Behind the table filled with used televisions, country flags and trading cards of women dressed in soccer jerseys sits Michele Di Pilla.
Few would suspect that the 78-year-old Italian native owns the building at 3250 24th St where he runs the Argentina Gift Shop. It’s an odd sliver of a store stuffed mostly with soccer paraphernalia; the kind of place where the curious enter, but soon leave.
No matter. These days Di Pilla’s interest is more conversation than money. Most who come in would be even more surprised to find that Di Pilla also owns three other buildings including the adjacent two-story place and a 14-unit apartment complex down the same street.
It’s a small empire built on a piece of Mission District history: the jitneys that filled San Francisco for a large part of the 20th Century ferrying riders all over town– some 7,000 passengers a day at 10 cents a ride by 1950, according to Paratransit in the San Francisco Bay Area, a study by the University of California Transportation Center.
In that year Di Pilla, then 19, still lived in Molise, Italy, a small village outside of Rome, but in 1953, when others left post-war Italy the 22-year-old Di Pilla did too. He first settled in Philadelphia with the help of his uncle, but by 1965 he was looking for warmer weather and when he visited San Francisco he stayed.
Many of his countrymen who moved to the Mission District after the 1906 earthquake were moving out to the suburbs and eventually, Di Pilla would follow them, but for a time he lived in the Mission.
By the late 1960s, many of the jitneys had been replaced by buses, but the Mission route still operated 24-hours a day, seven days a week and by 1970, Di Pilla, 39, sat behind the steering wheel of one of them moving passengers from Daly City to the Embarcadero via Mission Street.
“The dealer would give us vans with 12 seats and we arranged to have 20 seats,” Di Pilla said. “We took out the van seats and put bus seats that we bought from junk yards.”
He laughs about it now, “The things in life you do when you are a kid.”
To protect the Muni trolleys, the city stopped issuing new licenses in 1972, but the resale market remained strong, according to the UC study. Then in 1974, the jitneys, mostly used by minority workers, had to compete with BART. The final blow, the study said, came in 1978, when voters passed Proposition K and the resale of jitney licenses ended.
By 1983, Di Pilla and most other operators were off the road.
But by that time, the 52-year-old Di Pilla had amassed a tidy savings and when a fellow Italian immigrant wanted to sell the 14-room building at 2437 24th, Di Pilla bought it.
In much the same way that he figured out how to get more money out of his jitney, he also leveraged his real estate. Instead of living in one of the units he owned and rented out at $300 a month, he continued renting on Hampshire Street where he paid $100 a month.
Soon, he bought the building adjacent to his store and his late wife, Marcela Di Pilla, or “Mechi” as the neighbors and tenants knew her, set up shop and named it for Argentina, her native country.
His late wife, he said, knew how to run the storefront profitably, and had better relation with her tenants.
“She got along well with people,” he said adding that her Argentine heritage gave her a natural affinity for the Latin Americans who replaced many of the Irish and Italians who began to leave for the suburbs after World War II. “I am an artificial Latino,” he said in Spanish.He too left to San Mateo, but kept his holdings in the Mission.
Di Pilla has found that other Italians here as well. Nicola Fiduccia, 60, from Naples Italy was passing by Di Pilla store five years ago when he heard Italian. They have been friends ever since.
When Fiduccia became homeless three years ago, Di Pilla helped him find a rent free apartment in the Tenderloin and when he had a kidney stone removed two years ago, Di Pilla helped him with the hospital bills, Fiduccia said.
Nowadays Di Pilla lets his Italian friend sell his stock of used items at the Argentina Gift Shop and the two can generally be found sitting in their chairs just inside the door.
“The police does not want me to have my things on the street, so he gives me space inside his store,” Fiduccia said.
He added, “He is a good person, but a bit stingy.”
The store doesn’t make any money—not since Di Pilla’s wife died of cancer in 2000. “I keep this store because I can still manage and my head works fine. I use it more as an office or to pass the time.”
And then, there is another reason to keep it open he says. It reminds him of his late wife.