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For Richer and For Poorer: The Strange and Evolving Role of the Thrift Store in a Strange and Evolving City 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015

Clarion Alley smells strongly of beer and former beer. A trio of none-too-young, leather-clad men with shaven heads and tattooed faces drinks from paper baggies at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday and nod, furiously, to loud punk rock.

Some things, apparently, never change.

The punk rock is silenced, instantly, by the triple-beep indicating an incoming text message on a mobile device.

Some things do.

On the twee Valencia end of the alley is Mission Community Thrift. On the grittier Mission Street end is Thrift Town. Walking between the former and the latter feels like traversing a portal in time to the neighborhood's past. As does shopping inside either store.

Chuck is in a bad way. Decades ago, Chuck says, he reached into a bag of electronics "and I felt fire in my hand." A brown recluse spider bite put him in the intensive-care unit for five weeks.

Things have never been normal since.

Chuck is a big guy with longish blond hair and a receding jawline indicative of a lifetime of troubles. He's sitting on a bed in a buddy's place in a Mission District single-room occupancy hotel — which is a pretty magnanimous thing for that buddy to let Chuck do. He is not a popular guest here. His room is barricaded due to a bedbug infestation and his skin looks like he insulted a porcupine's mother. In the midst of describing the 1970s-era car wreck that necessitated the cane sitting in the corner, his eyes widen and he starts to squirm. He paws at his black Levi's, isolates the bug, and crushes it.

"You see?" he says, brandishing bug remnants on a thumbnail curved like a scythe. A slightly malevolent smile forms: "I got 'em."

Your humble narrator does not feel a need to inspect further. The subject of discussion is, quickly and mercifully, shifted to Chuck's outfit; his shirt indicates he's an alum of UC Berkeley. Asked about this, Chuck nods and laughs. No, he is not an Old Blue. All of his clothes are in bags, awaiting sterilization. He scared up a few bucks and bought this "new" wardrobe at Thrift Town.

Only days later, more than 100 people are lined up outside Mission Community Thrift ahead of its 10 a.m. opening. Very few of these people seem to have borrowed a handful of bills to replace louse-riddled apparel. One man's fedora matches his baseball jersey. He idly swipes a smartphone the size of a pizza slice.

In the Mission — and San Francisco writ large — it really is the best of times and the worst of times. Among the hordes descending upon Mission Community Thrift for a half-off sale were people who snagged a $4 shirt for $2 and someone who bought the $1,500 couch in the window for $750.

There's no simple narrative to encapsulate the demographic metamorphosis of this city. And there's no easy take on the resultant role of thrift stores — which, incongruously, survive and even thrive in the increasingly affluent realm of knit bicycle rack cozies and artisinal everything.

Zarin Kresge is the executive director of the nonprofit Mission Community Thrift. He's also the guy who opens the store in the mornings and checks your backpack. He's young and handsome and looks like he shops in his own establishment.

In 2009, when San Francisco was reeling, Mission Community Thrift had its best year ever. In 2012 and 2013, when the city's unemployment rate plummeted toward zero and its median income throttled skyward, the store's sales were flat.

In bad times, it seems, two things happen: People who otherwise wouldn't have resorted to visiting a thrift store do so; and people forced out of town dump their stuff before leaving the city.

This leads to the perhaps only-in-San Francisco phenomenon of former San Franciscans squeezed out of here returning to bargain shop at San Francisco thrift stores. (Clerks who check IDs affirm that, yes, that happens an awful lot.)

Perhaps they've dropped in to visit their stuff.

Mission Community Thrift is even in the Lonely Planet guide — which leads to the even more bizarre phenomenon of people traveling halfway around the world to purchase discount shirts and ashtrays and Garrison Keillor novels. Catering to people who need to shop secondhand is no longer a viable business. Catering to people who want to look like they need to shop secondhand is.

Developers do periodically hit up Kresge and offer to take the building off the store's hands for enormous sums of money. And, always, they're refused.

Because Mission Community Thrift is a nonprofit whose raison d'être is not making enormous sums of money. It owns its building. And has for years.

A fragrant jaunt through Clarion Alley, Thrift Town does not own but rents its sprawling home. (Nine baby baths alone in the kids section. Better hurry.) And, counter-intuitively, it's a for-profit chain. In fact, most of the thrift stores of note in this city are run by overarching nonprofit organizations (Goodwill, Salvation Army, Out of the Closet) or national chains (Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange).

Chain stores may not ostensibly be popular in San Francisco — but God help the independent businessman trying to make it in this city (especially selling things cheaply).

The key to success in San Francisco's present, as always, is to have had the foresight to buy in the past.

A procession of apparent vintage store aficionados wander up Naples Street and into a home in the city's Crocker-Amazon District. This is, by far, the most people who have visited this home in a long while. The décor indicates a very old woman lived here until quite recently.

Where she's relocated to is left unsaid; everyone's got to go somewhere.

The basement is full of old soul records and the lower level is graced by a white danask sofa and matching loveseat, Zenith Transoceanic Wave Magnet radio, and faux Roman wall relief.

Everything must go. Even the electric fireplace.

Amble up the rickety stairs and you're in the master bedroom. What a find for you ladies if you're sizes 2 to 4; an ensemble is on display in the walk-in closet. Furs, coats, jackets, shoes, VHS tapes, spoons and plates from tourist destinations: Everything must go.

The things that can't possibly be sold, the broken, the bizarre, the God-knows-what, are hurled by workmen out a massive double-window into the backyard below. A growing pile of detritus is emerging from the brambles. It, along with everything else here, will be carted away to make room for whatever comes next.

Everything's got to go somewhere. Some things never change.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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