In the summer of 2021—pretty much in the middle of the pandemic as we know it—and just before the Delta wave hit the City, we learned of the pending sale of the building that houses Paxon Gate’s office and shipping/receiving room, as well as the offices of our sister company

Evictions, Legacy Status, and SF Small Business

Surviving the Challenges of Business in SF


In the summer of 2021—pretty much in the middle of the pandemic as we know it—and just before the Delta wave hit the City, we learned of the pending sale of the building that houses Paxon Gate’s office and shipping/receiving room, as well as the offices of our sister company RareField Design/Build, our friends at Bernal Cutlery, Incline Gallery and OW Advisers. At the time, we had about five years remaining on our lease—about four remain as I write this—which was effectively extended to everyone else in the building as subtenants. Most of us panicked. Paxton Gate and RareField had just moved back from our temporary offices, having relocated due a fire in the building and subsequent building-wide repair project (See Issue #7 for that saga!). Bernal had it really bad, having moved into their new Valencia digs just months before the fire. Then, while trying to operate a retail business in a building under construction, they got kicked in the teeth by the pandemic, only to be followed by potentially having to uproot their business and relocate. Even though it was five years away, to all of us in the middle of it, it felt like an existential threat.

The building is owned by a family and, I should point out, they’re good people. As I understand it, the original two-story structure was built by a great, great relative back in the late 1800s and then lifted to add a new first floor sometime later, making it the three stories you see today. They’ve always been good to us and I harbor no ill will toward them. They want to get out of the landlord business and the building looks great having just been fully remodeled after the fire, so, to them, it seemed like a good time.

We briefly fanaticized about buying the building but could come nowhere near the funds needed for a commercial down payment. We checked out SBA assistance but didn’t qualify because we don’t occupy enough of the building. Even that lower down payment would be next to impossible for the price the landlord was hoping to get for the property; Financially, there wasn’t a viable solution. However, Kelly from Bernal Cutlery suggested we apply for Legacy Business status, hoping to access eviction protections should it come to that. And, If Paxton Gate can stay in the building, then the subtenants can as well. Typically, a business is eligible after 30 years, but concessions are made for businesses that are at least 25 years old and might be at risk of eviction. At the time we were in our 29th year. Thus began our nearly yearlong Legacy Business application process.

We easily found the applications online and got to work. We had access to several Paxton Gate narratives and bios that I’d written over the years, so pulling that together wasn’t too much effort. Although, I must admit I reached out for help to Liam at Shave and a Haircut, whose done PR for us on and off over the years. With Liam’s help, we tuned up our bio and submitted our application. Once it came to the front of the queue, I was quite surprised by the level of attention we received from The Office of Small Business (OSB), and in particular from Rick Kurylo. Once he informed us that we would be part of the next batch of applications, Rick went into overdrive. He started by reviewing the business narrative we had written. He also pointed out that we needed someone to nominate us.

When he realized a deadline was looming (and I was moving slowly!), Rick took it upon himself to reach out to Rafael Mandelman’s office to see if they’d be interested in doing so, and they did. On more than one occasion Rick offered edits of the material we’d written, helped with wording, and even reviewed copy on our website to cross reference things for us. He was incredible. His tireless effort and attention to detail were truly heartening in a city where I often feel like bureaucracy blocks progress, and where numerous departments don’t seem to care to help. Sorry, “other” City Departments, I’ve dealt with several of you and as far as I can see, OSB and Rick have you beat!

Next up, our application and nomination were to be reviewed by Planning Department (CPC). They came back with some basic questions and clarifications, but one I was surprised by was whether the business was associated with a “significant event or person.”

I had answered the question in the application by talking about our Victorian namesake Sir Joseph Paxton (see this article from 1993’s Issue #1 of The Paxtonian for more about him). It seemed like a suitable answer but, it turned out that what they really wanted to know was, is the business associated with anyone famous? So, with that I divulged the litany of celebrities who have visited over the years including a surprisingly wide demographic, ranging from Martha Stewart to rockers such as Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica. I mentioned the private tour I once gave to Buzz Osborne and a few members of the Melvins, which led to Mike Patton dropping by and purchasing a lion skin rug (when lions were still legal to sell). Actors such as Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet have visited. David Sedaris, Tracy Chapman, Daryl Hannah, Chris Isaak, and many others have dropped by on numerous occasions, some of them repeat customers. In short, my exhaustive list of famous people that have shopped at Paxton Gate, seemed to satisfy CPC.

