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In Search of Clement Street

By Catherine Bigelow with illustrations by Jon Adams

Catherine Bigelow explores the hive of Inner Richmond activity looking for a familiar buzz.

In a blue-sky, mid-June afternoon, I donned my face mask to stroll the Inner Richmond’s charming Clement Street corridor. It was the citywide Phase 1 reopening issued by Mayor London Breed, allowing citizens to dine outdoors and enter retail businesses. The mood was cautiously optimistic. Masked neighbors shopped or sipped safely distanced sidewalk coffees as I entered Green Apple Books, the revered, 53-year-old temple of new and used tomes.

With a mandatory entry spritz of hand sanitizer, my tentative steps atop Green Apple’s well-worn, grooved floorboards were met with familiar squeaks. After four months of shelter-in-place, I felt the thrill of previously illicit behavior: touching every title imaginable on a random wander amid overflowing aisles and piles.

“Overnight, our online business went from 2 percent to 100 percent,” explains Pete Mulvihill, who’s clocked 27 years as a Green Apple employee-owner. “It didn’t break even. But it kept things from getting worse.” Mulvihill and co-owner Kevin Ryan were forced to temporarily layoff staff, but online sales and loyal customers kept the store alive.

Ess Eff authors rallied to assist this institution that’s helped launch many a local scribe: Daniel Handler joined Pulitzer Prize–winning author Andrew Sean Greer for Green Apple’s first virtual release of Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. Heartbreaking author Dave Eggers also lent a hand: $200-plus online orders were rewarded with one of his original artworks.

Back on the sidewalk among distance-aware citizens, swirled a collective unity: “OK, we got this.”

The Inner Richmond corridor is proudly dominated by mom-and-pop shops, small retailers, Irish pubs, Asian produce markets, multiethnic culinary gems and, since 2013, a three-block-long Sunday farmers market. It’s a fertile neighborhood oasis, attracting generational families, solitary studio dwellers and budget-minded college students.

This independent dynamism is carefully maintained by the Clement Street Merchants Association, founded in 1922. The largest corporate chains you’ll find are Ace Hardware and a Walgreens. Clement Street also boasts some of the City’s inaugural Legacy Businesses, inducted into a program spearheaded by San Francisco Heritage to support locally owned bars and restaurants that have served San Franciscans for more than 30 years.

However, many of the street’s bars and breweries that don’t offer food service are being pummeled by COVID-19 closures.

This November, the storied bar The Plough and the Stars, founded by Irish publican Sean Heaney, celebrates its 39th anniversary. The wood-paneled pub reigns as a friendly haven for Irish immigrants, offering neighborhood craic, free pool, set-dancing and live music, including traditional Irish sessions and bluegrass.

“I worry we’ll have to kiss future St. Patrick’s Day celebrations goodbye” says Heaney, drily.

Heaney is blessed with a supportive landlady. And his son, Eoin Hobden, who keeps the Plough community connected with his weekly Zoom pub quiz and sells Plough T-shirts to support furloughed staff.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes along Clement, good and bad. But we’re a tight-knit, diverse community of businesses.This street is really special and interconnected: We get customers in for a pint who’ll be reading their new Green Apple purchase or eating B-Star takeout,” notes Heaney. “But without more specific guidance from the City, I’m worried some of these unique places will just disappear.”

So that “we got this” optimism is tempered by a “to be determined” scenario.

TBD recently manifested at the corner of Clement Street and Fifth Avenue. Hanging in the windows of the Toy Boat Dessert Cafe is a For Sale sign — and retirement farewell from Roberta and Jesse Fink, who opened 38 years ago.

For fans who clamored there for camaraderie and Double Rainbow Ice Cream (created by Jesse’s late brother, Steven Fink and Michael Sachar), sandwich wraps or 50-cent kiddie rides atop Butterscotch, a vintage mechanical horse, it was a dagger to the heart.

Fink says COVID-19 didn’t necessarily trigger the sale. Like his neighbors, he closed March 16, figuring it would last a couple of weeks. But even with generous landlords, Fink, who turns 67 this summer, realized the flip side of lockdown was cherished time with his family.

“I had a great ride and developed treasured friendships,” explains Fink. “But as my mom, Rose, used to say, ‘Moments of decision choose themselves.’ The decision to retire came from a ‘knock on the door,’ perhaps from my mom. It was time.”

Amid waves of gentrification that have erased beloved San Francisco businesses, Clement Street has mostly escaped the corporate tsunami. It stands in contrast to Valencia Street, once brimming with funky thrift stores, boho coffee houses and family-owned South American restaurants.

