For more than 40 years, an eclectic health food store has served as a community hub in Altadena — a place where people meet, share ideas and enjoy fresh soup and lunch, all vegetarian, of course.
It began in 1977, when a little shop appeared on the north side of Woodbury Road, near Los Robles Avenue, right along the unincorporated community’s border with the city of Pasadena.
I remember entering the quaint shop, with various herbs dangling from the ceiling and hanging on the walls, and featuring fresh produce and health food products. The friendly proprietor would show me the produce lists, pointing out that his prices were cheaper than co-ops. I wouldn’t have known if his prices were cheaper, since I never really paid attention to such things. I was just a local guy looking for something good to eat for lunch.
The shopkeeper, John Hopkins, got started in the health food and food co-op business a few years earlier, when he was a student to Cal State, LA and trying to cut costs with a group of other students he resided with. One of his roommates moved out and left behind a copy of “Let’s Eat Right to Stay Fit,” a book by Adelle Davis, which further inspired Hopkins to stay on the path he was on.
Over time, Hopkins learned how to bake bread, make quality soup and promote healthful living. “I knew that wheat bread was good for you,” he once told me, “but I didn’t yet know why.”
While he was painting the shop he had just moved into on Woodbury Road, Hopkins was playing the radio and heard the words “Oh, Happy Days,” in a gospel song of the same name. It was then that he decided this was what he would call his shop.
Within six years he moved further into Altadena, on Lake Avenue, just across from Elliot Middle School. There he believed his business would do better because of greater exposure on the busy thoroughfare. After another six years, he had an opportunity to move again, this time just north another block to the store’s current location at 2283 Lake Avenue.
“Our present location is great because now we have parking in the rear, and plenty of room for people to sit inside and outside,” Hopkins recently noted.
Upon entering O Happy Days, people are greeted with local newspapers and magazines to read, along with a nearby bulletin board with information on all that was happening in this quaint foothill community. It feels like a throwback to the late 1960s, assuming one is old enough to remember that era.
According to Jane Tsong, artist and conservation planner, “Stepping into O Happy Days feels like you’re stepping into a different world, where values and people, and even the speed of time are different.”
There are tables in the middle of the shop where diners wait for a bowl of Hopkins’ incredibly delicious soup of the day. Often it’s lentil, which I have had many times over the years. Though I hesitate to say this, it’s better than my departed mother’s home cooking. (Sorry mom.)
The walls are lined with herbs and economically-priced products, and the upper walls are like an eccentric art museum with pictures, statues, juicers, paintings and diverse political statements. One poster lists famous vegetarians, with the last one on the list being Hopkins himself.
“We promote a vegetarian lifestyle here, and we believe that our efforts will help contribute to a sustainable world,” Hopkins states. “I’ve always tried to make health foods affordable and provide information for all our customers,” he says, while answering a customer’s question about different vitamins.
O Happy Days has often been described as one of a few places in Altadena where someone can go and feel a sense of community.
“It’s important to contribute to the feeling of community and to encourage people to sit and socialize,” explains Hopkins. “Anyone can sit in our chairs, and there is no pressure to buy anything.”
Winning Over Skeptics
O Happy Days actually has a Poet Laureate, local resident Seven Dhar. According to Dhar, “O Happy Days is more than a store. It’s a meeting place, a center of radical thought and subversive conversation, ecology, New Age teachings, herbalism, holistic health concepts, and lots of kombucha…”
Hopkins is a rare, old-school proprietor who makes you feel at home, even when he’s under pressure. It is a unique atmosphere for a store that has earned its good name from everyone who goes there.
Does anyone ever have complaints about O Happy Days? Yes, when I was there recently and a man in line ahead of me was openly complaining — but with a smile. He said John needed to hire another worker to run the cash register while John carefully and slowly poured a bowl of soup. But the same man is a regular customer, perhaps realizing that sometimes quality does not come quickly.
According to attorney Philip Koebel, who once ran for mayor of Pasadena, “John has a genuine one-on-one relationship with everyone who walks into the store. If you don’t talk with John, then you haven’t really been there. I started going to O Happy Days regularly because it’s the only place around to get a decent vegetarian/vegan meal every day. It’s like John is my personal chef.”
Local resident Michael Shermer, who is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, is another fan of O Happy Days.
“For a quarter century now I have been enjoying the healthiest foods on the planet at John’s O Happy Days store and restaurant,” says Shermer. “John is an Altadena treasure and his outfit represents everything we love about our city: healthy living, honest friendship, and good eats! These days, Gen Z’ers like to purchase products with a good cause behind them, but baby boomer John was way ahead of his time when he turned food into a political and environmental cause. I’m looking forward to another quarter-century of dining there!”
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Foraging California” and other books. He teaches about survival and self-reliance, and can be contacted at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.