By SHALWAH EVANS
Even after rent increases and a summer hike in homicides, the Mission District continues to be a haven for small business owners with a vision and that’s unlikely to change, owners said.
Moreover, they agreed, the more of them, the better.
More makes the Mission District and the 16th Street corridor a shopping destination, said Sasha Wingate, owner of the Bell Jar: Gorgeous Little Things. Already, Wingate said, they have a neighborhood committee. And even if they sell similar items, she said, others have been supportive of her now nine- month old business.
“We all try to organize little events,” she said.
Even though Bell Jar opened just months before the truth about the housing bubble and the recession hit, she said she is confident that her varied price points will keep customers who want interesting things coming into her store.
“I’m realizing that people don’t have as much money as they had even five months ago,” said the 36-year-old owner. “I’ve got books for $7 and books for $90.”
“I think girls are always going to splurge on that dress once or twice a year…most girls…I know I will,” she continued.
To make that splurge easier, Wingate has ordered less expensive items for the spring. She has invested in more t-shirt dresses that retail for $160 versus silk ones that would cost about $300. She also carries jewelry for under $100, including what has become the signature Bell Jar cocktail ring—a wooden heart set in silver made by a woman in San Diego. She said vintage furniture priced from $250-$400 goes quickly.
Though Bell Jar sometimes gets bad reviews on Yelp saying that the shop is too expensive, Wingate said it only sustains itself. To make money for her personal expenses she freelances as a graphic designer—a job she did full-time for ten years before quitting and opening the store.
“I work very hard but I don’t make a lot of money,” said Wingate. “I’m super poor now and life’s stressful but I would never go back to that place,” she said of the 9 to 5 work day.
Her new career as shop owner also involves security as she’s had to police the drug addicts that attempt to steal from her store from time to time.
“I’ve chased people down the street I’ve caught shoplifting,” she said laughing at herself. “But I love the Mission.”
Johanna Bialkin who owns Aldea on 17th Street off of Mission, agreed. The native New Yorker –although only 5’3”– has had her own run-ins with Mission characters including a drug addict who wandered into the store. Bialkin said she had to come between the addict and a pregnant customer. No matter, it won her points with the shopper.
If it’s an odd way to win customer loyalty, it’s okay with Bialkin who said her right hand woman once worked security at clubs and is a diligent gatekeeper.
“I want people to feel comfortable about coming in and shopping or just coming in and chatting with us,” she said.
Bialkin’s decision to open up in the Mission three years ago seemed an easy one since for her it has the closest feel to New York in all of San Francisco.
“It was a place that spoke to me the most about who I wanted to work with and who I wanted my customer to be,” she said.
“You walk around, there’s more—I mean you just see more diversity than other neighborhoods.”
Though she said opening the store was difficult because it was a task to get to know the customer, products, what to sell, how to sell it and the right price points, she thinks that after three years she’s getting the hang of it.
“We’re doing okay. I try not to look at numbers from last year,” she said.
Earlier in December the store hosted a holiday party. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. customers were invited to have cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and special shopping sales. Bialkin said it was one way to continue to build the community she wants to create with Aldea. As stores close around her, she fights to keep Aldea afloat, the only store on the block. Bialkin said her ranging price points help her do that.
“We try to have things for $5, but we also have stuff for $900,” she said.
The hottest selling items in the store right now are from the baby and kids merchandise. The store does baby registry and full baby rooms including furniture. Bialkin said parents come from all over the city for their baby apparel because they sell rare and heavily sought after goods.
With more than 500 vendors sold in the store, Aldea has grown rapidly. The two online stores aldeahome.com and aldeababy.com still make a large bulk of the income that keeps the store out of the red. Though Bialkin said it sustains itself and seems to do better every year it doesn’t really pay her.
“We’re in a recession,” she said.
Keeping the recession in mind she has stocked the store with items in all price ranges– from $6 Christmas tree ornaments, to blinged out mezuzahs for $36. She said she also gets bad reviews on Yelp for being too expensive but it’s often a misperception because the store looks really nice.
After watching Zolita, a clothing store across the street with a very high price point, close down six months ago after only one year in business, the reality of the failing economy really hit Bialkin. The neighborhood stores and merchants association must show support to each other, and residents must try to shop locally, she said.
But Bialkin acknowledged that she’s a bit jealous of the unity she sees in the Castro merchant’s association. Her hope is that the Mission District shops can come together and look out for each other more.
“There’s room for everyone. The more stores are here, the better for us all,” she said.