Friday, November 28, 2008

Lovely Little Letters!

Castle in the Air is very lucky this weekend to have the World's Smallest Postal Service helping us with the holiday rush. Postmistress Lea Redmond is stationed just inside the front door, transforming customers' regular-sized letters into miniature mail. Each missive she completes fits onto a 1" by 1.5" piece of stationery, which is then folded and placed inside a stamped envelope smaller than a thumbnail!

Lea has been operating her petite post office since this summer, setting up shop at stores and cafes in San Francisco and the East Bay. She says she gets lots of requests for transcriptions of love letters, notes to Santa Claus, and even notes for the Tooth Fairy. The Castle in the Air gnomes could learn a thing or two about calligraphy from her!

You can learn more about the World's Smallest Postal Service and Lea's other projects at:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Santa Claus is coming to town...

Friday, November 28th

We have transformed 1809 Fourth Street into a glorious rest stop for Santa. Come take a picture with Santa, his elf, and their big red sleigh!

While inside this magical wonderland you can also visit the Giving Tree. Donations in the form of socks filled with toiletries can be tied to the tree for families in need. You may also find a wish card on the tree and use it to help you select a book for a child to enjoy. All donations benefit homeless families at B.O.S.S. - Harrison House Shelter and the Children's Learning Center at Harrison and Fourth Street.

Santa's Wonderland
1809 Fourth Street

Grand Opening: November 28th and 29th, 12-7pm
Regular Wonderland Hours: Thursday - Sunday 2-6pm, plus 12/22 and 12/23 from 12-7pm

We will also be celebrating our crazy lights, lights, lights! display on November 28 between 5-6pm with music, roaming performers, and free samples of cider, hot chocolate, and tea from the various vendors on Fourth Street.

As ever, the magic will continue all season with caroling, wonderful musical troupes, and other fine performances as well as extended hours for shopping.


Happy Thanksgiving!

These Thanksgiving postcards came from a flea market I visited in Iowa over the summer. Every time I look at old holiday postcards, I'm reminded that people haven't changed much over the years, and that what I'm doing with Castle in the Air would have fit right in with the folks of yesteryear.

This one from 1922, is addressed to Mrs. Chas. E. White, and reads, "You should see me in my new rompers. I sure am getting fat and ah real sassy. I don't know for sure if we will be down Thanksgiving, will let you know if we can. --Mary Jane"
Who wouldn't want Mary Jane as an aunt or a big sister? She's a stitch! The front of the postcard's got a boy threatening a turkey with a hammer and a sign saying "Off Comes Your Head"!

One hundred years ago, in 1908, Mrs. Isadora Martin received this card from som
eone who in days gone by would have come to John McRae's paper plum pudding class: "Dear Sister, How are you all? I am better now so I went to the Grange last night. I wish I could spend Thanksgiving with you to eat turkey and plum pudding. Come up when you can. Love to all, Sister Tallie and G.W."

"Dear Minnie," writes a friend to Mrs. Minnie Peters of Syndon, Illinois, in 1908, "I would like to have one of yo
ur pictures of you please. From, Adela (Save me some of your turkey.)" Had Castle in the Air and Minnie been in Berkeley 100 years ago, she could have had her picture taken at Fourth Street's Santa's Wonderland as a souvenir from her trip to California.

The front of this card reads, "Thanks to him who spared our livin
g / We're here, we're here, till next Thanksgiving." The sender of this card, L.B., was obviously a vegetarian like me -- a rare thing in 1909! She writes, "Dear Lida, How are you? I hope well. Have been looking for a letter from you. We are all well. Dr. Boyd died Sunday morning. They found him dead in bed. This pen is so bad I can not write with... Love, write soon." I could have hooked up L.B. with a new pen, too!

This one has got a picture of a tricky pilgrim concealing an ax and luring a turkey to his doom. It reads "Let us be truly thankful that we two still are friends." Thankfully it doesn't seem to have been sent to anyone!

Although life has always had its elements of strife, there is always something to be grateful for. May you see your blessings this Thanksgiving, and may you be near the ones you love, even if it is only in spirit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bully Good!

Our holiday displays have attracted a tribe of Native American dolls to Castle in the Air. Some of these adorable and intriguing figures are from the Skookum line of souvenir dolls, which were popular in the American West from the 1920s into the 1960s. Others are ingenious mimics inspired by the success of Skookum.

