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The People in Your Neighborhood

In the pantheon of earworms Sesame Street has produced over the decades, one always stood out to me—”The People in your Neighborhood,” a jingle about the importance of getting to know the people on the street that you meet each day.

Maggie Adams, the owner of Magpie & Thorn, was one of those people to me.

Alameda Post - Maggie Adams holds a tray of plants in Magpie & Thorn
Maggie Adams. Photo by Thushan Amarasiriwardena.

Last week, we lost her. Adams, aged 45, passed away on April 1, after a sudden brain aneurysm the day before. She balanced life as the Encinal High School Media Arts teacher by day, shopkeeper on afternoons and weekends, and leaves behind her husband Colin and two young children.

I met her exactly three years ago, in the vaccine-spurred thaw of spring 2021. My pandemic project—walking every street of Alameda—had me mainly capturing our island’s postcard homes and streetscapes. Maggie Adams had a story that spurred me to break my bubble.

She chose an Alameda icon for her store. With its hard-to-place-in-time neon sign—“flowers”—the  greenhouse across from City Hall is a spot everyone in town knows as Magpie & Thorn. Longtime residents once knew it as Towata Flowers (hence the sign), which closed in 2009 after 60 years in business. It happens to be a block and a half from my house. The activity inside the spot caught my interest along with the question, who dares to start a retail business during a pandemic? Before opening the store, Maggie invited me to come by to write about it.

Her excitement was visceral. She had refilled the formerly vacant greenhouse with verdant plants. “It’s my dream,” she beamed. Walking through the space while I took photos, she revealed her grand plans—getting into more than just plants and expanding into the adjacent storefront. She was on a mission to bring this old building back to life and offer something new to Alamedans. Maggie sensed that the town was ready, not just for things opening up again, but for her distinct taste in oddities and frivolities. The name, Magpie & Thorn, cleverly played with her name while flirting with the allure of the shadows.

My article about her appeared in the following week’s Alameda Sun. Soon, she framed and displayed it behind the register.

Maggie’s store swiftly captured the town’s heart. By late fall, she had opened the storefront. Her taste was clearly on display. A little spunky, a dash of mystery, and always delightfully odd, the store’s curiosities opened fun cracks in the island’s cute-but-conservative Rockwellian face. For Christmas, she and her husband Colin, a cinema-grade hobby costumer himself, debuted their Addams Family twist on the holiday. “Meet Krampus,” featuring the Germanic goat-headed counter to Santa, became a regular event. She found ways to bring Halloween into the summer with her “Summerween” artist events in the parking lot next door.

One of the sublime delights of getting to know your neighbors is you start seeing them everywhere. At a tag sale, in the park, or simply with a random honk as they drive by. At her shop or elsewhere around the Island, Maggie and I would chat, inevitably turning to how things were going at the store. As popular as Magpie & Thorn was, running the business wasn’t easy. Supply chains, tight margins, or something else would creep in. The realities of being a small business owner often lead to equations that are hard to scribe. Maggie continued to teach part-time at Encinal High School. Often you’d find her former students running the cash register, all quick to warmly talk about their mentor.

After writing about Maggie and her store, I went on to profile a number of small business owners in town who were starting something new. I brought the same question each time: Why start a business in the midst of this all? I never extracted a unifying answer, just an observation. These small proprietors, opening stores, coffee shops, and spaces are delivering something that can’t be shipped to your doorstep, driven by something beyond cash in the till. As they build their own businesses, they’re intentionally building spaces for the rest of us to gather, to linger, to meet the other people in our neighborhood.

The community outpouring of love and grief on news of her passing made it clear that Maggie had crafted something more than a store in three years. Magpie & Thorne, if you could categorize it, was a quirky and very special gift shop.

But Maggie Adams, your shop—and your presence—was a gift to us.

Thushan Amarasiriwardena is walking all the streets of the Island and documenting it along the way at His writing is collected at

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