Loyal customers have kept this 70-year-old Berkeley stationery store going

Payn’s Stationery has been under the ownership of Sonny Han for the past 22 years, Feb. 10, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

BERKELEYSIDE — One month into shelter in place, I was shocked to stumble upon an open store on Solano Avenue. And not any store, but a favorite shop that can sometimes seem like a time machine channeling the 1950s.

As a writer, I often came to Payn’s Stationery to find the perfect notebook for a new assignment. Since the pandemic, I had lost most of my writing jobs, but I still jumped at the chance to wander through its rainbow of pens, playful stickers, fortress of folders and vintage cards. Then I spotted the jigsaw puzzles. With time on my hands, I started by purchasing a collage of psychedelic butterflies. It was the beginning of an obsession that I credit for saving my sanity.

Besides browsing Payn’s magical collection of wares, its friendly owner always lifted my spirits and not just with the three different scents of hand sanitizer he provided by the door.

Sonny Han has owned Payn’s since January 2000 and is pretty sure it is at least 70 years old. He takes down a framed black-and-white photo from the wall.

“In the late ’40s-’50s this store was called Thousand Oaks 5-10-15¢ Store,” he said.

In the photo, I notice it sat between a barbershop and a millinery. Han said Mr. Payn moved his eponymous stationery from down the block to this location and ran it until 1975, when he sold the store to Sung Kwak, who owned it for the next 24 years. Kwak was a friend of Han’s father.

A vintage photo shows the Thousand Oaks 5-10-15¢ Store as it was before it became Payn's Stationery.
A vintage photo shows the Thousand Oaks 5-10-15¢ Store as it was before it became Payn’s Stationery. Photo: Courtesy Payn’s Stationery

The Hans had moved to the US from South Korea in 1980 when Sonny was 14. He spoke no English and first attended an ESL program at Westlake Middle School, followed by Skyline High School in Oakland. Growing up in South Korea, Han remembers feeling scared that the North might invade them again. The U.S. military had one TV channel, AFKN, that broadcast American programs, such as Dallas. Han recalls thinking that everyone in America wore tuxedos and had daily cocktail parties. Coming to California as a teenager, he was impressed by Mustang cars, rap music and Parker pens.

“In middle school, those pens were the ultimate status symbol,” he said. It never crossed his mind that someday he would sell them at his store.

In 1989, when Han was in his early 20s, his father invested in a brand new Hallmark Store in a Pleasanton strip mall for his son to run. But it was not a success.

“I remember coming here to Payn’s in the early 90s to purchase some items for the Hallmark store, like cross pen refills,” he said. “I was impressed and envious, but never in a million years did I imagine that I would own it.”

When Kwak retired in 1999, he sold the store to Han’s father for Sonny to run.

“When I decided to take over Payn’s from my father’s friend, I had many sleepless nights. I was in my mid-30s and I thought, ‘this is my last chance to make a decent living,’” Han said. “Remember that 1999 was when big stores like Office Depot were my competitors.”

In January 2000, Han took over the store. He called it a 21st-century version of a 5 and dime.

“What was special is that we had hundreds of walk-in customers, who each spent $5-$10, which was actually safer than just depending on a couple of big corporate clients.”

The Payn’s Stationery storefront. Photo: Pete Rosos

Han remembers that older customers would introduce themselves and tell him stories of how they frequented the store when they were kids and bought penny candy. Although his father passed away nine months after purchasing the store, Han says that looking back, “In those precious nine months, my Dad saw that things were working out and he didn’t have to worry about me.”

On a recent Friday, psychotherapist Gayle Paul came in to purchase some Valentine’s cards.

“They always have high-quality, unique cards that you can’t find at a run-of-the-mill store,” she said. In the end, she bought heart stickers and rubber stamps to make her own cards during this stay-at-home time.

In 2011, when there was talk of the post office in the next block of Solano being closed down, Han added mailboxes. When the shelter-in-place was announced on March 16, Han had planned to pay his employees and close up the shop for three weeks. Then a customer told him that he could remain open, so he looked at the shelter-in-place order more carefully and saw that, as he was a notary and had mailboxes, his store was considered an essential business.

Han was relieved but also petrified of getting the virus. He decided it was better to stay open so that his customers could still come. Some customers told him to hang a big banner out front to announce that he was still open, but he thought that would be disrespectful to all the businesses that had to close.

Han had always carried jigsaw puzzles plus other games and crafts. He ran out during Christmas 2019 and reordered. When the puzzles finally arrived in February, they became very popular, along with sidewalk chalk for kids. When he ran out again, there were none in stock to reorder.

Retired teacher Rachel Zemach, remembers a stressful day when she came in to get something she needed for work.

“Just the vibe of the store lowered my stress,” she said. “They had these miniature ballpoint pens you could put in your pocket — in all colors! I just felt at home and happy there.”

“I was used to seeing stores feature a statement like ‘Serving our community for X number of years,’” Han said, “and I always thought that was just a way for them to get more business. But now I feel it. We provide choice and convenience. It makes me so happy to have what customers want. I am proud to carry a vast selection of journals and pens. Especially when someone comes in with an old fountain pen that they say belonged to their dad, but they haven’t it used for 20 years. It feels good when we can find the right refill to make it work.”

Daniel Orona, who used to work at Castle in the Air, is largely responsible for Payn’s whimsical and appealing stock, as well as its window displays. Photo: Pete Rosos

Han credits his employee Daniel Orona for ordering all the items that his customers appreciate. Orona, who has worked at Payn’s since 2014, used to be the manager of Castle in the Air, the now-closed fairyland of a store on Fourth Street.

“I like whimsy and nostalgia, rubber stamps and pads, notebooks, stationery and paper decorations from France, Belgium, Italy and Nepal,” said Orona.

That aesthetic combines with American nostalgia, like the vintage Valentine cards he orders and the classic Pee-Chee folders ubiquitous for students of the ’50s. Orona has a background in art and almost became an architect. Now he uses his talents to create Payn’s lovely window displays that change regularly and highlight the holidays.

Flutist Jane Lenoir buys all her office supplies at Payn’s.

“I really like how customer-friendly the store is,” she said. “ You can buy just one envelope or mailer instead of having to get 25 at Office Depot. The owner is a great guy!”

“I feel thankful,” Han says. “I came here from South Korea with no English. It was difficult and hard to fit in and now I am accepted and appreciated in this special neighborhood. This could happen only in America.”