Josie Lazo staked out a corner at Valencia and 18th streets on a sunny Saturday morning in August, the contents of her closet neatly arranged against a chain-link fence. She hoped to entice last-minute Burning Man shoppers in need of, say, a shabby leopard-print miniskirt, $1.
“Since I have a lot of weird shit, I can sell it today,” she said, standing in front of the miscellaneous display.
No sales? No matter. Lazo would be back in what has become a weekend ritual for dozens of unlicensed sellers looking for quick cash. They set up shop on the neighborhood’s heavily trafficked sidewalks, hawking old records, bootlegged movies, used clothing and, in some cases, homemade jewelry and T-shirts.
For Lazo, a 45-year-old Mission resident who works one day a week at a women’s boutique in Noe Valley, sidewalk selling is a means of staying afloat. “I can’t get a job,” she said. “And I have all this stuff!”
In Latin America, such sellers are called “ambulantes,” a slang term that conveys their ability to fold up shop and bolt when police arrive. In the United States, sidewalk vending has long thrived in places saturated with newly arrived immigrants. But recently on Valencia it’s become as American as garage sales.
With the unemployment rate for San Francisco County at 9.7 percent in August, sidewalk vending in the Mission offers an easy grab at supplemental income, particularly for out-of-work tradesmen, the workforce hit hardest in the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In the places where you are losing jobs but you don’t have enough industry that you’ve created yet, that’s when you have big increases” in the sizes of underground markets, said Bill Shields, labor and community studies department chair at City College of San Francisco. “Those are the deep structural impulses that create lots of informal economy affairs, which could be people trying to sell stuff on the streets.”
Stationed two blocks from Lazo, on 20th Street, Mackenzie Santiago had set out milk crates full of DVDs and videotapes, his personal collection. Two years ago, in the early months of the recession, the 40-year-old welder lost his “house, job — everything.” Six months ago he started selling his possessions to pay bills.
It’s not always lucrative. At 2:45 p.m., having pulled in only $10, Santiago packed up and headed to his backup spot on lower Haight Street. “Whatever I need to do to have my load light,” he said, shrugging.
City law requires sidewalk sellers to obtain a “peddler non-food permit,” but virtually no one selling wares on Mission sidewalks has one, said San Francisco Police Officer Albie Esparza. Permits cost $199 per year, in addition to a one-time $511 filing fee paid to the SFPD. A mere 14 permits are active in the city today, according to the police department. Only one is registered within a zone encompassing the Mission and Castro neighborhoods.
Most peddlers say the price tag is too high, and that they don’t need anyone’s permission, anyway. The sidewalk setups, one argued, are akin to home-based sales, which are exempt from permitting laws.
“It’s like a yard sale or a garage sale, except I don’t have a yard or a garage,” said a gangly, middle-aged peddler on 20th Street, moments after parting with a Bobby Womack record for $1.50.
Insofar as vendors complement the neighborhood’s eclectic culture, without leaving a mess or encroaching on storefronts, police are loathe to intervene.
“We don’t go out looking for people without permits, because that’s pretty low on our radar,” Esparza said. “We understand that they bring a certain culture and certain parts of the community together, in a way.
“Only when it’s called to our attention would an officer really go out and investigate, because the Mission is so busy and we have calls for shootings, muggings.”
Walter Dail is one the police did go after. The 50-year-old unemployed carpenter said he racked up $7,000 in citations two years ago for selling VHS tapes on 16th Street for $2 apiece. He paid some of the fines with cash and community service hours; others were thrown out of court.
Investing in a permit “wouldn’t be cost-efficient,” said Dail, seated in a plastic chair a few feet from his movie bin on 16th Street, a Stuart Woods paperback resting on his lap. Hawking videos nets him less than $50 a month, he said — enough to cover utilities for his one-bedroom Mission apartment and provide some pocket money.
He remains vigilant. “They still ticket me, but I don’t pay.”
Kitty-corner from Dog Eared Books, at Valencia and 20th streets, one peddler sold hardback books. Inside the bookstore, behind the counter, employee Ryan Smith looked at the competition outside as a plus.
“You’ll notice there are lots of closed stores on Valencia Street, and we get a lot of business from foot traffic. So if other businesses can bring them in, that’s great,” Smith said.
Other shopkeepers, managers and employees along Valencia Street agreed.
“Especially during these times, you can’t begrudge somebody for trying to sell stuff,” said Clint Smith, art manager at Community Thrift Store. “I don’t think it takes away from the businesses themselves.”
At least a few owners indulge in the melee. One is Steven LeMay, owner of the vintage clothing shop Retro Fit, who sells quirky clothes and accessories comparable to wares sold on the street. LeMay takes advantage of police leniency by merchandising on the sidewalk in front of his business — unpermitted — and he admits to purchasing the occasional sidewalk T-shirt.
LeMay said a few shopkeepers in the neighborhood report street sellers to the cops, an act he called “a little hardcore.”
In spite of complaints, vendors keep returning.
Back at Valencia and 18th streets, Lazo was cleaning up.
“It was my biggest sale ever. I made more than I’ve ever made before … over $200,” she said days later. She’ll be back. “Oh yeah, there’s still more to sell in my closet.”