Skookum dolls were first made in the the 1910s by Mary McAboy of Montana. She used apples for the dolls heads, pinching them into faces as they dried and adding black pins for eyes. The bodies were made of blocks of wood or stuffed muslin sacks, then adorned with horse (or sometimes human) hair, blankets, and jewelry and other accessories. McAboy's production was a cottage industry until 1920, when she partnered with H.H. Tammen Co. of Denver, Colorado, to meet the growing demand for the dolls. Tammen used plastic and other materials instead of McAboy's homespun components, but the spirit of the dolls was retained.

We love the skeptical sidelong glances on their faces. Legend has it that the dolls who look to their right have the power to grant health and recovery. The ones who peer left are imbued with the opposite mojo.

And just what is a "Skookum?" In McAboy's day, "skookum" was a popular word in the American Northwest. It originated with Chinook traders as a means of describing quality merchandise. Anything "skookum" could also be said to be "bully good!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

All Lit Up

Holiday magic is surely all around us, for as the gnomes were putting the finishing touches on the decorations at the shop, Louis and Mickey were also completing the installation of the holiday light show up and down Fourth Street. Castle in the Air is its own sort of wonderland this time of year, but as I stepped out onto the sidewalk after dark, I was transported to a sparkling world like no other. I truly hope as many readers as possible are able to visit Fourth Street between now and the end of the year to see the fabulous lights.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Note from our Facilities Manager

It has been observed that there are ups and downs to operating a premises infested by Gnomes. On the down side, the necessary annual fumigations are expensive, and the wretched creatures have been known to chew through over a hundred yards of expensive European ribbon in under a fortnight.
However, especially around this time of the year, one is granted the opportunity to enjoy the more pleasant aspects of having a minor civilization make its home between your walls and amongst your rafters. For instance, when the magical creatures are feeling festive, they become possessed by a certain twisted, manic obsession with decorating each and every corner of the store they can get their crafty little pixies paws on, and with a zeal that can only be described as one-part disturbing to two-parts delightful.
Thus armed with a vaguely Germanic work ethic and about twenty pounds of import glitter, the fey beasties have created quite a breathtaking tableaux of seasonal splendor for us this winter. Do drop by and share in the magic while it lasts. We will be fumigating again come boxing day...

- H. Drosselmeier
Facilities Manager

Friday, November 21, 2008

This could be the night!

A few of us stayed late at the store last night, and as we locked up we could have sworn that we heard some scuttling and giggling inside the shop. If our recollections of holiday seasons past serve us well, we figure that tonight is the night the gnomes emerge to transform Castle in the Air into a holiday spectacle!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Four Friends

This picture I painted of "The Four Friends" is based on a Buddhist allegory that's always been close to my heart. An elephant, a monkey, a rabbit, and a partridge put aside their differences and worked together to reach the fruit of enlightenment. It reminds me of how blessed and rich I am to have my friends, who have always been an integral part of the workings here at Castle in the Air.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Botany of My Desire

In college, I majored in evolutionary botany, the study of the descent of plant species and how they change over time. Later, my interests shifted to the history of art and architecture. It was somewhere between these periods that I discovered the work of J.J. Grandville, the French caricaturist from the early 19th century.

Grandville is famous for his satirical scenes featuring people with the heads of animals, or flowers personified. His work can be sardonic and sweet at the same time, and this blend made me realize that Grandville's botany of desire was also my own. He was a great inspiration in my decision to open Castle in the Air, where we study paper flowers, have conversations with talking insects,
and generally live in a world as fantastic as Grandville's.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Siren's Call

I painted this mermaid two years ago for an illustration class I taught at Castle in the Air. The history of these creatures has always intrigued me. Mermaids come to us from ancient stories of Egyptian fertility gods. They are the ultimate symbol of the empowered woman, someone so strong in herself that in mythology she is deprived of her legs, or even her voice.

For a time last year, Castle in the Air featured a photo booth where people could pose as sirens in their underwater grotto. Even though the grotto has receded into the murky depths, any woman can be a mermaid at any time. It's just a matter of the right accessories, as you can see in this paper doll set I created and this photo of me dressed as a mermaid in my backyard pond.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Yesterday isn't so far away.

