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Gym Keeps Up the Good Workout
By Richard Dodds
If places like Gold's Gym, 24-Hour Fitness, and Muscle Systems are the supermarkets of health clubs, Purely Physical Fitness is the corner grocery.
Located on Castro Street near Jersey, this small, friendly, and unpretentious health club fits comfortably into casual Noe Valley, where sipping java can be as important as pumping iron.
"We don't have a bunch of hard bodies," said Lori Leff, who operates the business with husband Joel Leff. "Actually, we do get those who work out here to get into shape so they can go to other gyms to be seen. But you don't have to already look good to go to the gym here!"
Purely Physical recently celebrated its fifth anniversary without much fanfare, and the Leffs have been negotiating with the building's owner for a new five-year lease. Since opening, the gym has expanded throughout the arched-roof building at 1414 Castro St., formerly occupied by an air conditioning and heating company and a mortgage firm.
The Leffs also operate a second location, dubbed "the studio," at the corner of Castro and 25th, for aerobic and conditioning classes. However, they plan to close this space in the coming months, moving the studio's more popular exercise classes to the main location.
"It doesn't seem to be working out the way we thought it would," Lori said of the studio. "Aerobics are dying on the vine," and the dwindling size of these classes, she noted, may not justify the cost of a second space.
But it was in an apartment above the studio space that the original Purely Physical Fitness was born six years ago. Back then, the ground floor was occupied by a thriving exercise center, the independently owned 25th Street Workout.
Randal Bitterman, Lori's brother, decided to open a small personal training gym above 25th Street Workout, in case people wanted to add strengthening exercises to their aerobics. He soon realized, however, that Noe Valley could use a full-scale gym. Bitterman moved Purely Physical to 1414 Castro in November of 1992.
"He said, 'I really want that space,' and the next thing we knew, he had it," Lori said. "It was his dream."
Lori joined her brother's business as manager in March of 1993. After she and Joel were married the following fall, Joel also joined the operation. Bitterman, who had contracted AIDS, needed the help. As the disease took its toll, Lori and Joel gradually took over most of the day-to-day operations. "When it looked like he wasn't getting better," Lori said, "it seemed like the right thing to do."
By the time Bitterman died in February of 1995 at age 33, the Leffs had decided they would keep the gym open -- and Bitterman's dream alive. Three months later, Lori gave birth to their daughter, and now Lori and Joel run the business around daycare schedules, as well as Joel's studies in exercise physiology at City College of San Francisco.
The chock-full days don't seem to faze them, though. Maybe that's because their clientele is so easygoing.
The folks who work out at Purely Physical Fitness are mostly, well, just folks. The age demographics skew a little older than at many gyms, but beyond that, membership is pleasantly diverse. "We have a very comfortable mix," said Joel, "male and female, gay and straight," with about a 50 50 male/female ratio.
A few regulars come from as far as Pacific Heights to take a favorite class, but most members hail from Noe Valley. Not surprisingly, location is the main draw.
"The idea of driving to a gym seems ridiculous to me," said John Hlinko, a writer who lives on 24th Street. "Essentially your workout is a half-hour longer if you have to get in your car and go someplace else."
Linda Stewart lives in Glen Park, so she drives. "But I still consider it the neighborhood, and I like to give them my business because of that," she said. Stewart also appreciates the atmosphere. "They always have nice flowers at the desk, and they change the artwork," she said of the exhibits featuring local artists and photographers. "It's not glitzy here, but I prefer this style."
Fred Zimmerman, an economics professor who lives at Guerrero and 24th, likes the ambiance, too. "It's a very laid-back gym," he said. "A number of the fancy gyms are actually cheaper, but this place has its own character."
Laid-back, maybe, but not funky. "The gym prides itself on cleanliness," said Ben Brandin, who mans the front desk. "You get on some machines in other gyms and they feel greasy. They're not wiped down. Here they get cleaned three times a day." Brandin, who was reading Brave New World when not checking in members, called the gym "a real homey situation."
The Leffs live in the neighborhood, too-- up the hill from the gym, on Grand View Avenue. But their apartment building is for sale, and if they have to move, they worry that high rents may push them out of Noe Valley. Sometimes they fantasize about relocating the gym to larger quarters in Noe Valley, but, noted Lori, "there really isn't any space available that's larger than what we have."
At 5,000 square feet, the gym is relatively small, with a basic mix of free weights, Cybex machines, treadmills, step machines, and cycles. There are plans to add a few more pieces of equipment, but the space is about maxed out.
Membership in Purely Physical costs $550 a year. There are also six-month, one-month, weekly, and day-use rates, but no special introductory offers, no initiation fees, and no minimum membership. The Leffs believe in keeping things straightforward.
"Granted, our prices can be higher," Lori said, "but you have to look at the professionalism and education of our staff."
All instructors and trainers must be certified to work at the gym, Joel points out. Clients sign up for classes ranging from "power yoga and stretch" to "sculpt and burn." Personal trainers are also available by appointment.
Purely Physical must be doing something right, because gym membership is now approaching 600. "At 650," Joel said, "it will be as full as we can allow it. We do have a very high retention rate, about 75 to 85 percent."
The biggest crowds typically work out before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. But during the day, he noted, sparse attendance makes for the feeling of a private gym.
"We're not getting rich, but it's good work," Joel said. "I mean, we get to wear sweats to work, and to socialize with 600 friendly people!"