SAN FRANCISCO — Upper Grant Street in this city’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood is a gritty but fashionable stretch of contrasts where a shopper can buy a $195 Rebecca Taylor silk tunic or get a $7 haircut.
The dozen fashion merchants along five commercial blocks, whose merchandise ranges from high-end designer jeans to handmade crocheted shrugs, are also part of a protected enclave of small businesses.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 2 in March to ban retailers with more than 11 stores — the number was a compromise — from locating in the neighborhood. Celebrities such as Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits and Sean Penn have been seen shopping on Upper Grant. Will Smith was recently in the area filming a movie, “Pursuit of Happyness,” a rags-to-riches true story about a former homeless man here.
“[Upper Grant is] like a charming little street in Europe,” said Maggie Crystal, co-owner of Alla Prima, a fine lingerie store on Upper Grant, where a Verde Veronica bra costs $75.
North Beach, with its strip clubs and single-room occupancy hotels, still has a bit of a wild Barbary Coast edge left from the Gold Rush days. The neighborhood is San Francisco’s Little Italy, the place that spawned Joe DiMaggio and where Italian is spoken in cafes. It is also the locale of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s famed City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue, where he and other beat-generation poets converged in the Fifties. Down the street is Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, which sits atop Café Niebaum-Coppola.
Protecting North Beach from chain stores was the second “no-formula retail” ordinance to be approved by the Board of Supervisors. The first was last year for the Symphony Hall-area shopping district on Hayes Street.
Neither ordinance was intended to counter a chain retailer’s immediate plans to locate in either neighborhood, which were already chain store free. The bans were preemptive strikes in this city of 795,000 that is known for fiercely protecting a myriad of distinct neighborhoods from commercial encroachment.
For example, The Home Depot is struggling over building a store in the Bayview community in southern San Francisco. Urban Outfitters still hasn’t overcome local objections to a store in the Haight Ashbury district, where Gap and Ben & Jerry’s have succeeded in opening units.
“We’re pretty confident that, if we maintain the environment for small business, it will thrive,” said David Owen, legislative aide for Aaron Peskin, the Board of Supervisors president and author of the North Beach ordinance.
To Sean Elsbernd, one of two lawmakers to vote against the chain store bans, such prohibitions constitute economic folly and fear mongering.
“We’re trying to get this city up and running,” said Elsbernd’s legislative aide, Olivia Scanlon. “It’s on the rebound, but we should not be turning away businesses.”
By keeping chain stores out, “we wanted to make sure to maintain the neighborhood’s vibe,” said Kate Logan, who opened a boutique, Ooma, on Upper Grant in 2002 after losing her Web site production job in the dot-com bust that rocked the city’s economy the previous year. In her colorfully painted store of about 1,000 square feet, Logan sells hip women’s skirts and tops, high heels and wide, colorful headbands, and has a flower stand full of sporty children’s clothing, including a $110 silk sleeveless mesh top from local design firm Weston Wear.
Besides helping locals to sidestep competition, the no-chain store ordinance also is seen in North Beach as helping to avoid higher rents that neighborhood merchants fear would be triggered by corporations entering the area.
In a city where the cost of living is high, merchants said Upper Grant rents are an affordable $2 to $8 a square foot, rarely seen. For example, commercial space in the neighboring financial district is about $28 a square foot, according to real estate surveys.
“I worry rent will increase,” said self-taught designer and tailor Al Ribaya, whose Upper Grant store sells his vintage-inspired women’s and men’s coats and suits and Marilyn Monroe-inspired satin $189 halter dresses, produced behind the counter by three to four seamstresses. Ribaya started this design and manufacturing wholesale and retail business after closing a longtime vintage clothing store in Haight Ashbury in the late Nineties after his monthly rent jumped to $12,000 from $800.
To a large extent, Upper Grant merchants said their lower rents are possible because of the combined dampening effects of slow turnover among building owners, hard-to-fill retail spaces of less than 1,000 square feet and being tucked away from North Beach’s main tourist drag. Galleries, antique stores, corner bars, a jazz club, a manicure parlor, a bakery and coin-operated laundry have joined boutiques in finding an Upper Grant niche.
As for business, “it goes in cycles. It’s up right now,” said Howard Gee, co-owner of AB Fits, with a wide selection of women’s and men’s jeans and casual designer sportswear.
To Gee’s delight, a neighbor’s laundry line is prominently seen through the store’s back window.
“It gives a feeling of an old-world era,” said Gee, who opened on Upper Grant in 1997 and last year took the big step to start a second store in the busy Union Square shopping area, where he said there are no stores like his offering many designer labels. “There are only single-label stores,” Gee said. Ironically, his new neighbors are chain fashion retailers such as San Francisco-based Banana Republic’s flagship.
Helping to put brakes on real estate speculation, Francis Ford Coppola might be indirectly helping to keep North Beach from being developed. He wants to maintain the neighborhood’s estimated 50 single-room occupancy hotels for the marginally employed.
By many accounts, there’s mounting real estate price pressure from condo conversions and proximity to the posh Telegraph Hill area, where it’s difficult to find a house for less than $2 million.
“That’s a common dilemma San Francisco-wide,” said Jimmy Shein, who co-owns Shein & Shein, a map and framing store on Upper Grant, and is president of the street’s merchants’ association. “Real estate pressure here is very intense.”