair on the steps, a nice new routine.

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In the mess that is hundreds of disorganized CDs, cases, blanks and orphans, I find one of the 2 albums I never tire of hearing.

Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

Released in 1969, I know I’ve owned a copy forever… vinyl, cd, IPOD. Probably even a cassette.

The songs are simple.

To quote Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone
“Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane and interesting statement about being happy”

The beauty is the absolute simplicity. After albums of multi layered, complicated moving imagery and manipulation, these songs sing of heartfelt joy, aching love, desire and disappointment.

” Why wait any longer for the world to begin. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Why wait any longer for the the one you love, When he’s standing in front of you.”

Critics nailed Dylan for celebrating the banal and cliched, but the album became his best selling to date and many loved his new voice, a soft country croon, the duet with Johnny Cash and the insidiously lovely melodies.

So back on rotation when I’m home alone and just puttering.

“To be alone with you, just you and me. Why don’t ya tell me its true, aint that the way it oughta be?

To hold each other tight, the whole night thru. Everything is alright when I’m alone with you.”

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The other “never tire” album?

Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak.

Described as “provocatively miserable,” I played it over and over when it was released in 2008. So easy when you own a cafe and no one realizes the same music has been on repeat since 8am (sorry noshies!).

Cool minimal electronics, sad sad devastation and exhausted, heartbroken lyrics.

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“I keep it low, keep a secret code / so everyone else don’t have to know,”

“There is no clothes that I could buy

That could turn back the time

There is no vacation spot I could fly

That could bring back a piece of real life”

And like Dylan 30 years before, a whole new voice, albeit surrounded by AUTOTUNE, the digital pitch device, amplifying rather than anesthetizing emotion.

His minimalism reminds me of favorite painters or sculptors: simplistic externals that suggest a complicated interior.

Kanye took a robotic drum machine and autotune and created a deep and beautiful collection of songs.

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I don’t know why I can listen to some albums over and over or read some books again and again.

It’s like the B grade movie, so often more personally relevant, informative and enjoyable than the classic. And the books I repeatedly indulge in and the albums I never tire of hearing, speak to me in a whole different way.

I heard Daniel Levitan, author of “This is your Brain on Music”, speaking on NPR about the interplay of familiarity and novelty, and how listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of the brain than almost anything else.

Maybe that’s the thing… disparate brain parts, heartache and joy, the new and the old all wrapped in lyricism and melody.

PS.Some books I reread:

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Some albums I replay:

Alison Krause’s Now that I found You

Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon 2

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             Happiest concert ever: sounds and smiles as he sang the ‘coldest stories ever told’!

Set the Table.

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My grandma was cool.

Brilliant, intellectual, stylish and way ahead of her time.

Born in poverty, close to the Arctic circle she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 12, never to see Norway again.

Pregnant and married to the love of her life at 16, living in a rough timber shack and raising 4 children, she embraced beauty and intellect and eduction. Each day included home schooling of music, culture or literature while she cooked on a primus gas ring, a practice she continued until the end of her life. Although my 14 year old father was supporting the family shooting rabbits when grandpa was injured, she knew that rigor and aesthetic would out and things would improve. A lifetime tradition of discussion (and argument!) over the dinner table was established.

My dad would describe this tough time as “bread and water, sometimes meat and potatoes but dreaming of fruit on the sideboard”. I have always loved this analogy.

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Fierce and difficult, brilliant and one of a kind, I think of her often.

Her youngest son became an academic. He travelled and studied abroad, and indulged her passion for china, dishes and modern ceramics. In the later years of her life she loved her hard won home and incredible garden and especially being surrounded by beautiful things.

Meals were times to gather at the table and enjoy food, the company, and conversation.

As children visiting, we were tasked with choosing which dinner set we would use to set the table for lunch.

The choice: Yellow and Black, mostly Villeroy and Boch, but amended and added to with dishes and jugs, salad bowls and bakeware from everywhere, as long as they were modern, yellow or black. Very dramatic!

