Noe Valley Voice October 2006

Rumors Behind the News

By Mazook

PLEASE REWIND: First Choice is no longer a choice for Noe Valley's video viewers. The store's DVDs and tapes are not for rent anymore. Instead, everything is for sale, including the fixtures, furnishings, and movie posters.

Noe Valley's second oldest video arcade, located on the corner of 24th and Church, stopped renting videos in mid-September and hired a liquidation company to sell the collection. Manager Jim Leal and employees Robert, Lisa, Mike, Victor, and John left a poignant note on the window telling customers that "after 24 years, we are saying goodbye to all the wonderful friends we've made and all the babies we've seen grow up and have babies of their own."

Those babies and their parents are wistful, too (see Letters to the Editor, page 8).

"I had one lady come in here last week," says Shane Matheny, who is representing Liquid Systems, LLC, the Texas liquidation company, "who looked up at the liquidation signs, looked at me, and started to cry. We've just had so many people come in here and tell us how sad they are about this video store closing."

As you Noe Valley history buffs know, the store first opened in 1982 as National Video, then later became West Coast Video, and then turned into First Choice Video about three years ago. The local franchise was owned by Tony D'Alessandro, who now lives in Nevada.

A formal press release, issued for the owner by Liquid Systems on Sept. 25, is titled "Noe Valley's Last Picture Show." It states that the reasons for closing the store "are many, but include: the proliferation of large corporate chains, piracy and illegal downloads, rising real estate costs, and alternative methods of delivery of movies." Adds Matheny, "The so-called big-box retailers..., combined with the online NetFlix movie rental services, have seized such a large and growing market share over movie rentals and sales that it is virtually impossible for small independent retailers to compete."

Matheny, who liquidated another of D'Alessandro's video stores three years ago across the Bay in El Cerrito, says that everything will be sold by December and the keys to the 24th Street premises will be turned over to the landlord, "who has been a great help."

Do you remember what was on that corner before National Video opened? Amazingly, co-liquidator John Groom, who is from Dallas, knew the answer. However, he didn't know the exact name of the business. Do you? The answer is on the next page, but don't look now.

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STILL PLAYING: Video Wave was opened on Castro Street above Jersey in 1980 by Alexander Gardener and his wife Gardenia, who sold it only last year to Gwen Sanderson and her partner Colin Hutton. The movie rental shop seems as busy as ever, and Sanderson and Hutton say their long-standing business has lived up to their expectations.

"We are staying competitive. We have a list of 35,000 members we've accumulated over the years, and continue to have a viable clientele of regulars who come in asking for advice on what to see," says Sanderson, "so I am very optimistic. We are focusing on what the neighborhood likes and have a lot of independent and foreign film titles, many kid and family movies and TV series, as well as hard-to-find titles."

The store is currently renting children's and family movies at the rate of five nights for a dollar. "Our most popular, off-beat documentary right now is Crossing the Bridge: The Sounds of Istanbul, produced by a British musician, Fatih Akin. It is quite powerful."

By the way, for all you Video Wave devotees, Sanderson says the store is creating a computer data base and will be going off the old carbon copy method of paperwork soon.

Meanwhile, over at Noe Valley Video on 24th near Sanchez, owners Marlene and Brian Dunleavy say they don't feel threatened either. The store's been loaning tapes and disks for eight years.

"We are doing well here and have a very loyal customer base. We just have to evolve with the industry and stay in touch with what our neighborhood wants to see," says Marlene, "although I was really kind of sad when I heard First Choice was closing. That was our own regular video source, before we opened up here."

Marlene says people in Noe Valley talk to one another and to her and Brian and often help create a buzz about a film. "For example, we recently received a request for a video documentary about 9/11 called Loose Change. Then we heard that it was one of Google's Top 10 and that it was a topic of conversation among some of the folks at the Music in the Park gala at Noe Courts. So we ordered it and hopefully we will have four DVDs available for the neighborhood."

Before we leave videodom, another quiz question: Do you know the name of Downtown Noe Valley's first video rental store, opened circa 1978? That answer is on the next page, too.

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LOCAL BOOKINGS: Whodunit readers will be happy to know that famous mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series, will appear at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (4175 24th, just below Diamond) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13. Actually, mystery fans will get a double scoop that night--Mill Valley writer Tony Broadbent is also scheduled to appear. Hopefully, he will do a reading from his new book, Spectres in the Smoke, which won a prize for best historical mystery novel at Left Coast Crime in the U.K.

For you fans of Arcadia Publishing's historic photo books about San Francisco neighborhoods (and other neighborhoods across the country), Bernadette Hooper's San Francisco's Mission District has just been released. Hooper is a third-generation San Franciscan and the fourth generation of her family to live in the same Mission District home.

Arcadia's book about Noe Valley has been a bestseller and is now in its fourth printing. It was written by our own Noe Valley archivist, Bill Yenne, who has been on a book tour in the Northwest, celebrating his books about Lewis and Clark, Glacier National Park, and Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West.

