573 Valencia StreetI was driving down Valencia Street in San Francisco last week, heading out to the Golden Gate bridge, and checked to see how many storefronts were currently empty. I took a photo of one large space for lease, that used to be a mid-century antiques furniture store by Michael De Angelis of Monument fame. Not sure how long it's been empty, but I added it to the casualties list. 

In the midst of a busy trade show week, I stole a few hours to visit two stores on my list to see before they, too, closed shop. My first stop was The Shed in Healdsburg, a status symbol for any of my vendors to have products on their shelves. Founded by the husband and wife team, Cindy Daniel and Doug Lipton, to celebrate local organic food and beautifully curated products, this ambitious restaurant and store was forced to shut down due to financial hardship, caused in part by the wildfires and loss of visitors. 


Even without the wildfires, as devastating as they were, retailers across the country are experiencing the loss of foot traffic, as customers choose to shop online from the comfort of their homes. Shops that are offering an experience, along with their products, are supposedly fairing better. But the Shed had so much to offer, with their farm-to-table specialty foods, coffee and kombucha bars, extensive book collection, and beautifully designed architecture and merchandise, you'd think they would have had a better chance. I had heard their prices were pretty high, and in checking their $135.00 pig casserole dishes on sale, even at half price I couldn't afford one.

The store was actually closed for a Gallo wine marketing workshop, but they didn't seem to mind the few of us who walked in to admire and bid farewell to a gallant effort that was ending too soon. I bought a sweet tin to store my birdseed, much more affordable at half price, along with some glass carafes and cellophane bags I needed for my own store. No one was there to take my money, so I left a check along with a thank you note, and left the store, saddened by the loss. 


Walking around the town a bit, I admired the manicured buildings, sidewalks and park square, so different from city I live in. There seemed to be lots of fancy storefronts and expensive hotels and restaurants. But on a Wednesday afternoon, I was one of the few people walking around. I happened upon the local fair trade store, One World, and stopped in to chat with the saleswoman. I recognized many of the artisan products they were carrying, and was envious of all the space they had in their store. She said they'd had a good Christmas and the weekends were usually busy, but during the week the town was typically pretty quiet. This was the second location for their store, as their previous building was sold to a developer who built a restaurant.


She told me how much Healdsburg had changed over the past ten years, and that the locals couldn't really afford to shop and live there anymore, which sounded a lot like San Francisco. I stopped by a clothes and shoe store geared more for the local workers, and wondered how long they would be around? The antique store also felt precarious, as if people wouldn't spend the time to explore their vast collection in search of the one thing they didn't need but wanted to have. I must admit I was one of those, in a hurry to find my next stop.


Truck and Barter in Petaluma, was the other store closing at the end of January, that I really wanted to see. Owner Julia Hohne curated a collection of classic, vintage inspired home goods, in a lovingly restored storefront inside the historic Hotel Petaluma. She is also the mother of two young boys, one just four months old, and found her time away from them, tending to her store was just too much to manage. However, her husband is taking over the lease for his barbershop, and Julia will continue to sell her own line of candles and scents, along with gifts that complement their new business. 


I spent a little time exploring the wonderfully restored Petaluma Hotel, along with Julia's other neighbors on the street, including a tattoo parlor, Electric Oni, filled with taxidermy creeping off the walls, and a historic family owned Italian restaurant, Volpi's, with a secret prohibition bar in the back. The owner was an accordion player and the restaurant had dozens of accordions displayed among the family photo collection. I can't wait to bring my family back to eat there, and maybe my husband can get a close shave next door while my daughters and I get tattoos, (just kidding kind of).


Back home in my neighborhood of Bernal Heights, I have been involved in meetings with some of the other neighborhood merchants about the proposed new construction coming to our small main street, Cortland Avenue. One of our abandoned storefronts is a small, one story Edwardian from the early 1900's that used to house the local coffee shop, among other businesses. Residents were alarmed to learn in December, that a modern three story building was to take it's place, developed by new owners in China, for their adult children living in San Francisco. Our district supervisor, Hillary Ronen helped organize a town hall meeting to hear people's concerns that were mostly aesthetic, but also about how an 18 month construction project would affect surrounding businesses including our Good Life Grocery and Heartfelt gift shop. While the architect has made some concessions regarding the building design and footprint, the construction concerns are still real for those of us struggling to attract customers outside national holidays.

I have recently learned of two more, multi-story buildings scheduled to be built on our Cortland corridor. The mandate by our mayor London Breed for affordable housing is helping builders get permits approved more quickly through the planning department. But I'm not sure how affordable these new apartments will be, as desirable a neighborhood as Bernal Heights has become. And with these new buildings, come new storefronts, waiting to be rented. What will they be, more gift or clothing stores, or restaurants or nail salons, which we already have plenty of? What will our main street look like in two years, or even next year? I hope City Hall can also support retail businesses over these next few years, to help small shops stay open for the vitality of our neighborhoods, where locals and visitors alike can still explore and find something unexpected and wonderful, that they may or may not need.

February 06, 2019 by Laurie Kanes