In its final days, Kaplan's Surplus & Sport Goods has taken on the desiccated appearance of a Soviet-era department store.
Its creaky shelves are half-stocked with odd and aging items and large swaths of floor space are either bare or commandeered by detritus (or goods that resemble detritus). Voices echo off the high ceilings in the increasingly hollow interior. On a recent morning, staff and customers hover at a one-to-one ratio.
There's no need to restock. In mid- to late February the 75-year-old family-owned San Francisco institution will close its doors for good. Anything not nailed down or on fire is negotiable; proprietor Cathy Kaplan says she's even open to parting with the linoleum floors.
In its atrophied state, Kaplan's is, ever increasingly, out of step with the giddy narrative of the mid-Market strip burgeoning around it. The once-blighted realm is one of the city's most contested real-estate battlefields; market forces are pushing out esoteric, janky, or pedestrian stores as assuredly as police forces pushed out the homeless chess players.
The Kaplans, however, weren't rudderless in the face of these winds of change. The family has long owned its building at 1055 Market St., and they sold at a grand time to sell. The site of the sprawling, single-story repository of thermal underwear, fingerless gloves, and camping toilets will soon feature a gleaming new hotel tower sprouting alongside the mushrooming luxury condo developments and fancy eateries accommodating a class of San Franciscan with little desire for mobile toilets.
Alas. When writing about San Francisco, gentrification is like cat hair — it gets into everything. So, let's take the week off.
This week, we come to praise Kaplan's, not to bury it. This week, it's time for remembrance of things soon to be past.
There's a lot going on here. Kaplan's is not only hawking water-damaged merchandise, it's doing so with merchandise ruined 35 years ago and, incongruously, kept on hand. And it's even incentivizing you to buy more of it.
In short, Kaplan's is a wondrous place. Your humble narrator has been coming here for more than 15 years, and one of the major attractions was visiting the very same wares each time. A goose-down Marv Levy-era Buffalo Bills jacket — utterly climate-inappropriate for San Francisco, naturally — was a favorite exhibit for a decade and change. When it finally sold, it was hard to stave off a sense of loss.
Zane Kaplan, the 87-year-old paterfamilias of the sporting goods family, nods at a box of $2.99 United States Postal Service caps, all of which are size small. These, he says, haven't been on the shelf for very long. Only 10 years or so.
Pondering how such an establishment could exist in this time and place misses the point. It's a marvel that this business could ever exist. It was certainly fun while it lasted. Anyone with a sudden desire to buy a fire-engine red union suit and affect the look of a prospector scared out of his tent by a varmint will now have to track down another outlet offering charmingly archaic undergarments. Those in need of a football kicking tee must now visit a warehouse-like sporting goods chain. At Kaplan's, however, Zane would reach for a spot on the shelf only he knew about and whip out an American-made tee sealed with shrink wrap and illustrated with a freckle-faced player wearing a single-bar helmet.
An item on the shelves since the 49ers' Kezar years costs less than a cup of coffee.
On the shelves behind Cathy — the shelves are for sale, too — sit box after box of slick, polyester boxing shorts. If the pugilist on the container with his hair combed forward like Dan White doesn't give it away, the logo in the corner seals it: "Official Sponsor: 1984 Olympic Games." One shelf over is a tennis elbow brace from 1985 featuring a dead ringer for Olivia Newton-John on its packaging; the nearby jockstraps, thankfully, aren't emblazoned with a photo of an '80s-era crotch. The label for some manner of men's tennis supporter, though, does feature a fading photo of a gent with fiery red hair, a headband, a daffodil-hued collared shirt, and a menacingly brandished wooden racket. If nothing else, he appears well-supported.
Cathy leads your humble narrator past the flight suits and pith helmets into an area in the back crammed with furniture and the store's microwave — a zone in which non-Kaplans aren't normally authorized to tread. Here we discover some of the oldest merchandise in the building: 13-button Navy-issue wool bell-bottoms. "Hippies wore 'em," she says, hoisting a pair. Cathy has been working in this store since 1965, when her father, Zane, paid her a dollar an hour. These pants have been here to greet her each and every day of that tenure.
Asked to locate the oldest items in the building, the ones that could never be unloaded, Cathy is stumped. But only for a moment. "Well, that'd be Dad and me!"
And laughter echoes through the empty room.