This morning my daughter asked if we knew anyone who lived in "the olden times." I told her we did and found this photograph of my grandmother to prove it. It's a photo of my Grandma Ann that was taken for a celebration postcard similar to the ones from my previous post. Grandma Ann was a Jewish German refugee during WWII, and as different as that world might seem today, she was doing a lot of the same things I do for fun today. She loved dressing up in fun costumes and taking pictures with her friends as much as we do here at Castle in the Air.

It wasn't until this afternoon that it dawned on me that today is a very auspicious day on which to find this photo. Happy Birthday, Grandma Ann!

Greetings from Long Ago

Everyone can appreciate the appeal of vintage postcards. The photos on the front give us a glimpse into the past, but it's the backs of the cards where people have written that are so revealing and sweet. It sometim
es takes a bit of deciphering, but with patience we can sneak a peek into the romances and holiday celebrations of people long gone. What will you write in your holiday cards this year that will become the collectible of the future?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Spinning Back to Summer

This coming Saturday and Monday, Castle in the Air is hosting two day-long sold-out classes in the marvelous art of the paper pinwheel, taught by John McRae. John was inspired to create a small collection of whirligigs after a visit to Ulla Milbrath's house, where he saw an antique lithograph of a pinwheel vendor. At the time the picture of this merchant was drawn, the spinning paper contraptions were popular children's toys. The word "whirligig" is much older though, coming from the verb "to hurl," and in the 15th century was used to describe a way of vomiting!

John's pinwheels were part of our window display
all summer, and people came into the store to admire and play with them. Summer has been over for weeks, but a hot day like this is enough to distract us from Christmas preparation and take us all back to the dog days.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lights on Fourth

All of Fourth Street gets into the holiday spirit when Louis and Mickey hang the lights. It's quite a production -- the entire lighting process takes two weeks. A roof full of solar panels helps supply the electricity. We could hardly hear the sleigh bells over the cherry picker's safety beeping. Ho ho ho!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Glass from the Past

Today was one of the most fun and surprising days leading up to Christmastime at Castle in the Air, because today we opened up the a dozen boxes of German glass ornaments we had been keeping in storage for nearly twenty years. We oohed and ahhed as we carefully unwrapped each ornament from companies such as Old World Christmas, Christopher Radko, Polonaise, Christborn, and Dresden Dove. The color, whimsy, and imagination in each of the ornaments is really amazing. What's more, these vintage decorations are now sought-after collector's items which will make Castle in the Air even more of a destination for all the Santas this year. The ornaments from just one box took up all of our studio table space as we sorted and labeled them for sale.

One of the boxes contained a set of samples from Old World showing how progressive coats of paint are put on the ornaments. Between blowing the glass and painting this
involved process takes seven days, but the meticulous work pays off with a stunning ornament for the tree. The long stems are a part of each piece up until the end. As many manufacturers of German glass ornaments are family-run cottage industries, the task of trimming the stem with a pen knife often falls to the children of the house.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Gnomes Know

As any gnome will tell you, the busiest person in the world this time of year is Santa Claus, so he needs all the help he can get as he embarks on his pair of world tours -- one for promotion and one to deliver all the gifts! And of course, as the most gnomerific shop on all of Fourth Street, Castle in the Air is helping prepare the neighborhood for Santa's visit later this month. We've accepted the task of transforming an empty building a few doors down from Castle in the Air into a winter fantasy world. When Santa visits Fourth Street just after Thanksgiving this year, you and your family and friends will be transported to the North Pole as soon as you step through the door. Santa will be on hand, sitting in his majestic sleigh and taking note of the wishes of all the good little boys and girls who come to visit. We hope to see you there!

Bandits spotted!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's true. But we hope that this sort of stealing will be the worst to befall us and our artistic friends during this year's holiday season.

We don't know what drives thieves to steal, but the damage they cause goes beyond the loss to the people and shops they rob. When someone steals from artists who bring their work to the world, the thief is really taking from the entire community and discouraging the very act of dreaming fantasy into reality.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Countdown Begins

As you can imagine, the Christmas season is never far from our thoughts at Castle in the Air. It begins in January, believe it or not, when we visit Europe to buy at the Christmas shows there. For our customers, the first sign of the coming holidays is the appearance of the Advent calendars, which we've just put out.