Next up we moved on to a review by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), after which we’d seek final approval by the City’s Small Business Commission (SBC) to take place at City Hall. Both events offered the possibility to speak on behalf of Paxton Gate, but I usually shy away from speaking publicly, so I skipped the HPC meeting altogether. Fortunately, it did not adversely affect a positive recommendation for Paxton Gate. But, when—in his characteristic, ultra-thorough manner—Rick shared the various dates/times, phone numbers, access codes, and hyperlinks for the SBC event, he added, “If you could make it in person, it would be preferred. We’d get to meet you …”. After all the work he’d performed on my behalf, how could I not take the time to attend this meeting?

In the end I went to the meeting, sitting in the very back row. The Commission went through a few formalities and Rick read thoughtfully prepared statements about each of the ten businesses being considered. Then, the Commission opened the floor for public comment, and I realized that this was when I was supposed to stand up and speak. I stayed put, shrinking into my seat, while business owners, their friends, or clientele got up and spoke eloquently about why they thought they should be granted Legacy Status. The stories I heard that day were touching, heartwarming, and inspiring. For me, this was when it all came together. This is when the gravity of this milestone hit me.

The event was both humbling and a source of pride. When we turned the corner from 2021 to 2022, I was aware that this was our 30th year. I knew I’d need to decide whether to throw an anniversary party (see issue #10, still trying to figure that out); I knew it was a milestone; I didn’t really know how I felt about it until I was in the same room with others who’d been through it before me. I was the youngster in the group with only 30 years under my belt, while some candidates had been around for over 100 years! I was humbled because I was in the same room with Far East Café, open for 102 years, and Buena Vista Café, who have been in business for 131 years and are said to have introduced the Irish Coffee to North America! I was proud because, while Paxton Gate might be the kid in the room, it has been 30 years and we’re still here.

The Commissioners invited attendees to line up and say a few words, and the second speaker was Jacob Blintiff, legislative aide to Rafael Mandelman. He surprised me with his kind words about Paxton Gate, as well as Small Fry’s Children’s Store. Some Paxton Gate highlights include:

“Paxton Gate … has been an oasis of eccentricity in a changing San Francisco for 30 years.”

They “provide an unfailingly unique and memorable experience to residents and visitors alike.”

“Paxton Gate has become a pillar of Valencia Street, helping to ensure its reputation as one of the most prominent independent retail corridors in the United States, and a bastion of local retail and creativity in San Francisco.”

It’s at about this point, I think, I started tearing up and when I thought, Thanks for doing the speaking for me, Jacob.

Some particularly touching stories included Doug May of Far East Café talking about hiring immigrants when they first came to the city and how they’d secure training, gain skills, and eventually move on to bigger and better things. This was clearly a source of pride for Doug. Or, Charles Vong, the owner of Sai’s Vietnamese Restaurant, who reflected on how he didn’t feel like part of the SF business community until he had gone through this legacy process. I could tell, like me, this was all sinking in for him, right there in that moment. He spoke about how this event gave him the motivation to keep going, to not give up, and how his restaurant was not only a place for the community to gather but had employed some staff for upwards of 40 years!  I loved Stan Roth’s stories about his business, San Francisco Carts and Concessions. Before a food peddler’s license was available in SF, Stan sold his pretzels as “baked sculptures made of flour and water.” Later when the food peddler’s license was created—in part due to the existence of Stan’s business—his was the first to be granted one. Also, Stan spoke of meeting his wife at the corner of Hyde and Beach Streets—their first location—where they’d drop off their cart.

Almost every morning they’d go across the street to the Buena Vista Café—another legacy business applicant in our group—where they’d have breakfast and often an Irish Coffee or Bloody Mary. You go Stan, breakfast of champions!

Valentino Market was hailed by a neighbor who has lived across the street for 18 years, clearly a regular shopper at the corner store. He reflected on how there’s been a market on that corner for over a hundred years and how, not only does Valentino Market satisfy daily and last-minute needs for nearby residents, but it also doubles as a meeting place for the community, with the “old timers” from the neighborhood holding court. I realized with a pang of guilt that Small Frys Children’s Store was on that list and was reminded of having to close Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids. Maybe I should have stuck it out a bit longer, I thought.