Until 1850, the Richmond and Sunset districts were the property of the Republic of Mexico. The region was so uninhabitable locals dubbed it “Outside Lands,” a damp, foggy terroir dominated by sand dunes, scrub brush, dairies and squatters that lacked transportation, infrastructure and roads.

But since the 1890s, the Richmond District has been known as a welcoming, relatively affordable and soft-landing sanctuary for politically fraught or war-torn immigrants, a United Nations amalgamation of refugees seeking a new life.

Irish immigrants, devastated by the 1840s potato famine, emigrated to the City by the thousands, first to the Mission, and later, the Richmond and Sunset. White Russians fled to outer Geary Boulevard in the 1920s, escaping the brutal Bolshevik regime that rose from the ashes of the Russian Revolution.

Bavarian Jews, escaping Eastern European pogroms, were some of the district’s earliest emigres. The most famous: blue jeans king Levi Strauss, inventor of the sturdy Gold Rush–era indigo cloth pant and a noted philanthropist who, in 1850, co-founded Temple Emanu-El at Arguello Boulevard and Lake Street.

Schubert’s Bakery — founded in 1911 by German immigrant Oswald Schubert and now owned by Ralph Wenzel, a fourth-generation German-born baker — is one of Clement’s most enduring establishments, still turning out coveted St. Honoré and Swedish Princess cakes.

The Asian influx to Clement Street began in 1965 when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act — barring citizenship, home ownership and housing options outside of Chinatown — was repealed.

Crisscrossed by its numbered avenues, Clement remains a vibrant cacophony of diverse, international flavors. Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese businesses coexist cheek by jowl. Kamei Restaurant Supply is filled with kitchen doodads ranging from rice cookers to whisks. Halu, an izakaya joint on the corner of Eighth Avenue, specializes in yakitori skewers and Beatles’ decor. Wako, an elegant jewel box, serves one-star Michelin-rated sushi.

For cuisines like Chinese food and pizza, the takeout concept is a fortunate staple of their DNA. That explains continued lines at Mamahuhu, the red-hot modernist homage to classic Chinatown joints, co-founded by Ess Eff native and Michelin-star chef Brandon Jew (Mister Jiu’s), which opened just prior to lockdown.

Although the classic red-and-white checkered interior of Giorgio’s (founded in 1972) remains closed to devoted generations of soccer moms, hipsters and kids of all ages, they quickly pivoted to enhance their delivery with a no-touch, cashless, pick-up window.

However, co-owner Tony Markwick, who’s worked at this pizza palace since high school, says its sit-down service won’t resume anytime soon.

We’re making about 200 pizzas daily, but that’s a 25–35 percent drop. All the CV-19 restrictions and infrastructure changes remain unclear. And with only 21 tables, we’d be left with only five or six,” he explains. “But we definitely miss the dining room’s convivial atmosphere when it’s filled with our clients.”

Park Life, the eclectic art gallery and design-centric retail store, was an invigorating game-changer among Clement retailers when it opened almost 15 years ago.

 

Owners Jamie Alexander and Derek Song also commission limited editions created by local artists, including photographer Michael Jang and painter Clare Rojas. They just resumed gallery shows — sans the usual opening night crowds. However, with social distancing, at least six customers can shop simultaneously.

“During lockdown, we got by with online sales. Our landlord is great. And we amped up our website, something we’ve been trying to do for the last 15 years but were always too busy,” notes Alexander. “Clement Street changes slowly, but we’re seeing more young families, professionals and tech people move here. I love the Inner Richmond; it’s a bit of a bubble that doesn’t change at the same pace as the rest of San Francisco.”

April in Paris/Amblard Leather Atelier founder Béatrice Amblard, a master artisan who trained at Hermès, is finished with storefront retail.

On June 7, thieves smashed into her boutique, stealing 90 percent of her stock: $40,000 worth of hand-tooled leather bags and accessories. She’ll continue teaching her craft, but plans to sell her exquisite creations in a separate salon for appointment-only clients. Amblard is also installing a locked metal gate.

“I love this neighborhood and the merchants association is very supportive,” explains Amblard, who opened her doors 20 years ago. “I don’t feel as safe, but I’m not giving up on Clement — yet.”

If there’s an upside to this virus, Green Apple’s Mulvihill hopes people now realize the importance of patronizing neighborhood businesses.

“Friends with jobs and income security did turn out, supporting local bookstores online or takeout from their favorite restaurant,” he says. “In just a few months, this crisis catapulted the shop local movement 10 years forward.”

Mulvihill chuckles as he describes a gift from his wife: a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Bookstores Are for People.”

“Initially that phrase seemed silly. But the few times during lockdown when I was alone in Green Apple, I realized, bookstores are better with people!” emphasizes Mulvihill. “So are cafes, pubs, these public gathering places for people to go out and be in the world.”

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