My choice usually.

The other side of the kitchen held the cheery english red and black and white checked set. OK, but not my favorites.

In the sideboard there were White Arzberg dinner plates and beautiful platters, coffee pots, casseroles, little soup bowls and demi tasse coffee cups. These were used at night and for “occasions” when the modern teak table was extended and accented with peacock blue clothes and teal napkins. Some brass candlesticks too.

We took this task seriously.

To set a table is to be in control of a vision.

We would carefully count out knives and forks and spoons and put them in the right place. Spacing out plates and bowls just so, and making sure there were condiments and salt and pepper shakers.

The lesson: care and responsibility.

The end result: beauty and happiness.

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She didn’t live to see disposable dinnerware, nor travel to the United States to see real food served in foam boxes even at cafes. Or extremely successful wealthy people on reality TV programs eating from plastic take away boxes. She couldn’t imagine a world where people CHOOSE to drink from paper cups rather than a coffee cup. We had bright colored melamine picnic sets when we headed to remote beaches or went miles up bush tracks for billy tea and sandwiches. I don’t remember ever using  paper or plastic until I was catering.

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Decades after setting my grandma’s table, I love my shelves of china.

I have owned the yellow and black extravaganza collection since I was 30, and the white Arzberg for 25 years after my mum, downsizing, decided she didn’t entertain often enough to keep them. 50 plus  years of “occasions”, they are the heart of my dishery and I probably use some of them every day.

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Nothing is “for show”, and much has been broken or chipped, and thrown away. My newly, crawling son pulled a pile of Italian platters from the cupboard onto the tile floor, so the family joke is that a couple of pay checks are owed. . ..maybe those beautiful Heath dishes aren’t so out of reach after all!

And I dream of creating my own dinnerware…..

I wonder why you wouldn’t you set the table or eat from a cool bowl? Grab a tray and some napkins for the take away TV dinner? My husband’s idea of cooking dinner is buying sushi and setting the table!

The simplest meal is a quiet celebration: good fortune? A momentary respite? Companionship or family?

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Michael Pollan says that each meal is an opportunity for choice.

To show how we feel about agriculture vs. agribusiness, labor practices, health and nutrition, animal cruelty and our own self worth and traditions.

I think the set table is also another choice, and like many of the small and simpler things of life, wrongly perceived as trivial.

It’s not fussy or pretentious or god forbid,  “tablescapey”, but recognition that work has been done to create this meal (even to buy it) and now it’s time to stop and sit.

Take a moment. Feel happy and blessed.

And dig in!

Amen. grandma

Valdris Woldseth: 1906-1985

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

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I was asked why I decided to spend 6 weeks hiking from France to Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago, and was amazed to hear the words ” I’ve never done a big thing and I really wanted to” come out of my mouth.

When I read that Simon Rodia had said much the same when asked about his Watts Towers I recognized the sentiment.

“I wanted to do a big thing and so I did it.”

I first glimpsed the Towers from the Blue Line enroute to downtown LA from Long Beach, but the neighborhood, post 1992 riots  seemed scary. The newspaper photographs from the 1965 unrest flashed through my mind and slowed me from exiting the train. Poetic images of the Towers would appear in magazines, cameos in movies and video games would nudge me to visit, but it took a decade before I finally drove down the tiny streets in Watts to explore.

A big thing in Roddia’s life but almost lost in the suburban megacity that is Los Angeles.

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The triangle block is surrounded by small single story homes, an abandoned trolley line runs close by, there’s a small park and remnants of historic 20’s architecture when Watts was a solidly middle class suburb. A suburb growing because of railway lines and jobs and proximity to downtown LA.

Construction worker and immigrant Rodia moved into Watts and built his unique structures from rebar, his own concrete mixture, railway detritus and broken soda bottles and ceramic seconds. Neighborhood kids earned money by “sourcing” the decorative elements.

