| February 2012
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By Tim Innes
|Yes We Have Brooms: At Peekabootique on Castro Street, Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi asked store owner Mike Stanton to recommend a broom—no, not to sweep out House Republicans but as a present for a grandchild. Photo by Beverly Tharp|
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn’t get to go shopping very often, given her congressional duties and heightened security concerns since the shooting of colleague Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson last year.
Thus her 90-minute visit to Noe Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 11, was a treat for Pelosi, whose 8th Congressional District includes the neighborhood.
The visit was initiated by Pelosi’s district office, which worked with Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, to select some stores where Pelosi could shop for gifts for her grandchildren while talking to merchants about their economic challenges. She also was stumping for President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which would offer tax benefits and other relief for small business owners.
Roddick and Debra Niemann, head of the Noe Valley Association, drew up a list for Pelosi aide Nicole Rivera, who picked 10 shops for her boss to visit. In the end, Pelosi stopped by seven of them, from Peekabootique on Castro Street to Just for Fun on 24th. Security sweeps were done at all the stores, and merchants, as well as Roddick and Niemann, had to undergo background checks.
Accompanied by a large security detail, her aides, Supervisor Scott Wiener, Niemann—Roddick was ill and missed the tour—and several members of the press, Pelosi quizzed merchants about their businesses as she perused their wares.
While declaring that business was generally good, merchants raised issues they hoped Congress and the president would address. Topping the agenda: leveling the playing field for small businesses vis-ˆ-vis giant retailers, such as Walmart and Amazon; spurring lending to small entrepreneurs; making it easier for mom-and-pop businesses to comply with accessibility rules; and improving consumer confidence and purchasing power.
‘Showrooms for Amazon’
The first stop on Pelosi’s stroll was Peekabootique, where, at his customer’s request, shop owner Mike Stanton showed off his assortment of toy brooms. (Pelosi bought one.) In response to more serious questions, Stanton urged Pelosi to back legislation requiring Internet retailers to collect state sales tax from customers, whether or not the retailers have a physical presence in the state.
“Here in California, online sellers like Amazon have a nearly 10 percent built-in advantage over brick-and-mortar stores like this. Maybe that advantage was justified when online sellers were in their infancy, but that’s no longer the case,” Stanton said later in an interview.
He also lamented the smart-phone apps that enable a shopper to compare the price of an item in his store with that listed by a big-box store or Internet retailer. “Brick-and-mortar stores like this end up being showrooms for Amazon.”
Still, Stanton said, “we had a really good year, though not a stupendous one.” He said Peekabootique remained competitive by stocking unique, colorful merchandise and employing “a great staff.”
Where Are the Loans?
Next up was Subs Inc., where owner Rami Balat implored Pelosi to press for “more access to funding to help businesses grow” as he scooped chocolate ice cream into a sugar cone for his guest. The congresswoman later stopped in at Noe Valley Deli, which is owned by Balat’s parents, Karim and Saheer Balat. Upon hearing that Karim was from the West Bank city of Ramallah, Pelosi replied that she’d been there on her many travels.
Pelosi’s third stop was Gallery of Jewels, where she pored over cases displaying rings, necklaces, and other items crafted by local artisans with owner Bill Hoover. While lamenting the difficulty small businesses are having obtaining credit—”Lending institutions are supposed to lend money,” Hoover said—he praised Pelosi’s “track record in working with small businesses.”
Hoover also thanked the congresswoman for pushing for an extension of payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. “Anything that puts more money in people’s pockets is good for business,” he said later in an interview.
Despite pleas from her staff to stay on schedule, Pelosi lingered an extra 15 minutes in the store. “I don’t get to go shopping very often,” she told Hoover.
Pelosi continued down 24th Street to Chocolate Covered, where she sampled chocolate. “She prefers dark,” noted proprietor Jack Epstein.
Asked about his business needs, Epstein replied, “More customers,” whereupon Pelosi purchased several chocolate bars and two of his signature street-sign tins. “I had to use a ladder to get the Presidio Terrace tins,” he recalled. “They were high up on the wall. We don’t sell a lot of those.”
Bowling for Customers
Next, the entourage stopped at When Modern Was, a vintage furniture store. Owner Dona Taylor said she told Pelosi that the secret to her success—”my business is doing fabulous”—is cultivating and championing local artists.
The last stop on the tour was Just for Fun, where co-owner David Eiland helped Pelosi pick out books and stickers for her grandchildren. In an interview following the visit, Eiland said he told the congresswoman that what 24th Street needs most is a growing economy.
“Last year was better than the previous year. We had a nice bump and it feels nice to finally be moving in the right direction,” he said. “But the last few years have left us all with a great deal of debt. My partner and I are in a quandary. We need a new computer system and would like to re-carpet and repaint the store. But that would mean taking on new debt when we should be paying down debt.
“What we need most are people spending money,” he continued. “But it’s dead right now [a sunny day in mid-January]. I could go outside and roll a bowling ball down the sidewalk and not hit anyone.”
A ‘Vibrant’ Neighborhood
After leaving the store, Pelosi told reporters gathered outside that she came to talk with merchants in Noe Valley because of its “national reputation” as “a very vibrant, dynamic neighborhood.
“I have said all day that there is nothing more optimistic than starting a business,” she continued. “It takes real courage and optimism about the future.… That kind of entrepreneurial spirit is…central to the growth of our economy.”
Merchants were atwitter after Pelosi left, describing her as “gracious,” “attentive,” and “sincerely interested” in their concerns. “She’s a very easy person to talk to,” said Stanton. “We had a blast.”
Added Rami Balat: “It was the highlight of 2012.”
Still, despite her political connections, merchants said they knew Pelosi couldn’t address all of their issues, such as the city’s payroll tax, which they claim is a disincentive to hiring, and costly parking tickets, which they believe discourage people from coming to Noe Valley to shop or have a meal.
“City Hall thinks it can just squeeze more money out of small business,” said Rami Balat. “Instead, they should be encouraging us. We’re the biggest creator of jobs.”
Beverly Tharp and Sally Smith contributed to this story.