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Surviving the Bust:
Local Merchants Await Holiday Shopping Season
By Mariva H. Aviram
Dozens of live crickets jumped up and down in the inflated plastic bag, like confused toddlers bouncing inside the medieval-castle ride at the St. Philip's Carnival. "Yes, that's all I need today," a heavily pierced gentleman, shouldering a sleek white parrot with pale blue eyes, said about the crickets--fresh food for a reptilian pet at home. Steve Tang rang up the $2 order and sent the customer, his parrot, and the crickets on their way. Then he went back to cleaning the fish tanks.
Tang is the owner of Tropical Island Pet Shop, on 24th near Diamond, which sells fish and reptiles, as well as pet equipment and supplies. During the '90s economic boom, Tang had many regular customers, and even a few big spenders. One customer, "Bob," spent $1,000 to $2,000 per month, which translated to solid profits for Tang.
But in the past two years, especially since Sept. 11, Tang has watched anxiously as sales dwindled. He has seen a number of his customers lose their jobs and consequently their ability to patronize his pet shop--including Bob, who moved to Lake Tahoe to escape San Francisco's sky-high housing costs.
Tang has tried advertising promotions, such as in the S.F. Weekly and the monthly Val-Pak coupons, but found that 9 out of 10 customers walk in because of word-of-mouth referrals. "I'm definitely at the 'concerned' stage," he says glumly, but he hasn't given up hope yet. He believes that once pet owners become aware that he'll match or beat the prices of his competitors, they are likely to patronize his shop.
A number of upscale restaurants and liquor shops in Noe Valley are also hurting because of the economic slowdown.
"It's hard to have a restaurant open with no people in it," laments Diego Ragazzo, owner of Noi Food and Wine on 24th near Castro. Ragazzo says he is most proud of the restaurant's $15 veal saltimbocca dish, but these days he is considering serving lower-priced pasta dishes and appetizers to increase business. He also may bring back Noi's "half-off" evenings, which were successful in July and September.
Walid Masoud, owner of Urban Cellars on 24th near Church, is another merchant who is feeling the pinch. "Let's put it this way," he says. "The year 2000 was a very good year. Last year dropped. This year dropped even more."
Masoud thinks the biggest drop correlated with the Enron and WorldCom scandals in July. He's not sure, though, if the local economy has hit bottom. "Typically, I'm an optimistic guy, but I honestly don't see it coming to an end yet."
To attract more customers, Masoud might resort to using his store marquee, which traditionally features jokes and lighthearted homilies, to display wine specials. But Masoud's sense of humor is important to him, so he says he'll return the marquee to fun one-liners once business improves.
Marjory Panetti sells an impressive array of one-of-a-kind gifts and contemporary crafts in her namesake store located in the busiest block of 24th Street, between Sanchez and Noe. But even Panetti's has had a drop in sales since the end of the dot-com boom.
"It's definitely been down in the last year or two," says Panetti. "Last year, 9/11 was the thing that crashed everything. It wasn't good before that, but after 9/11, it really seemed to affect the sales."
Like other longtime Noe Valley merchants, Panetti has also witnessed an exodus from the neighborhood because of lost jobs. In fact, she ended up hiring someone who'd been "downsized from a nice dot-com job."
Still, Panetti is cautiously optimistic about upcoming holiday sales. "We can look forward to a little better holiday season," she says.
To bring in holiday shoppers, Panetti is stocking up on items she believes resonate with the tone of the times. "People have less disposable income, and they're going to each others' houses instead of spending a lot of money," she says, "so I'm concentrating on things that make wonderful hostess gifts, to make the home more appealing, more party-like."
Even if the Bay Areawide recession drags on into next year, however, it doesn't mean the neighborhood is going down with it. Noe Valley is a strong community with a solid economy of its own, and it's survived several past recessions.
Panetti is quick to acknowledge her biggest source of support: Noe Valley residents. "People who own homes, the permanent residents, are wonderfully loyal and supportive," she says.
Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association President Kathy Zucchi agrees. "Noe Valley is an insular community. People who live here like to do business here," says Zucchi, who runs a branch of Edward Jones Investments on Diamond Street.
Many local merchants also say they are still earning enough to stay afloat and, if they have to, finding new ways to cut costs. Others are confident that their unique merchandise or special services will help them weather the economic storm.
Diane Kudisch, who owns the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, at 24th Street near Diamond, a 27-year neighborhood institution, is running a "T.G.I.A.F." ("Thank God It's Almost Friday") promotion every Thursday (buy two paperbacks and get a third half-off). She also plans to sell hardbacks for 20 percent off after Thanksgiving. In addition, Kudisch will continue the shop's book signings, reading groups, and other events for mystery book lovers. (The neighborhood is especially invited to come meet local authors and eat holiday food at the store's Open House on Saturday, Dec. 14, starting at 1 p.m.)
Video Wave of Noe Valley, at Castro near 25th, is another store that relies on loyal customers and neighborhood support. Owner Alexander Gardener offers free popcorn and encourages lively conversation among patrons browsing the video and DVD collection. "It's like a coffee shop without the coffee," he says.
Still other businesses thrive by banking on the "lipstick sales factor." That is, they sell a lot of little things instead of relying on big-ticket items.
For example, the clothing store Ambiance, on 24th Street near Noe, which manager Pamela Gamble calls "Sweaters R Us," sells youthful and trendy outfits and trinkets, sometimes for as little as $10 or $15. Gamble suggests that bargain hunters check the weekly markdowns and once-a-month 20-percent-off weekends and join the mailing list to receive regular discount coupons.
Parents appreciate the small wooden toys and hand puppets found in the Ark, at 24th and Vicksburg, which is having a sale on Thomas the Tank toys in November and December. Fragrance aficionados can find sweet-smelling stocking stuffers at a 20-percent-off sale Nov. 1 to 3 at Common Scents, on 24th near Sanchez.
And neighborhood merchants that specialize in used clothing are also holding their own. Peek-a-Bootique, at Castro near 24th, won this year's Best of the Bay award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian for its constantly revolving inventory of secondhand children's clothes. Owner Paul Morgan attributes the store's success to its uniqueness and location, right next to a major stop for the 24-Divisadero bus. "People who would otherwise not set foot in Noe Valley see this store from the bus, and they come in," he says.
A few local businesses are not just bringing in a steady stream of customers. They can barely keep up with demand for their services.
Dan Gamaldi, who runs the venerable Cradle of the Sun stained-glass shop at 24th and Vicksburg, says he has a three- to four-month waiting list for his classes, which he's increased to five days per week to meet the demand. "People like doing stained-glass," Gamaldi explains. "There's a lot of camaraderie in the classes, and the classes get people out of the house, where they don't have to deal with the kids, and into a friendly class environment. It forces them to do stained-glass instead of sitting at home, watching TV."
In addition, Cradle of the Sun is busy selling finished pieces, tools, and supplies, and instructional books and videos. Gamaldi's own instructional video has been released this month, in time for gift shopping for aspiring stained-glass artists.
Another thriving enterprise is Castro Computer Services, on Castro near 24th. Owner Raj Walia reports that business may even be better due to the economic downturn, because computer users are getting their computers repaired instead of buying new ones.
And like other solid Noe Valley businesses, Walia offers friendly customer service.
On a recent Tuesday, Walia's pet bird, a blue-and-gold macaw named "Athena," sat on his shoulder, occasionally knocking off his spectacles, while Walia responded to questions from customers and dispensed advice about Internet service providers, digital cameras, and scanners. Athena, who sometimes mimics the "Hi!" and "Hello!" of store visitors, is guaranteed to bring in the crowds. Nevertheless, Walia is hedging his bets this holiday season: he will be giving away free 2003 calendars, starting Dec. 1.