Noe Valley Voice February 2010

David Eiland says he's blended 98 percent of the art supplies from the now-closed Artsake into Just for Fun, the gift store he co-owns on 24th Street near Noe.
Photo by Pamela Gerard

Merchants Greet New Year with Optimism

By Tim Innes

While they're not quite ready to sing "Let the Good Times Roll," many Noe Valley merchants are starting 2010 with a spring in their step, thanks to strong December sales and a sense that loyal customers have their back.

"The holiday season was good,'' said Anna Jatta, owner of the Ark, a toy store at 24th and Vicksburg streets. "The economy has stabilized. People are not as fearful."

Jatta attributed the store's success to a "very supportive neighborhood" that appreciates toys that stir the imagination--castles, pirate ships, and dollhouses--instead of heavily marketed gadgets like robotic hamsters.

Ladybug Ladybug's Rebecca Heller agreed with Jatta's assessment. "Things are definitely picking up. There's less anxiety, less stress."

She said that after a "touch-and-go" period earlier in the year, business at the gift shop perked up. "It seems to be carrying over to 2010,'' she said.

Heller said the mid-November opening of La Boulange bakery and cafe at 24th and Sanchez streets has been a boon to b usinesses on the block, particularly on weekdays. That contrasted with the late-September arrival of Whole Foods Market, which increased foot traffic west of Sanchez, but not to the east, she said.

"It's kid-friendly,'' she said of La Boulange, which draws large numbers of stroller-pushing parents and nannies, who often stop by to check out Ladybug's toy and craft offerings after lunch.

An instant hit, La Boulange has drawn crowds since it opened in the space previously occupied by Noe Valley Pizza. At noon on a recent weekday, nearly every table was occupied by diners enjoying such varied fare as coffee and pastries, oatmeal, salads, soup, and sandwiches.

"There's a nice lunch rush--lots of moms with strollers," said manager Anna Kelly. And weekends have been busier than expected."

Parents Being Practical

Moms with strollers were also seen in large numbers at Small Frys and Peekabootique, stores catering to the needs of infants and small children near the western end of the 2 4th Street business corridor.

Owner Carol Yenne said Small Frys posted double-digit sales gains in December compared with a year earlier, though annual sales trailed those of 2008. Practical products--strollers, car-seat covers, diaper bags--sold briskly, as did shoes, pajamas, and jackets. Dresses from Tea, a San Francisco children's clothing label, were also in demand. "We're trying to be optimistic,'' she said.

Around the corner on Castro, Peekabootique co-owner Michele Furlong said bargain-hunters homed in on toys costing less than $20. "High price-point items just didn't sell. We've had to rethink our approach,'' she said.

Practical gifts--hats, coats, shoes, socks, tights, and underwear--sold well, as did boys' used clothing, Furlong said. "We're having trouble keeping used stuff in stock."

Although last year's sales were little changed from 2008, Furlong said she thinks "we've hit the hardest patch. People are more optimistic. And the baby boom we're experiencing will be good for business.''< P ALIGN="CENTER">Find Art in Just for Fun

Back on 24th Street, the holidays were bittersweet for David Eiland and Robert Ramsey, who closed Artsake, their six-year-old art supply store opposite Whole Foods, in early January.

"It was all about cutting costs," said Eiland, who with Ramsey also owns Just for Fun, a card, stationery, and gift shop on the same block. He said they found room for 98 percent of Artsake's wares at Just for Fun, dropping only a high-end line of acrylic paints that never sold well.

Closing Artsake reduces overhead by $5,800 a month--money that can be plowed into the business or used to reduce debt. In addition, at Just for Fun art supplies can be displayed in street-level windows, which was not possible in the old location.

Eiland said fourth-quarter merchandise sales were "pleasantly robust," though total revenue was down 1.2 percent due to a drop in custom printing orders from corporate clients.

"January is off to a good start," he continued. "I'm jazzed for 2010."

Duncan's Den and D.O.A.

Two blocks to the west, near Diamond, San Francisco Mystery Bookstore owner Diane Kudisch said that after a slow fall, business picked up from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Sales benefited from the addition of a children's section she calls Duncan's Den after her dog Duncan, a basset-pointer mix. "A girl just bought three Nancy Drew mysteries."

To help keep the momentum going, Kudisch commissioned a TV commercial that pays homage to the 1950 film-noir classic D.O.A., which is set in San Francisco. The ad is running on such cable channels as A&E and TLC.

The store also sports a bright new crimson awning proclaiming it to be "The Oldest Mystery Bookstore in the U.S.A."

Meanwhile, the oldest butcher shop in San Francisco, the 120-year-old Drewes Bros. Meats, keeps rolling along. After a dizzying drop in sales that coincided with the Whole Foods opening, business bounced back in November and December.

"The holidays were fine,'' said Josh Epp le, who owns the venerable Church Street shop. "We had plenty of orders. January is off to a good start, but it will take a month or so to tell if October was an aberration."

Epple said he is considering adding prepared foods to attract hungry commuters embarking from the J-Church streetcar in front of the shop.

"We're going to keep on," he declared. "The community has been very supportive. We made it through the 1906 quake and two world wars. We'll get through this."

Both merchants and residents share an affection for La Boulange. The cozy bakery/cafe has drawn crowds to 24th Street from the first day it opened in November.
Photo by Pamela Gerard