I am not much of a shopper, but I like a good secondhand store. I can lose myself for hours sifting through the artifacts (large and small) of times gone by, probably because it reminds me more of archeology than of shopping. And it feels good to re-imagine yesterday's throw-away as a treasure today.
If you are in search of a bargain, then spend your Sundays at the Alemany Flea Market, where mountains of "collectibles" are on offer. As with all such bazaars, the relics you uncover there will have a direct relationship to the amount of energy you put into the dig. Similarly, the Mission district's beloved Thrift Town and Community Thrift, located within a block of one another just off 17th Street, will also yield treasures to committed excavation.
The purveyors at the stores on this list have already done some of the digging for you, and as a result they are a little pricier than the larger emporiums. But half the fun is in the display. Many combine new, locally made items with interesting vintage ones. I have found the absolute perfect gift for many of my more finicky friends at just about every location on this list. Happy digging.
3469 18th St., San Francisco
Located just off Valencia, The Apartment has been in the Mission district (in one form or another) since 2001. What sets owners Lino and Lann apart is not just their sensibility, which is a little bit shabby chic, but also their warmth and sense of humor, which is on display in the store in more ways than one. What's great about a good rummage store is the wit used in putting the space together. Lino and Lann have a playfulness that shows both in the things they collect and how they display them. When asked what kinds of items they look for, Lino says, "Functional, with character and style." And quickly adds that he and Lann are proud to have helped furnish much of the neighborhood with their finds over the years. The Apartment is that kind of place.
1522 Grant Ave., San Francisco
The term "curiosity shop" best describes Aria, which has been tucked at the end of Grant Street, not too far below Coit Tower since 1995. Stepping into the shop is like entering another era, there is a particular concentration on a certain kind of sculpture and texture that ineffably reflects the old-world charm of the shop's North Beach neighborhood. Owner Bill Haskell travels to Europe a couple of times each year to replenish the stocks of biological and zoological maps, letterpress blocks, busts, dolls, keys and all number of other mysterious marvels that populate the shop. Atlas Obscura describes this place better than I ever could, even though it is one of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco: "Enchanting in its eccentricity, the walls are filled with strange and beautiful pieces that can easily transport one to Parisian street markets past, the atmosphere heady with the music of Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, and Serge Gainsbourg."
Big Daddy's Antiques
1550 17th St., San Francisco
Big Daddy's owner Shane Brown started his career selling items at various California flea markets (including Alameda) years ago. As his interests and collection expanded, he decided to open a store in Los Angeles, which is an important detail when describing what goes on at Big Daddy's. With additional locations in Aspen, CO and in San Francisco at the bottom of Potrero Hill, the company thinks big. Aimed at "interior designers, set decorators, landscape architects, photographers, event planners, and enthusiastic art & design lovers," much of what you encounter at Big Daddy's looks like something you might find on the set of a Hollywood film or in the pages of a magazine. It's like Restoration Hardware, only with imagination. You can find genuine antique collectibles in the store's old, barn-like, San Francisco location alongside newly fabricated mash-ups of interesting finds re-purposed and made new. Big Daddy's employs a whole team of welders, word-workers and design professionals to remake many of the oddball elements they collect into exciting pieces of usable sculpture. Prices are steep, but pretty much everything they make is jumbo-sized, so none of it would fit into my little studio apartment anyway. I go to Big Daddy's to witness the play of imagination and craftsmanship.
1345 18th St., San Francisco
Collage has been on Potrero Hill for 24 years, but was taken over three years ago by new owner Mary Petrin. What hasn't changed is the store's collection of letters, scavenged from theater marquees and business signs -- there were letters culled from a defunct Office Max for sale when I was there. Petrin has instituted a new visual art program, which displays the work of local artists on one wall of the tiny space, and has begun to concentrate more on jewelry (of the steampunk/collage variety). During my visit, she was featuring the work of Jake Wrench -- you gotta love that name -- who restores old electronics, including clocks, flashlights, etc.
393 Valencia St., San Francisco
Walking into Farnsworth, which is just off Valencia, is like allowing your eyes a chance to rest. The atmosphere is calming; the decor is smooth. Owner Jeff Farnsworth, who has been at this location for 8 years, prefers designs from the early 1950s, "hard-edge, Bauhaus-derived" mostly furniture. Specializing in famous mid-20th-century designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Max Gottschalk and Finn Juhl, Farnsworth has a nice collection of smaller things on display as well, including beautiful modernist abstract sculptures, metal bookends, and limited-run, high-end design lamps (there was one shaped like a pill that filled me with desire).
Bonhomie, Molte Cose, Belle Cose
2036 - 2044 Polk St., San Francisco
Teresa Nittolo opened Molte Cose (Many Things) 25 years ago. Ten years later, a second space opened, which she called Belle Cose (Beautiful Things) and then shortly thereafter she expanded into a third in a trio of what looks like 1930s storefronts on Polk Street near Broadway. Today, the third space is inhabited by Bonhomie, which is run by Nittolo's former employee Liest Sutherland, but the three stores flow into one another fairly seamlessly. All combine eclectic collections of vintage goods with mostly new clothing by predominately local designers. Nittolo likes the basics, "things that won't go out of style in a year," and concentrates on bringing that sense of a classic style to life in her two stores. And obviously, Sutherland shares that aesthetic. The three spaces are full of timeless things.
