Lisa Burnham and Ira Klein, two Solano Avenue merchants, helped start in 1974, together with the Thousand Oaks Merchants Association.
According to Klein’s son Gabe, Klein (now deceased) was influenced as a child by his cousin George Schindler, who grew up to be a well-known magician, comedian and actor (Schindler starred as "Chandu the Great" in Woody Allen’s New York Stories).
“As a child, my father watched his cousin perform magic tricks at several New York City amusement parks including Coney Island in Brooklyn,” Klein said. “The carnival entertainment of my father's childhood and his 1960s college days at UC Berkeley—the Telegraph Avenue street vendors and counterculture performance artists—are two things that influenced him to organize the (Solano Stroll) festival in the early 1970s.”
Another motivation, which he shared with Lisa Burnham, was to help generate more business for Solano Avenue stores. Klein opened “The Iris” clothing/gift shop near the east end of Solano with his wife Susan around 1973, and Burnham had a nearby decorating/interior design business.
Burnham encouraged other businesses in the area to come together for the first Solano Stroll, which was more of a weekday evening sidewalk sale, said Sue Johnson, owner of a 39-year-old at 1745 Solano Ave., and an early organizer of the Stroll. “It was like an afternoon/evening walk-around,” she said.
Henry Accornero, the original owner of , which opened its doors at 1783 Solano Ave. in 1948, also remembers the first Solano Stroll.
“The Stroll was originally designed to let people know where we (businesses) were,” Accornero said. “A lot of people were not that familiar with Solano Avenue at the time. We were trying to get people to see what was on the avenue and to come back and shop.”
The Stroll, much smaller in the 1970s, was initially limited to a few blocks at the east end of Solano Avenue in Berkeley. Albany joined the event in 1981 after a few merchants and restaurant owners came together to promote the idea, including Suzann Greer, the manager of Just Folks, a folk art and antique reproductions store that was located in the 1400 block of Solano.
At first, the Albany police chief denied a permit to close off the street for the parade and fair, citing the high cost of providing police protection for the event. But with the encouragement of Greer and others, the city appropriated funds for police duties, and a permit for closing the street to Santa Fe Avenue was granted.
The Stroll has grown and changed over the years. Eventually, the street was closed all the way to San Pablo Avenue, and outside vendors were invited in. The Thousand Oaks Merchants Association became the and an executive director was hired. Alcohol-related disturbances were reduced when alcohol sales were eliminated, and organizers placed a greater emphasis on high quality art and entertainment.
Attendance has soared from a few hundred people in the beginning to more than 50,000 in the early 1990s, to more than 250,000 today (spread over the course of the day).
According to the Solano Avenue Association, the organizer of the event, this year’s Stroll will feature more than 500 vendors, non-profit organizations, food booths and entertainers.
Ironically, the Stroll — originally designed to attract shoppers to Solano Avenue businesses — has grown so big over the years that some merchants close their doors during the event.
“Now it’s a huge street fair, and it’s a little too crazy for a jewelry store like us to stay open,” said Jeff Accornero, the current owner of Oaks Jewelers. But he and other merchants acknowledge that the original goal of acquainting more people with Solano Avenue has been achieved.
“The main thing is to say 'thanks' to the customers and friends of ours who have patronized us…. and to acquaint some people who haven’t discovered us yet with the stores on Solano Avenue,” said Ira Klein in 1980.
Today the Stroll draws people from all over the Bay Area and, in 2002, the event was listed as a “Local Legacy” at the Library of Congress.