Even though the calendars don't begin until December 1st, we're already counting down the days to Christmas. One day this month, our doors will close for the night and the curtains will be drawn. The only sound passers-by will hear will be the (mostly congenial) chatterings of the Castle gnomes as they hang the garlands, scatter snowflakes, and arrange holiday treasures and prizes as only Santa's elves can. When the doors open in the morning, the sparkling wonderland will be revealed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bella's Night

Bella Bigsby stopped by the store today and dropped off a postcard for her upcoming show. Castle in the Air was one of the first stores to carry Bella's work, and we're so proud of her. She lives the dream every day, nothing stops her. This painting of an ermine is indicative of her work -- so wonderful, simple, and pure and we love them. We hope you can attend Bella's opening at August, a wonderful clothing shop and gallery that champions local artists:

Bella Bigsby -- New Works in Oil
Full Moon Party and Artist Reception
November 12, 5 - 9 p.m.
5410 College Avenue

Tell it like it is.

My family name, Cammell, originates in old Scotland. The name Campbell is a modern version of Cammell (it seems my ancestors didn't get the memo). Although the extra letters make the name look longer and more elegant, it is in fact pronounced "camel," just like the animal. Some people with the name Cammell might feel like changing it to something that doesn't remind people of a cantankerous, spitting pack animal, but it suits me just fine!

The Bactrian pictured here is about as pleasant as they come. It's from our beloved illustration and crafts teacher Caron Dunn. Caron made it for my collection from wool felt and stuffing. It is sewn with the tiniest, tidiest stitches and the tail has a tuft! It's got a darling blue and pink bridle and is just perfect.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Treasured Treat

Tonight at Castle in the Air, our very own John McRae will be teaching one of his beloved trompe l'oeil box classes, where paper, glue, and cotton batting transform in students' hands into deliciously deceptive faux food. This time out the result will be a plum pudding box in anticipation of the holiday season.

The plum pudding as we know it today is the ancestor of a tradition dating back to the days of the Roman Empire, when meats and vegetables were preserved with a multitude of exotic spices and a slow cooking process. As the centuries passed, the puddings began to contain more and more sweets, such as nuts and fruits, treacle, even a bit of brandy or beer. In the Renaissance, prunes were such a popular addition to the treat that the plum pudding picked up its modern name. By the 19th century, the pudding had become a staple of the Christmas feast. Its round shape comes from the pudding being boiled and hung inside a cloth, and it is often served topped with custard and a sprig of holly.

It's been tradition to bake a sixpence or other trinket into the plum pudding, and the person who is served the treasured piece gets to keep the token and is often granted good luck for the coming year. Being a box, John's plum pudding serves but one lucky person, but can be filled with much more than a single silver coin!

Pieces of History at Castle in the Air

One of the most amazing treasures I brought home from my recent trip to the International Quilt Festival in Houston was a collection of antique reliquaries, including one from the 18th century (pictured in the center of this photo). These miniature shrines have been used for centuries to exhibit the physical remains of saints and other religious figures. It's next to impossible to know whether the contents of a particular reliquary are authentic, but for collectors this often adds to the charm of these odd and beautiful pieces of history.

A few times each year, local artist Ulla Milbrath teaches a reliquary making class at Castle in the Air. Students bring in relics from their own life to commemorate within the little shrines they make, which can be small enough to wear as pendants. I made two reliquaries in one of Ulla's classes, preserving the umbilical cords and bits of hair from my darling daughters. It's a religious experience in itself to combine soldering and other jewelrymaking techniques with the love and personal investment inherent in making reliquaries.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pirate Map, Death Warrant, New Lease on Life

We got a call from England today. It was Alan Pryor of Pryor Publications, to be exact, calling to congratulate America for voting in our new president-elect, and to make sure we'd received Pryor's latest parcel of treasures. It had arrived, we assured him, and we were most excited about his Pirate Map and Death Warrant.

The map is a reprint from a 17th-century atlas showing Madagascar, which was known then as "The Pirate Island" for its hospitality to buccaneers and its key location on trade routes between India and Europe. Alan's copy was acquired in pristine condition from the National Maritime Museum before undergoing a grueling journey involving spilled coffee and the barbecue grill to achieve its vintage look. The 1722 death warrant appears to have been discovered in a distressed state, and distressed is how one would expect a pirate to feel having this decree read to him.