1104 Sanchez St., San Francisco
I was on my way to the Noe Valley Farmers Market when I stumbled into Martin Mattox, which inhabits a garage/basement space under a building just off 24th Street on Sanchez. The thing that first caught my eye was the display of a Ball jar inside of a bell jar. It's that kind of wit that powers the display inside the store. Though I would guess that half of what Martin Mattox has for sale is new, the way they mix and match old and unusual items, like stuffed animal heads or driftwood sculptures with contemporary clothing and housewares demonstrates a deep connection with classic design sensibilities of the past.
227 Fell St., San Francisco
3234 Balboa St., San Francisco
Old-fashioned metal roller skates (the kind that fit over your tennis shoes), aviator sunglasses, a pith helmet, vintage board games... Mixed Nuts' Hayes Valley location is stuffed full of items that seem to emanate from the 1970s wood-paneled playroom in my mind. The business started when Brandon Clark arrived in S.F. about five years ago and started working with John Rolston, who has a junk hauling business in the city. After recycling raw materials and donating items to Goodwill, the two would find themselves left with what John calls "precious junk," which they either sold at Alemany each week or at Alameda once a month, or ended up collecting in their own apartments. Once Clark's storefront apartment filled up, he decided it was time to open a real store and start passing some of this "cool old stuff" onto other San Franciscans to appreciate. Shortly thereafter he was joined by Anthony Williamson, a friend from design school, and the two opened a "design/build" company together -- Clark majored in graphic design, Williamson in industrial design. When they are not doing household handyman work (small building projects, furniture design), the two collect and sell offbeat used items and locally made new ones (soap, t-shirts, jewelry) by their growing network of artist/craftsman friends.
The Perish Trust
728 Divisadero St., San Francisco
Since 2008, The Perish Trust has been a pretty interesting self-described "general store." The space is dominated by a great loft office made out of old windows and accessed by a solid, but rickety looking staircase that ascends to the left of the front desk. Classic housewares and locally-sourced handmade goods are offset by a collection of "curious original heirlooms" large and small. The eclectically curated space creates that narcotic feeling of stepping outside the flow of time when you enter the store. They share the space with other businesses, for a while, you'd encounter a line of folks waiting to try on a pair of Warby Parkers, the glass frame du jour (or maybe they are now "d'hier"). Today they share the space with Umami Mart, a Japanese kitchen store that has another location in downtown Oakland.
150 Valencia St., San Francisco
Stuff has been at the end of Valencia street since 2011. They started out on the first floor of a huge former moving and storage space and then a year and half later opened a second floor. The space, started by the guys famous in the East Bay for Aunt Bill's, houses 60 independent small business, that each inhabit, maintain and restock their own sections. But you wouldn't know it by looking, there is a wildly funny sensibility at play inside the space, with items large and small wittily displayed with an almost camp sensibility. Statues seem to dance, there is a whole wall of cheeky amateur paintings of naked men and, it was pointed out to me, the pathway through both floors is marked by a rectangle of red carpet. "Who doesn't love to walk the red carpet?" I was asked. Who indeed? Personal Note: I walked in there on my last birthday and found an extra large library flat file for $450, which was practically a robbery just waiting to take place. After looking for one that could house my oversized screen prints for years, it was indeed a happy birthday to me.
Zonal Home Interiors
568 Hayes St., San Francisco
Located in the heart of Hayes Valley for 24 years, Zonal has anchored that neighborhood through hard times and boom times. The tagline on the store's website reads: "One Man, One Store, One Passion," and that man is Russell Pritchard, who opened Zonal after relocating from NYC. Pritchard was one of the original Hayes Valley business owners who led the push to tear down the Central Freeway, which was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Back in the day, freeway pillars with "sidewalk closed" signs mounted onto them blocked the now-bustling thoroughfare. Pritchard and other neighborhood mainstays jousted for years with the city, painting over the signs that threatened to keep their little pocket of commerce secret. The store's main focus is American primitive furniture, mostly due to Pritchard's Saskatchewan roots. Settlers there took over parcels of land, using the trees to both build their own houses and populate them with roughly hewn furniture. Zonal is anchored by large pieces like this, supplemented with authentic, pre-WWII industrial pieces (old shop carts and worktables) along with fun and funky collectibles and a smattering of shelves, tables and chairs handcrafted by local artisans out of found elements (two old wooden ladders become a bookshelf). Additionally, Zonal has represented a handful of selected visual artists (collage, painting) for years. In 2014, Pritchard began sharing the space with Joan O'Connor, who lost the location for her Timeless Treasures store earlier this year. If you are looking for old business sign and marquee lettering, her collection is extensive and unmatched, inhabiting the back third of Zonal's upstairs.
If you have a favorite vintage/junk shop in San Francisco, please share in the comments below. Next up: A trip to the East Bay. Tell us what we should check out before we get there!