When the Commissioners spoke, even their words were inspiring.

First to speak was Commissioner Ortiz, who, as a small business owner himself, praised us for making it in San Francisco, and spoke of his experience with Latin Jewelers—also a Legacy applicant in our group—and how he got his first communion cross there, how the store extended credit to people in the neighborhood who didn’t have the means to make a purchase all at once, and so much more.

He closed with the statement, “You make me proud to be a San Franciscan.” More tears. Commissioner Huie’s words really hit home when she talked about the importance of retail in a city and said, “I love that Paxton Gate is a curio shop … yeah, we should be curious, you know?” “I go shopping not just because I want to consume stuff, like things, but I want to be inspired about what’s next or inspired by the people around me.” “So, I think walking through a retail experience, walking through a retail shop—and purchasing something, quite frankly—is very important.”

For me, probably the most touching story came from Helmand Palace which has been in business for 51 years and, according to the owner, is the only remaining Afghani restaurant in San Francisco.

 The owner, Haytham Hassan, immigrated to the U.S. 22 years ago when he started working at the restaurant. A friend of his first spoke, since Haytham wasn’t comfortable with his English, telling of how Haytham started as dishwasher and worked his way to kitchen helper, kitchen manager, then Chef, and eventually took over the business in 2015. Ultimately Haytham—probably feeling the energy in the room as was I—got up to speak on his own behalf, and he spoke eloquently and from the heart. He talked about how the restaurant moved from Broadway to Van Ness because of the 2007 landslide, then—as many San Franciscan’s are aware—the Van Ness street construction project was plagued by delays, making it incredibly hard for any business along that strip to stay afloat. He worked a second job to keep the restaurant open, because he said, “Even if I’m not making any money, that’s 20 years of my life. I can’t just let it go.”

I know exactly how he feels and could empathize with Haytham, having tended bar for the first dozen or so years that Paxton Gate was open. Then, just as the Van Ness project was coming to a close with the promise of a new, beautiful thoroughfare, Covid swept through the city.

Hearing this, I felt a kinship with him along the lines of “what else can go wrong?” (See Of Fires, Floods Plagues). For what it’s worth it sounded like Haytham had it even harder than I did, but I was realizing that we all have a hard time here in SF. If you run a business, it’s tough. It’s a lot of work and often you feel like everything, and everyone is working against you. There’s a new barrier at every turn. Each step finds a new obstacle. It would be so much easier to curl up and just quit, but I hadn’t, nor had anyone in that room.

Toward the end, I was so inspired by these stories that I nearly joined them. There’s a component of running a business that—until this event—I felt was somewhat exclusive to my experience. It’s that bootstrap, make it work no matter what, fake it until you make it part. As businesspeople we always grow and we’re constantly learning and adapting, but it often feels like we’re just winging it, at least to some degree. Yes, even in my 30th year, at times, I feel like I’m winging it. Although no one stood up that day and said, “I don’t even know what I’m doing but can I have Legacy Status?” I got the impression that they were, for the most part, just like me, busting butt to get by and figuring things out, day by day. But, had I spoke up, I think it might have backfired at that point. Overwhelmed by the stories of my fellow entrepreneurs, I might have said something like…

Hi there. Thanks, uh, for letting me speak. I think I’m in the wrong room. I’m not worthy. Yeah, we’ve been around for 30 years now, but we’re just a store. This guy over here immigrated here, started as the dishwasher, and now he owns the place. These people extend credit to families so they can afford jewelry for communion. These folks introduced the Irish Coffee to North America and have been open for 131 years! We sell stuff. Weird stuff, I’ll give us that, but I’m not sure we should be in the same room as these businesses.

I never stood up. I never spoke. I sat there, in the back of the room, mute but glassy-eyed and feeling honored. In the end, I did feel like I belonged, and I did gain a greater appreciation for Paxton Gate’s standing here in our San Francisco community. The building hasn’t sold, but we’ve come to terms with the fact that we may have to move in about four years. Just like I have for the last three decades, I’ll figure it out. We are worthy. I am worthy. Paxton Gate does make a difference. And being in the company of these businesses and having been granted Legacy Business status brought me more honor than I ever could have imagined.

—Sean Quigley, Founder

See More SF Legacy Businesses

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