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He built in the evenings, after a days work and often walked 20 miles to Wilmington, along the tracks to find materials. He used no electricity or cranes, but constructed each component by hand.

The towers climb 100 feet into the air. And the project took 33 years in all.

I’m drawn to experience these solitary artistic endeavors.The innate sadness versus the fantastical and exuberant, and the physical scale and decades of labor tug like no other art.

I’m reminded of other outsider art constructions: Hermit’s Cave in Griffith, NSW , Forestiere Underground Garden in Fresno and Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea.

And I think of artists who’s work I love, totally different mediums but very often huge scale and for me, strong emotional impact like James Turrell, Michael Heizer and Christo.

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Rodia left Los Angeles in 1955 never to return. He “quit” the site, apparently exhausted by City threats and permit issues, and after a fire destroyed his bungalow, plans were underway to demolish the towers.

In a serendipitous and magical encounter, an actor and a film editor, having seen the towers and knowing of their abandonment and impending destruction, bought the site from the neighbor and set in process the saving of Rodia’s life work.

To quote Wikipedia : The Watts Towers or “Nuestro Pueblo” are considered one of Southern California’s most culturally significant public artworks.They are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The towers were also designated a California Historical Landmark in 1990.

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The towers are surrounded by a 10ft chain link fence. There is need for continuing restoration but they are not crumbling or in a state of devastation. In fact, on a clear spring day the crazy Gaudiesque towers, ceramic walls, ships and fountain shapes sparkle with seashells and colorful broken china.

Parking and seeing from the street is free but supporting the small Art Center and taking the $7 guided tour is a good thing. Unless you live totally behind gates or in a secluded, perfect and remote place , the neighborhood is fine. A little scruffy in places, but also cheery and cute around the Towers and along the street. Neighbors have decorated in honor and admiration of the art piece they live next to.

This brilliant and unique folk art is visited by 45,000 visitors a year, mostly overseas tourists and school groups.The Watts Towers may be the finest example of LA outsider art AND an international icon but the least visited by people who live locally.

Los Angeles is an art, design and architecture magnet. Full of singular, iconic buildings and neighborhoods and cool places to explore.

Another really big thing to do!

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ps: My personal nudge to revisit, Australian school friend, photographer and fellow Hermit’s Cave devotee. Thanks Cilla.

Stephanie Powell’s Baltic Kitchen

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In a string of old commercial shopfronts on Alma St, San Pedro there is an artisan bakery producing specialty breads that flies under the radar of the foodie press, opens to the public just a few hours each Friday and ships to customers across the Western states.

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The Baltic Bakery, operating since 1975,  produces 4 types of bread.

The ingredient list is small: White rye flour, wheat flour, water, whole rye, whole wheat, salt, cornmeal and yeast. Made from scratch using traditional techniques, hand rolled and hearth baked, the loaves are simple and healthy with a comforting texture and flavor…..moist and satisfying and a little chewy . They contain no sugar or fats.

In a bread phobic time they are as close to perfect as it gets!

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The large kitchen is simple. An industrial size Hobart machine mixes the starter, metal racks line the long wall and are filled with rounds rising overnight, a narrow steaming room adjoins the 10 ft oven and one of the owners, Stephanie, cuts, weighs and shapes the rolls on a small table.

Co owner Stephanie Powell, a New Yorker who came to Los Angeles to work in fashion, always had an interest in baking, and she eventually transitioned from designing high fashion to the restaurant industry. It was in her role as Manager of the much loved Red Lion Tavern in Silverlake, one of LA’s most famous German Restaurants and Beer Gardens, that she first encountered the delicious breads from Baltic Bakery.

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Fast forward 4 years and she now partners with Rolf Pfannerer( son of the original master baker, Rudy Pfannerer) and food entrepreneur Aidas Mattis at the helm of a quietly revitalized Baltic.

