Noe Valley Voice May 1997

Four Folksy Businesses Among 24th's Longtime Survivors

By Tim Kelley

The city directory of San Francisco for 1977, year one in the Noe Valley Voice calendar, listed 115 businesses on 24th Street between Church and Douglass. Today, only 19 of them survive in their original locations. Many of the survivors have changed hands at least once. Some of those missing in action were out of business before Jimmy Carter left the White House.

Among the survivors, only a few are small, neighborhood-oriented retail operations, a category which may soon qualify as an endangered species.

Shufat Market, at 3807 24th near Church, is even more of a rarity -- it's owned and run by a family that lives in the neighborhood. Jamil Abdallha, one of four brothers who are second-generation owners, immigrated to Noe Valley from the village of Shufat, 30 miles north of Jerusalem, in 1970. His father had begun the business two years earlier.

Today, says Abdallha, although the neighborhood has certainly changed, he still knows most of his customers by name, as well as their kids and their partners. Part of the secret of Shufat's success, he claims, is that the store is double the size of the typical corner grocery. By occupying two adjacent storefront spaces, he explains, the market is large enough to stock a full line of groceries and liquors, as well as specialty items, such as fresh juices. Shufat also offers convenient hours -- 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. -- plus discounts and delivery for seniors.

Haystack Pizza Restaurant at 3881 24th St., just down the block from Shufat, is also a place where customers have names. Colleen Bedrosian and partner George Kouloulias opened the restaurant in 1972 in a former TV repair shop. They remodeled the space, and then hired someone to paint a distinctive mural -- a scene mixing Old West motifs with elements from Kouloulias' native Greece.

"At that time," says Bedrosian, who still puts in 60-hour weeks managing the operation, "there was no Italian food available in Noe Valley." Today, her former teenage customers come in to introduce their own kids to her. "They were always able to relax and make noise here," she says. "They remember that."

Haystack plans a 25th anniversary celebration, with free cake and refreshments, on Aug. 28 of this year. Bedrosian thinks the noise level that day may set new records.

At 102 years old, Tuggey's Hardware, next door to Haystack (and a little closer to Sanchez), is a neighborhood institution. In the past 20 years, most of its fellow small hardware stores have sold their last nut or bolt, while Tuggey's has survived. In fact, according to owner Denny Giovannoli, the business is constantly growing. Nowadays, in an admission of its own limitations, Home Depot actually refers customers to him.

Of course, they're not the customers who need a minivan load of white paint. They're the ones who need obscure little items with names that disappeared from catalogs during Prohibition. That's okay -- Tuggey's still has the catalogs.

Giovannoli spent all his childhood Saturdays in the store. "I've lived in Marin all my life, but I know more people here in Noe Valley," he remarks.

Giovannoli's father, Bob, bought the business from Eugene Tuggey Jr., shortly after coming home from World War II. Bob Giovannoli had worked in the store before going off to war. Gene Tuggey, his boss, was also one of a two-generation management team. His own father had bought the business before the turn of the century from some nameless founder who sold the place after only one year in business -- perhaps because he could foresee the parking problem.

Bob Giovannoli died two years ago, after running the store for half a century. But son Denny has carried on the family tradition. "My dad felt it was important to treat people fairly. The money didn't come first. Making sure customers got what they needed and were taken care of came first," he said.

Less than a block away, Common Scents has been purveying soaps and oils and other bath accessories in the tiny space at 3920 24th St. since 1971. Partners Helen Norris and Linda Ramey start-ed the shop with a $300 investment each. Norris jokes that the two women have remained in business for 26 years because "neither of us knew what else to do!"

They've also had a devoted clientele and, Norris insists, terrific employees. She credits her partner with choosing the kind of employees who put a smile on everyone's face, along with that dab of lotion. Popular manager Margaret Medeiros has been with Common Scents for 11 years.

But Norris and Ramey still put in long work-weeks at the store, as do all the other owners. They all see the time as necessary for continued success.

An even more essential ingredient, one which they all explicitly recognize, is maintaining good rapport with their customers. All four merchants interact with patrons in ways that date from a time before Customer Relations began to be spelled with capital letters. (During the interview for this story, for instance, Denny Giovannoli spent 20 minutes sketching an ancient plumbing part for a first-time customer.)

Although all of the surviving merchants are in broad agreement on how their businesses have gotten to this point, they begin to diverge when asked what the future holds. The reason is not hard to identify -- it's the cost of rent.

Bedrosian at Haystack and Giovannoli at Tuggey's own their buildings, and are more in command of their fate. Norris and Ramey at Common Scents, and Abdallha at Shufat rent their locations.

Norris reports that the original rent for their small space in 1971 was $90 per month. Today it's $1,500 for the same space. Still, she is happy to have a four-year lease. Beyond then, she's uncertain what might happen.

Abdallha shakes his head over the rent situation. "That's why these new stores can't keep up," he says. "They last one or two years. Then they go broke." Chain stores drive the rents up, he laments. "They shouldn't be here. We don't need them, they ruin family-owned businesses, and that's bad for the neighborhood."

In contrast, Giovannoli sees "more of the same" for Tuggey's second century, a cheerful sentiment shared by Bedrosian at Haystack.

As the Noe Valley Voice enters its third decade, we at the newspaper salute the fortitude of these longtime merchants and wish them all the best.