When I committed to write an article about antique stores in the Bay Area, I will admit that I naively thought it would be a piece of cake. As a longtime admirer of antiques, and a 5-year Bay Area resident, I had serendipitously wandered into a great store more than once. To start with, all I really needed to do was turn to the best friend of any twenty-something: Yelp. Right?
Wrong. I very quickly discovered that the Internet was of very little use for reading reviews on stores with an older buying population. In addition, because most stores are small, independently owned boutiques, very few even had web pages for me to visit. That's not to say the Internet has no use in antique shopping, but if, like me, you want to touch or measure a piece (not such a tall order when it comes to purchasing furniture), it's hardly a tool at all.
After a little more research, I also discovered that the number of brick and mortar antique shops had significantly dwindled in the past decade. As it turns out, economic downturn is not conducive to a booming demand for expensive decorative items. So, as my exasperation mounted, I turned to a strategy of utter desperation: go everywhere.
My very technical plan was to choose three or four places to visit, and from there, walk to nearby streets in hopes of stumbling across other gems. Unlike my initial tactic, this one worked. Thus, I come to my number one piece of advice for Bay Area treasure seekers: put on your walking shoes.
In the end, I found more than a few stores stacked to the ceiling with intriguing vintage and antique pieces (literally, to the ceiling). Below is my list of my best discoveries--– best selection, best prices, best aesthetic, and best service -- finally compiled on the Internet in one convenient place!
BEST SELECTION: While the stores I visited varied in size, I felt that those with a large quantity of antiques did not necessarily lead to a wide variety. Two stores, both found without the aid of the Internet, provided a range of pieces from different periods, with different functions, and in different styles unmatched by the other shops on the list.
956 Valencia St., San Francisco
Although not the most orderly of the stores that I went to, The Touch certainly hosted the largest range of household items, both decorative and furniture. While most of their pieces span from the turn of the century to the 1960s (hardly recent history), many of the antiques had an oddly modern feel to them, making them the ideal for mixing with other contemporary items.
2206 Polk Street, San Francisco
While walking home from an antiquing mission in the Marina district, I came across this gem on Polk Street. A hard-to-miss, life-size solider greets passersby with a mechanical waving arm at the store's entrance; an intriguing call inside I could not turn down. While still stocked with an impressive variety of furniture and artwork, I was most captivated by the array of impressive light fixtures. A 1930's French coat also caught my eye for its beautiful condition.
BEST PRICES: In our current economic climate, antiques do not seem like a feasible purchase for most people. While you may not be able to afford an authentic Georgian table, that doesn't mean antiques aren't for you. At these two East Bay stores I found dozens of covetable items at prices significantly under $100.
James Cross Antique Centre
6519 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
To pedestrians on Telegraph Ave., this store looks like little more than a garage sale. Upon entering though, I was taken aback by the extensive inventory that the store actually boasts. While some items were wanting in quality, the sheer number of antiques in the shop makes it all but impossible to go home empty handed. For smaller, decorative pieces, prices start as low as single digits. My advice to shoppers: be willing to sift.
Keith Tower Antiques
1987 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
The most pleasant part of visiting Keith Tower Antiques is discovering that prices hardly ever surpass twenty dollars. The second best part is Earl, the manager of the store. He'll happily tell you about the different items he has sold, and all the interesting places they've gone. If you need him to adjust a price, he'll do so within reason. Basically, Earl is an antique lover's fairy godfather. The only catch to Keith Tower Antiques is that it doesn't sell much furniture. While there's a great array of trinkets and other odds and ends, the store truly specializes in old photos, magazines, and newspapers.
BEST AESTHETIC: In many stores, with pieces from so many different periods and a range of different styles, the easy solution is to pile everything without rhyme or reason. Some stores, though, take great care in setting up an aesthetic that is both organized as well as visually appealing. The romantic setting of Gypsy Honeymoon was unparalleled by any other place I visited.
1266 Valencia Street, San Francisco
The seamless organization and ambiance of Gypsy Honeymoon made for one of the best shopping experiences I encountered while writing this piece. The genius merchandising of the store is a visual masterpiece in and of itself, with each item placed with clear purpose.
In addition to the impressive aesthetic, the store also had some of the oldest pieces I saw on my many excursions. Owner and buyer Gabrielle manages to bring in antiques dating back to the 18th century, and from all over the world. My favorite part of the store is that she also writes any information she has on the item and its origins on the price tag. For future owners, this adds sentimental value to their antique.
BEST SERVICE: Quality service should be synonymous with any expensive or large purchase. Unfortunately, I did not find that to be the case with antique shopping. Many storeowners were much too happy to sip their coffee while I guided myself through their store (one even played chess!). At Past Perfect however, manager Kyle Painter gave me an entire hour of his time even when he knew I had not come to purchase. Armed with answers and anecdotes to all my questions, he made the experience thoroughly educational, as well as enjoyable.
2224 Union Street and 2246 Lombard Street, San Francisco
It makes sense that both Past Perfect locations are in the Marina district. Just like the neighborhood they call home, both are impeccably laid out and orderly, with all their pieces in mint condition. Prices are hardly a bargain, but shoppers definitely get their money's worth with sturdy furniture that's been well maintained by the store's owner and manager.
While the quality is notable, the service is what really makes the store a home run. Kyle is more than happy to lend furniture to potential buyers to make sure they fit, both physically and aesthetically, into their homes. In addition, he'll happily share his design expertise and quickly conjure a way to style any item you choose.
All photos by Monica Laufer.