Spending time watching the bread being made, I’m reminded of those documentaries on noodle makers who use a minuscule pallete of ingredients to produce a beautiful simple food, but spend a life time perfecting their technique. There is a rhythmic calm to the bread production in this bakery. She shared that just 3 weeks ago, a switch in the steam room changed the size of the air bubbles and she and Rolf had to tweak the process, reworking and reinforcing to achieve the same result.

Stephanie is developing a range of pretzels and researching and sourcing a completely organic range of Baltic breads .

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An older customer demographic of Europeans has sustained the bakery until now, but with concerns about gluten and an expanding desire for organic products there is a need to switch it up a bit .

So an expansion is slowly underway but without sacrificing the traditions, techniques and reputation of the 40 year old bakery.

Customers start arriving at 8.30 on Fridays to be sure to get one of the 80 loaves of bread that will sell out by the time they close. They come from all over the Southland, and most have roots in the old world.

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On line and wholesale customers complete the mix with the Baltic shipping to San Francisco, Texas and delivering locally to Santa Monica, San Diego and close by to  Alpine Village…mostly European delis and small independent supermarkets.

My favorite customer story is the guy from Texas who drives to San Pedro twice a year to fill his car with breads!

And favorite plan? A thoughtful and beautiful idea underway where a local Church will use the specially baked, “in the neighborhood”, Baltic Bakery bread instead of commercial wafers for the communion.

Staff of Life indeed.

http://www.trubread.com

Danny Ginsburg and Real Soda

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Danny Ginsburg started collecting bottle caps when he was 4 years old. It  had started as a game when he was much younger… with baby food lids.He would save, organize, memorize the product codes and collect, until life moved on and baby food was no longer the cuisine du jour!

Did I mention that Danny is one of the smartest people I know?

At four years old, on a family hike, he was tired, bored and complaining. His mother suggested finding something to do for fun and pointed at a Pepsi bottle cap on the ground. She said how they were a ” different kind of lid” and that there would always be bottle caps to find, no matter how old you were.

Smart mum!

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So began a search for caps, research into bottling plants and factories, stops at the rest areas on highways to see what truck drivers may have thrown out and letter writing to anyone who might have interesting bottle caps. His dream was to get a driver’s license and car, and go drive to where bottle caps where!

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The collection grew, and with it the need to find more and more bottled beverages. By the time he was a teenager, he was heading out to find sodas in other cities, unusual local brands from old time manufacturers, often just as they were thinking of closing up shop.He hoarded the diminishing brands, and ever the entrepreneur, brought back some extras to share or sell to friends.

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In an industry dominated by a few, really big players, there were possibilities and opportunities, and over the next few years Real Soda in Real Bottles managed to not only track down unique and obscure brands, but to create the beginnings of a distribution network. From a small start in the 1980’s, to obtaining a business license in 1991, Real Soda in Real Bottles is now the major distributor of independent, artisan sodas and a manufacturer of it’s own distinctive brands.

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At the same time there was a growing awareness and  desire to drink soda from a glass bottle, which can easily be re used and recycled. Every bottled soda is one less can or plastic nightmare.

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There is immense charm and silliness, and an abundance of joy which pervades the world of Real Soda in Real Bottles. The products range from kid favorites to grownup  & sophisticated, historical to hysterical. 100% juices and coconut waters to caffeinated energy concoctions.Neon to crystal clear, healthy to downright decadent. Lots of old time regional brands from across the USA and imports from across the globe.

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No wonder Danny describes them as the ”world’s best beverages”!

The names and labels are priceless. Boom Chugga Lugga Ginger Ale anyone?

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From a HUGE warehouse in Gardena, bottles are shipped across California and to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Colorado.And now across the world.

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It’s hard to be wildly enthusiastic about aisles of cheap canned sodas at the supermarket, even when those big companies spend millions trying to convince us to partake.

So much more fun to find a bottle of bubbly yumminess at a favorite coffeehouse, corner store or speciality deli.

mmmmmmmmm:)

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http://www.realsoda.com