How Do You Really Support Small Business When You're Not Wholeheartedly Supporting Them?
Our upsettingly frank title does come with some merit, let us explain.
If you've lived in San Francisco long enough, you know that small businesses have to truly hustle in order to stay afloat in a city that, more often than not, stands against them. It's the reality of living in one of the world's most progressive, most expensive, cities. With much sadness, we were alerted to the closure of one of our favorite magazine stockists, Little Paper Planes, on Valencia. After 14 years, owner and founder Kelly Lynn Jones posted a heartfelt goodbye to the legions of fans who have followed her since her Myspace / blog days in the early 2000s. A shop dedicated to supporting local art, giving tiny makers their start (ourselves included), and letting the ever-changing landscape of Valencia be exposed to the beauty of local color.
"When I started back in 2004 I had been out of undergrad for 2 years. My friends and I were focusing on our art practices, but I thought it would be cool to have an online shop where we could sell our ephemera we were making like zines, totes, prints, shirts, and other art objects," Kelly posted to her Little Paper Planes Instagram, "At the time there was no Etsy, the blog world was fairly new, and social media wasn’t really a thing yet except for Myspace. It was an exciting time for handmade goods. We were part of something new and special. I never intended to have a business and never knew it would turn into this amazing space."
Kelly agreed that being a small business in San Francisco isn't what it used to be. "The retail landscape has shifted dramatically over the last couple years and it is really hard to stay afloat. I have tried so hard to keep it going but at the end of the day it isn’t working. I needed to make big decisions to help my family so that we can survive and this city, SF is a very hard place to live with children and a small business." Many attest to this, with spaces all over the city taking their exit such as Hunter's Threads in the Sunset and Zinc Details in Japantown—giving your all or being dubbed "instagrammable" just doesn't pay the bills at the end of the day.
So much so that any sleight of hand from the city does cause fear amongst various shop owners. Take the folks over at West Portal who are currently dealing with the Twin Peaks tunnel rebuild. According to the Examiner, nearly half of the parking spots fronting small businesses along West Portal Avenue near the Muni station have been occupied by construction vehicles instead of would-be-patrons.
“My business is going to die. That’s it,” Roti Shah, owner of Roti Indian Bistro told the paper. “I know it has to happen, but 60 days is too long.” The dreams of being able to run a business without fear of making it month-to-month seems like a long-gone dream. "It’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” said Pedro Galletti, owner of Mozzarella Di Bufala Pizzeria. “My business is going to suffer no matter what.”
Does Buying A Two Dollar Postcard Actually Help?
Short answer: Yes, long answer: It’s complicated.
When a business opens, especially in a small sense, it needs to be able to think of three things: 1.) examine your margins. What does it really cost to house the right artists, makers, designers, etc in their store. 2.) revenue to profit, is this artist or designer going to pull in the right crowd. 3.) landscape, how does the neighborhood, city, state play into the well-being of your business? And sadly, number three is what causes the inevitable ends of so many passionate small businesses around the city.
"My PSA here is please please support your small local businesses if you want them to stay," Kelly informed us over Instagram, "I know so many other shops/businesses that are struggling so even buying a card helps out. So for me it is a closing of a long chapter that I am so grateful for and at least I know I gave it all that I had in me."
If you've ever been to a Small Business Saturday—the local Merchants Associations puts a lot of emphasis in going into spaces and actually supporting your next door XYZ with your hard-earned cash. "Citywide, commercial rents have risen more than 250 percent over the last 15 years, and in 2014 alone, more than 4,000 small businesses were closed or evicted," reads the Small Business Bureau when it came to San Francisco up till 2016.
This became such a problem to small businesses young and especially old that the Planning Department of San Francisco had to step in back in March of 2015, The Legacy Business Registry was formed to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets. And often enough, to preserve the cities history amidst tech and rental development.
Voters approved Local Measure J, establishing the Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund. Measure J also expanded the definition of a Legacy Business to include those that have operated in San Francisco for more than 20 years, are at risk of displacement, and meet all other requirements of the Registry:
1. The business has operated in San Francisco for 30 or more years, with no break in San Francisco operations exceeding two years.
2. The business has contributed to the neighborhood's history and/or the identity of a particular neighborhood or community.
3. The business is committed to maintaining the physical features or traditions that define the business, including craft, culinary, or art forms.
Is It My Fault That Small Businesses Close?
If you had to ask yourself this question, take a step back and ask it in a different way. Have I stepped foot into a store where they only have a flagship store? If the answer is no, perhaps you have some improvements to make. You're not alone in this either.
"We had a sold out after school program and camps, yet I still couldn’t justify keeping it open. It is just too expensive at the end of the day and if people are not buying then we cannot pay the bills," Kelly added to the conversation about [rent.]
Then again, the upswing in tech-savvy renters and upscale tourism have caused the smaller heroes to lose spaces one by one. Werner Werwie, vintage clothing shop owner, owned three vintage stores on Haight Street from the early 2000's on: Haight Ashbury Vintage, Held Over, and La Rosa. When he was asked for a 100% rent increase at the Haight Ashbury Vintage address (1501 Haight Street), a jump from $7,000 to $14,000 per month. The rent hike, coupled with Werwie's feeling that Haight Street might not be the proper place for high-end vintage any more, prompted him to consider moving Haight Street Vintage into the La Rosa space. "People who buy high-end vintage don't want to have to step in dog shit," he told us. "The tourists don't want expensive, high-end stuff. They want cheap vintage."
Fittingly enough, Retro Fit Vintage—a mainstay local vintage treasure trove on Valencia was stuck between a rock and a hard place—physically and metaphorically. Between the fashion behemoth Reformation and ice-cream turnkey, Smitten Ice Cream—Retro Fit's owner Steven Leman had to make a choice: either put in or put out. Reported later, the building owner of Retro Fit (including Reformation and Smitten) had tripled the rent to $10,000 a month. Insider merchants on Valencia told us when Retro Fit had to move, they knew the street was taking a dark, dark turn. It even herald a response from Broke Ass Stuart himself, "What was once a street full of cafes, auto body shops, bohemian boutiques, thrift stores, and bars, has become a stretch of stores that seem to carry only seven items and restaurants with absurd prices. Commercial landlords are killing the soul of not just The Mission but the entire city."
I Shop Local, Now What?
At this point, San Francisco is seeing a major small business renaissance like no other. In the wake of multiple closures, we’re seeing the new beginnings of other small businesses. The Village Place on Balboa in the Outer Richmond opening in the wake of Better For Living moving out their art space. Small businesses are trading each others spaces with other small businesses—it's a cycle that is a double-edge sword.
In our hope, we wish that Kelly's former space could be used by another small business hoping to take off. In our hope, we would like to keep small dreams alive. And if we can leave this on a positive message for those wanting to keep small businesses alive and well, shop often, use your money and buy things, share their work with intent, and let the world know you 100% endorse what they do. It's the only way they can stay afloat in San Francisco's deplorable economy.
// Photo of Little Paper Planes via Timeout SF. Have a comment about this essay, email our tipline—let's discuss; tips[at]bobcutmag.com.