Pirates have been all the rage in the States for quite some time. Maybe Americans have been identifying with the brigands' feeling of disenfranchisement. After all the uncertainty and hand-wringing leading up to yesterday's historic decision, today we awoke feeling ennobled and empowered. Maybe soon we can start romanticizing more honorable historical figures. None are without their shortcomings, but may we suggest--

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gnomes Rock the Vote!

When we opened the store this morning, we were quite surprised to find that Mr. and Mrs. Hedgehog had organized a protest march calling for just and equal treatment for the creatures of the fairy (and, we're assuming, hedgehog) kingdom. Mrs. Hedgehog waxed particularly eloquent about the plight of the Pumpkin People, who have it especially hard in the weeks following Halloween.

East of the Sun...

One of the most exciting book catalogs to find its way to Castle in the Air this fall is from a publisher that is both brand new and an old friend. Calla Editions was launched this year as a division of Dover Publications, whose miraculous trove of line drawings and full-color Victorian vignettes has been a godsend to artists for over 60 years.

Whereas Dover caters to the clip-art crowd, Calla takes advantage of the company's superb library to publish new editions of titles from the golden age of book illustration. We've received two titles from Calla's inaugural line--
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, and Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, illustrated by Harry Clarke--with more on the way as they are published. These hefty volumes are a bibliophile's dream, with clean text reproduction and vibrant illustrations printed on thick pages. In an age when so much of publishing seems to be disposable, these books are instant classics.

Christmas is coming!

This past January, we traveled to Germany to meet with a family of artisans who blow and hand-paint the most gorgeous glass ornaments. When they mentioned that they had a mold to make gnome decorations, we jumped at the chance to have some custom gnomes that would be a perfect match for Castle in the Air.

Our gnomes are outfitted with green jackets and mushroom caps to blend in with the scenery as they take an afternoon stroll on Christmas or New Year's Day, spreading cheer and good luck wherever they go.

The gnomes were in one of seven giant boxes of ornaments that arrived at the shop on Friday amidst a flurry of candy and costumed children trick-or-treating up and down Fourth Street. You might think it strange for us to get excited about the winter holidays in the middle of Halloween, but we feel just like kids on Christmas morning every time an order like this arrives.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Steiff Immigrants to Castle in the Air

Last week we had the good fortune to acquire a passel of vintage Steiff toys. They are so beautiful, they really must be seen to be believed. While some of the Steiffs have perched themselves up high on the store shelves, Mr. and Mrs. Hedgehog here have taken up residence on the front steps of our amazing gnome stump. Like all hedgehogs, Mr. and Mrs. H. are personable but shy, although one customer confided in us that Mr. Hedgehog had whispered to her that his given name is Bradshaw.

Castle in the Air -- A Love Story

Dromedary Press, the in-house publishing imprint of Castle in the Air, is very happy to announce the publication of its first title. Castle in the Air is a love story beautifully written by Duncan Brown and lyrically illustrated by Karima Cammell. The book tells the tale of an itinerant traveler who attempts to win the heart of a young queen. Awash in suitors, she has declared that she will only marry a man who can build for her a castle in the air.

Castle in the Air is letterpress printed by Richard Seibert and hand-bound by Victoria Heifner. Forty pages, 5 1/4" by 7 1/8". Includes one full-color and five one-color illustrations. Produced in two limited editions: 100 numbered copies case-bound with red Japanese mohair cloth over archival boards, and 200 numbered copies pamphlet-bound in paper cover with red button-twill silk thread.

Happy Gnomevember!

Celebrated every year between the Halloween and Christmas seasons, Gnomevember is the time when we at Castle in the Air peek under mushrooms and between the cracks in the floorboards to check the goings-on of our most industrious and diminutive colleagues—the gnomes.

This Gnomevember, Castle in the Air presents “Woodland Fauna from the Collection of Reginald Bakeley,” a special exhibit of “found fairies.” Bakeley has made it his life’s work to capture and preserve gnomes, pixies, and other denizens of the fairy kingdom. A portion of his trophies will be on display at our store through Gnomevember, with more information available at Wonderella Printed.

Featured in Where Women Create

Where Women Create is a new magazine that invites readers into the studios of some of the world's most extraordinary artists. The premier issue features 10 pages of story and photos about Castle in the Air! We're incredibly honored to be included among all these artists who are living their dreams.

Where Women Create is distributed nationwide through bookstores including Barnes & Noble and Borders, arts and crafts shops such as Michaels and Joann, and right here at Castle in the Air.