Noe Valley Voice March 1998

Star Magic Now a Black Hole

By Denise Minor

Gone are the crystals, telescopes, magic wands, and pewter wizards.

Star Magic, the unique store that catered to amateur astronomers and astrologers alike, closed its doors on Feb. 13 after nearly two decades at 4028 24th St.

"People are very upset," said Star Magic owner Shlomo Ayal of New York City. "They say it's a sign of the changes on the street. They also have asked me things like, 'What are we going to have here now -- another Starbucks?'"

In response to that question, building owner Elisa Ining says that she is still uncertain of her plans for the storefront. But her first thought would be to expand her own business, Elisa's Health Spa, the hot tubs and massage studio she operates above Star Magic. "I think I'll expand down below," said Ining. "But first I have a lot of remodeling to do."

The end of Star Magic was not amicable. Ining had Ayal evicted for not paying his January and February rent. But Ayal said he was planning to shut down anyway.

"It became too difficult to manage from a distance," said Ayal, who also owns three other Star Magic stores in New York. "I had good local management for years. He would take care of the little things. But since he left, it took up too much of my time."

Ayal said closing Star Magic was emotionally difficult and that he flew out the first week of February to tell the employees himself. "I got to San Francisco and went to the store, then walked around for 45 minutes and called my wife to tell her 'I can't do it. I can't tell them.'"

But he did tell the employees, and for the next few days the workers had their hands full, selling off most of the store's inventory for half price.

Ayal said that on the last day of the sale, he overheard a customer talking with a boy that Ayal judged to be about 13 years old. The customer told the boy a little bit about Star Magic's history and said that he had begun coming to the store when he was just a couple of years older than the boy. "As I listened to him, I learned a few things I didn't even know about the early years," said Ayal.

Ayal acquired Star Magic and two of its sister stores in 1988. He took over the business from the men who founded it -- Robert Hanfling and Justin Moreau.

Hanfling came up with the idea for the store in 1978. At the time, he was running a business that manufactures and sells store fixtures, Magic Glass on Harrison Street (he still owns it today). November and December had always been slow months for Hanfling, so he decided to open a gift shop to help with the lag in his income during the holiday season.

He rented the storefront at 3995 24th St.--now occupied by Starbucks Coffee-- for the Christmas season of 1978. The store he opened was called Gifts of the Magi.

"I went out and got telescopes and crystals and recorded music and other things to sell at the store that were consistent with my world view," Hanfling recalls. "It was a synthesis of science, religion, and beauty."

Gifts of the Magi was so popular that he decided to join forces with Moreau to launch a permanent version under a new name. The partners opened the new Star Magic in Ining's building in 1979.

Hanfling and Moreau were good friends and also members of a commune that originated in Bolinas and called itself the Church of the Gentle Brothers and Sisters.

Many church members worked at Star Magic over the years. One of the most popular was Esther Goldman. "She's a beautiful woman and was quite famous on the street," said Hanfling. "Gibbsen Young and Julie Ready were also very popular store managers.

"But Justin is the real hero in all of this," Hanfling continued. "A lot of the beauty of the store was due to his being a beautiful person. He had such a big heart, and he loved his customers and he loved his employees."

Moreau also helped create the store's atmosphere, with its soft, celestial music and galaxy of shimmering lights and gems.

In 1982, the two owners opened another Star Magic in New York City, then brought in a new partner, Daniel Larocca. A third store, also in New York, was launched, and business was booming. But in 1986, Larocca died of cancer. His death threw Hanfling and Moreau off center both emotionally and financially.

"He [Larocca] was in charge of bookkeeping, and did a very good job of it," said Hanfling. "In 1987, we had problems with bookkeeping, so we went into the marketplace to find an investor."

That was when they met Shlomo Ayal and invited him to buy into the company. Though he would not elaborate, Hanfling said that he and Moreau were surprised to discover that by 1988 Ayal had taken over a controlling share of Star Magic's stock. "Through bad business dealings, Ayal wound up getting most of the ownership of the company," Hanfling said.

Moreau turned around and took out a second mortgage on his house to buy back some of the stock that Ayal had acquired. "Justin stuck with it in New York all those additional years until 1996," said Hanfling. "Then he moved back to Michigan, which is where he's from."

Hanfling said he knew San Francisco's Star Magic was in trouble when Ayal contacted him last October to discuss Hanfling's returning to the business.

"I worked with him from October to December to determine if it was possible for me to return to Star Magic," he said. "But I decided it wasn't viable.

"Ayal has his strengths -- he watches his pennies and is a good accountant," said Hanfling. "But he doesn't have the same feel for employee relations that Justin did."

Hanfling was also critical of the merchandise he'd seen stocked on Star Magic's shelves for the past few years. "It was the cheapest possible product at the highest possible price," he said. "People in the neighborhood noticed that it was becoming kind of junky."

But Noe Valley Merchants Association President Robert Roddick says he has always enjoyed perusing the goods at Star Magic. "I lament the fact that it's closing. It was a very unique store," he said.

Roddick doesn't believe that Star Mag-ic is another fallen domino in a trend on 24th Street for small, independently owned businesses to be replaced by chain stores.

"Do I think it's a sign of the times? No, I don't go for the doomsday approach," Roddick said. "Stores come and go on 24th and Church streets on a regular basis. It's quite a job for our association just to keep track of them."

But longtime Noe Valley resident Miriam Blaustein thinks that Star Magic may be one of a kind. "That the store was called Star Magic was apt, because it was magic," she said. "I loved watching the faces of tourists or other people who had never been there when they walked in the door. They'd just light up."

Blaustein is also a bit worried about Star Magic's replacement. "We have to avoid any more chain stores," she said. "And I just hope it isn't another food place that goes in there."

One thing it will not be is a coffee shop. According to an aide to Supervisor Sue Bierman, her office is working with the Friends of Noe Valley to pass legislation making permanent the 18-month moratorium on specialty grocery and retail coffee shops on 24th Street in Noe Valley.

She expected the legislation to go before the full board within a month or two.