Bryon Waibel, pictured with the store's chicken, is managing partner of Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper, a small shop on 3520 20th Street.

In an economic climate in which “crisis” and “downturn” are household buzzwords, it’s no surprise when customers don’t buy as much as they used to and small businesses can’t compete against online stores and large commercial outlets.

Here’s the real surprise: A walk around the Mission District shows a number of tiny niche stores that are doing well, according to their owners. Not only are they surviving, but new businesses are opening shop. What the those business owners have found is that customers prefer service and specialization — plus some extra effort: hosting special events, classes and workshops for the community.

Pot & Pantry, at 3412 22nd Street, opened in November 2010 in a closet-like store selling vintage kitchen tools and a few new items. One year later, this tiny kitchen supply store has just moved to a bigger location on Guerrero at 18th.

“I had to take the risk,” owner Donna Suh Wageman says. But so far, “it’s been really good.”

Leef Smith talks to a customer in his store Mission: Comics & Art, which opened two years ago.

But what would make anyone go to a little store off the main commercial streets to buy kitchen supplies?

“I think I do something special. I have pieces that you can’t find anywhere else,” she says, referring to the vintage objects she carries, such as old utensils or ovens in perfect condition.

Her customers?

“If they are like me,” she says, “someone with an appreciation for good quality products — they are hunting [for] special things.”

In her case, word of mouth and the support of the community have been critical. Just down the block from the old location, Press: Works on Paper opened six months ago to offer vintage office supplies as well as books from small presses and other print material.

“We are growing slowly,” co-owner Nick Sarno says. “It’s what we expected.” They also offer classes, workshops and readings, which attract “people who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” Sarno says. “And they come back.”

Sarno and his partner Paulina Nassar have a similar strategy as Bryon Waibel and Priscilla Morris at Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper at 3520 20th St. Although beekeeping is the favorite activity of managing partner Waibel, selling honey and offering classes are the store’s main sources of revenue.

“I certainly couldn’t rely on sales of beekeeping equipment alone to keep the shop afloat,” he says.

In the future, however, he hopes that beekeeping will become more and more important.

“Urban beekeeping is a growing field, and it’s very difficult to find equipment in this city,” he says. Mail orders are usual, he adds, but “it’s nice to have a place to ask questions, meet other beekeepers and be able to inspect something before buying it.”

In the meantime, Waibel says, having a small business is getting more difficult. “It would have been impossible without Priscilla [Morris, owner].” The business continues growing slowly, and people from all over the city come to the Mission to shop there.

Standing in the small store decorated with art and knick-knacks related to honey and bees, Waibel holds one of the cochin frizzle chickens they keep in the shop and whispers to her with affection. “We’re serious about this,” he says. “We care.”

Uniqueness is also the key at Casa Bonampak, which specializes in Mexican “papel picado” and other decorations for weddings, birthdays and the Day of the Dead.

“The quality is extremely high,” employee Tracey Enriquez says, “and we try hard to treat people the way we want to be treated.”

Works on paper, which opened six months ago, offers vintage office supplies as well as books from small presses and other print material.

There are certain types of goods that customers prefer to see and touch before buying. At least that’s what Leef Smith thought when he opened Mission: Comics & Art at 3520 20th St., a space that combines a comic book store with an art gallery, and also hosts events. Two years later, sales continue to rise.

“I still believe that for comic books and graphic novels, people still want to look,” he says.

Customers can sit on couches in the store and check out the most popular new arrivals, as well as discover comic books that Smith says can’t be found in large shops like Amazon.

At Zoë Bikini, women from all over the city come to 3386 18th St. to try the bikinis that designer Zoë Magee sells.

“Not everything can be purchased online,” she says.

Magee admits that the economic situation has had an impact, and sales are not as good as they were back in 2009, her best year, but she still gets a “fair amount of people.”

Magee, who has 20 years of experience in business, including the last five in the Mission District, summarizes the reasons why a bikini store can thrive in a place where it rarely gets warm enough to wear one: “My stuff is unique, and I provide a service that is also unique: mix and match.”

Also, she says, there are only three bikini stores in the city, her prices are reasonable, and so is her rent. “Eighteenth and Mission is not my choice corner, but it has worked for me,” she says.

A few blocks down, at Hazel & Gertie’s, a pet boutique at 3385 22nd St., business hasn’t been growing as fast as its owner Jeannine Giordanin would have liked since she first opened in May 2008. Nevertheless, she is confident about the future.

“I think the worst is over.”

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Marta came from Zaragoza, Spain to master her English but everyone she speaks to wants to practice Spanish. After just a few months in the Mission, she already feels at home. In her free time she can be found reading books, watching movies, roller skating or just enjoying a good meal, an interesting conversation or a sunny walk around the neighborhood.

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