Yenne will be in town for a signing of his very popular coffee-table book San Francisco: Then and Now on Oct. 28 at 1 p.m., at the San Francisco Costco on 10th Street.

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TRADING PLACES are longtime Downtown Noe Valley merchants Jack Epstein and Marilyn Sitkoff, who first opened up a store on the corner of 25th and Sanchez in 1983 called Ocean Front Walkers. They designed, hand-stitched, and then sold beach-style clothes to locals. They wound up on 24th Street next to Hopwell's Restaurant (now Le Zinc) three years later and now sell fun pajamas, socks, and boxer shorts.

Then 12 years ago, Epstein took over a small space one block down, near Streetlight Records, and opened up Chocolate Covered, which features chocolate candies and candy boxes. Epstein designs and produces the boxes with photographic images transferred directly onto the box. "It's called Cyanotype and it's a process that dates back to 1842. You make a photo paper negative and the images are printed and then transferred to the tin or wood box," he explains.

Currently, Epstein is taking pictures of street signs in Noe Valley and around the city, as well as landmarks, historic sights, and local schools. His candy and boxes have become so popular that "I need more space, so Marilyn and I are going to trade stores so I can devote more shelf space to display the various boxes," Epstein says.

Just to be clear: This means Chocolate Covered will go up the hill (next to Le Zinc) and Ocean Front Walkers will come down (next to Streetlight).

In other Downtown Noe Valley news, rumors that Noe's Bar at 24th and Church has been sold are not true. What is true is that an ABC notice has been posted on the door, but the sign is there only because owner Wayne Basso is incorporating.

Rumors be true that the General Nutrition Center vitamin-supplement outlet on 24th Street has closed. According to neighboring merchants, the shutdown was accomplished in about two days. No liquidation sales there.

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SAD FAREWELLS: We will all miss Noe Valleyan Sameer "Sam" Kawas, who passed away last month. Sam took over Herb's Fine Foods in 1973, and continued the café's long tradition as Noe Valley's premier greasy spoon (founded in 1943). One of my first Rumors items in 1981 was a list of tips Sam shared from Herb's suggestion box. My favorite was: "Put more jus in the roast beef au jus."

The family says Sam's wife Rita will keep things going.

Sam's brother Fuad "Fred" Kawas passed away earlier this year, in April. Fred took over Hopwell's Restaurant in 1976 and ran it until April 2001. The site is now home to Le Zinc.

"He enjoyed this neighborhood so much," says Fred's wife Hydi, "and after he retired, he would enjoy going back and seeing the fig tree and lemon tree he planted in the back yard."

The neighborhood was also saddened to learn that horseracing legend Lost in the Fog, ill with cancer, had to be euthanized Sept. 17. Owner Harry Aleo, of Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street, says the 4-year-old colt was cremated and his ashes will be buried in a special spot at Golden Gate Fields. Look for the release this winter of a documentary about Lost in the Fog, produced by local filmmaker John Corey.

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RE-MODEL CITIZENS: Construction began Sept. 5 on a $6.8 million renovation project at Upper Noe Recreation Center on Day Street. The facelift will take more than a year to finish (estimated completion: spring of '08), according to city project director Keith Kawamura. The recreation center, gym, and children's play area will all be revamped and reramped. "The dog area will remain open, however, until the spring of 2007," says Kawamura, "when it will be closed so we can redo the surface, add lighting, and extend the fences."

An oversight committee has been formed by some local residents to keep an eye on the project, as well as on the fate of the Noe Valley Library, which is under construction on Jersey Street.

Mark your calendars for Nov. 16 and Dec. 12, when community meetings are being scheduled by the Noe Valley Association (a.k.a. Community Benefits District), to explore long-term planning ideas for Downtown Noe Valley. The meetings will be held at St. Philip's Community Hall from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

According to NVA director Debra Niemann, "we are calling it an urban village plan and seeking input from community members. It will be drawn up by a group called Urban Ecology, which is a non-profit group that can give us ideas on the best practices for 'walkable streets.'" The meetings will be led by Urban Ecology's Dan Neuwirth, a streetscape designer who is also a Noe Valley resident.

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THE LAST LAUGH CAFE on Dolores near Valley is quite busy these days since Bill and Kristen Schwartz took over the spot and began serving food and beverages morning, noon, and night (6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Local art adorns the walls, and a dictionary sits in the front window for the use of readers and writers. The place recently got its beer and wine license.

On Sept. 30 the café started a music program, with acoustic groups performing on Saturday afternoons once a month. The inaugural concert featured the Squirrelly String Band, consisting of a washtub bass, banjo, fiddle, and guitar. The band will be doing an encore presentation on Oct. 21.

You might know Bill Schwartz from his pre-café life as a drummer for the punk rock group Those Darn Accordion Kids.

You had the last laugh if you remembered that Mercury Pharmacy was the store that occupied the southeast corner of 24th and Church before National Video. And our first downtown video store was called Video Uno. It was on the south side of 24th Street near Sanchez, where the French Tulip now blooms.

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That's all, folks.