When an out-of-towner wants to know where to shop in San Francisco, one easy answer is Sue Fisher King on Sacramento Street. King’s eponymous store is a favorite of locals in the know for luxurious housewares and gifts, linens, porcelain, cashmere throws, artisanal crafts, scented candles and jewelry. You’d be hard-pressed to walk into Sue Fisher King and not leave with the perfect gift for a friend — and yourself. There’s a good reason King has been in business for 40 years and was recently honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration with its Small Business Week Recognition Award 2019 for San Francisco’s District 2.
It is uplifting to walk into Sue Fisher King. The shop always has new things to delight your eye along with mainstays from such brands as Parisian home goods company Astier de Villatte, linen purveyors Porthault and Matouk, and Bridie Hall’s Alphabet Cups from London’s “killingly divine” Pentreath and Hall. Each item represents King’s passion for finer things, a well-travelled aesthetic and a soft spot for color, whimsy and exquisite craftsmanship.
King grew up in Portland, Oregon, where she worked at the department store Meier & Frank as a teenager and loved it. The first time she visited San Francisco, she vowed to live here. Soon enough, she found herself in Northern California, studying at Mills College before transferring to UC Berkeley.
King got her early training at San Francisco’s most sophisticated department store at the time, I. Magnin on Union Square, working under Jacques Neuville. “He had wonderful ideas and wonderful taste,” she recalls. “He knew all the great factories. I still buy from one of them in Veneto called Ceramica Este. They’ve been around forever. He bought from them, so I learned about that vendor from him and now the daughter runs it.”
King liked the whole idea of gifts and, following her time with I. Magnin, went to work at Trader Vic’s gift shops: “Trader Vic’s had two stores, one in Ghirardelli Square next to Señor Pico’s, and then we opened one right after I started, inside the Senor Pico’s in Beverly Hills, so I spent the next 10 years going back and forth to L.A.!”
Sue loved her time there. “Trader Vic’s (founded by Vic Bergeron Jr.) was a wonderful place to work,” she says. “I mean the greatest people in the world.” It was through her job there that King got to travel and buy from vendors in Central Mexico and Central America. She learned a lot about importing and shipping goods.
“I left Trader Vic’s to start my own thing,” she explains. “I was harking back to my Mr. Neuville days.” That meant navigating away from a business focused on selling folk art. “I was interested in all this cute European stuff that Mr. Neuville had carried.” On the hunt for a location, she settled on the space now occupied by the kitchen store March on Sacramento Street. “I found a couple of people to work for me, and off we went!”
At the beginning, business was slow but steady. “It helped being next door to the Christmas store and two doors down from Bloomers,” she recalls. “The lovely men who owned the Christmas store retired from retail and offered me their space next door.” King relocated her shop there, and it’s carried her name ever since.
When asked how she’s kept her business going strong after all these years, King replies, “You just keep sleuthing for things that are interesting. You try to find things that are unique to you.” She praises the Ma Vie à Paris, the 2016 insider’s guide to the City of Light by Astier de Villatte co-founders Benoit Aster de Villatte and Ivan Pericoli. “Everything in their book, I have to say, is quite divine because they have a take on things,” she says. “They are super sleuths and they love to eat well. They don’t skimp on anything so they have a good attitude for sleuthing. They like the good life.”
It takes a skilled supersleuth to know one. King credits her team, the women who work alongside her, for her success as well as loyal customers such as Dede Wilsey, who loves Porthault products and anything pink and green. “So many people started coming here when I started out and they still come here,” she marvels. “It is amazing!”