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L.A. STORIES : Cross Stress Off Your Grocery List

June 01, 1995|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a more perfect world, in a world where sanity and the pursuit of happiness were held more sacred, every neighborhood supermarket would have a Bart Berens. It would be part of the health code. Required by law as essential to physical fitness and the requisite mellowness needed while shopping.

Sadly, however, Berens' talent is available only in a health food store. Like sun-dried macrobiotic seaweed, tofu hot dogs and wheatgrass juice, his craft is not quite ready for the mainstream at Ralphs.

What Berens does that recharges the shoppers at the Erewhon Natural Foods Market, what snaps them into a better state of consciousness, what makes them practically glow, is the art of massage. Berens is the artiste of the in-store, 10-minute neck and back rub that transforms the overwrought into the unconcerned.

As Maria Saltikoff, 28, of Santa Monica says post-massage: "When I came in here, I was all involved. I was in a hurry. I had to get dinner. I had to go to this meeting. Now, it's like, 'OK, whatever.' "

Who would argue that to be a working person in late 20th-Century Los Angeles and be converted into "OK, whatever" consciousness in 10 minutes--while shopping--is anything short of miraculous?

"It's very stressful to shop," says Seannie Camp, who began massages with Berens while she was pregnant and now brings her 3-month-old boy with her. "Food shopping is not pleasure shopping. You've got lists. Now I've got the baby. There's no place to sit down. It's a big kick to get a massage in a supermarket."

The masseur is a tall man with graying hair who works his craft on a $550 Oakworks "on-site massage chair" that looks like something Torquemada would have devised during the Spanish Inquisition.

Berens has it set up in a nook in the Fairfax District market between the fresh produce and bins of trail mix. Its white metal frame with turquoise pads put the customer in a position similar to sitting backward on a chair. The client's head falls forward onto a horseshoe shaped pad (covered for each customer with fresh paper toweling), arms are on rests, the back faces the store and the masseur.

"So what's going on in your body," says Berens as he begins massaging the upper trapezius, those neck and upper back muscles that ratchet into clenched knots from tension. He works on them with his own mixture of classic massage "modalities" and a little acupressure thrown in.

Berens' questions usually elicit some grunts, a couple of words about "this tension in my shoulders and neck," and then silence when he goes about pinching, stretching and occasionally putting his elbow to some of the more stubborn meat.

"I go off into another world," says Tony Materazzi, a personal trainer who has a massage a couple of times a week. "I come here and I just float away. Sometimes when it's over I go 'Oh, yeah, Erewhon. Back to Earth.' "

Berens says part of the success of the 10 minutes for $7 massage is it brings the treatment to the public. Saltikoff and Materazzi don't have time to make an appointment and find a parking space just to spend a few minutes having muscles unknotted.

"This is the martini of the '90s," Berens says. "I'm like the bartender used to be. People come here for me to listen to them and give them some relief."

The role comes naturally to the 60-year-old masseur. "I'm a pretty good guy to talk to," he says. "I can talk about human interaction, children, business, science. I don't think I lecture. I tell them my story. How I would handle a similar problem. How I'm in a happy marriage. We talk."

Most of those who see Berens at Erewhon believe this bit of shopping pleasure is a Los Angeles invention, the kind of thing that fits with an image of eccentric L.A. Berens has seen shoppers pointing him out to visiting guests with a spiel: You know you're in L.A. when you see people getting massages in stores.

But they're wrong.

Berens first saw an in-store massage at the Whole Foods Market in Austin, Tex. It was such a success, and he spoke to his wife about it so much, she encouraged him to become a massage therapist. "I kind of did it on a whim or a dare," he says. "I kind of slipped in a side door."

Berens has a degree in physics and has worked as an engineer. Ironically, considering that he's working in a health food store, when he was employed at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in 1962, he worked on a plane doing on-site measurements of the last U.S. atmospheric nuclear test in the South Pacific.

He has had a number of jobs and small businesses since then, but by 1991 he was ready for a career change. He took a 500-hour course at the Asten Center for Natural Therapeutics and became a massage therapist. When he moved back to Los Angeles, he asked Erewhon if they'd like an in-store masseur and they said yes.

The Erewhon management is so happy with it that they'd like Berens to be in the store seven days a week instead of just weekdays from 2 to 7 p.m. "This is something that works for our clientele," says Ted McCaskey, the store's general manager. "This is another area where we can let people know we're thinking about them."

"This is a good way to bring massage back into the mainstream," Berens says. "In the old days, the only time you'd see someone getting a massage was in gangster movies. This brings it out among the public."

For Camp, masseuses couldn't be out among the public enough. "I want them at bus stops," she says.

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