The new year marked the end of an era for the proprietors of Junko’s, a once clandestine thrift-store cabaret in the Mission and a two-decade stronghold of the city’s underground scavenging movement that unearthed everything from a letter from Ronald Reagan to a manuscript by Beat icon Neal Cassady.

The owners, Derek Felten and Michael McQuate, made careers out of a shared passion for dumpster-diving. They cited a city-mandated seismic retrofit of the property as the main reason for shutting down the converted storefront at 3527-29 20th St. near Mission Street.  

It is a two-story commercial space that they built out and stewarded as a thrift store for 21 years, a time when it became the home for the city’s misfits and creatives.

On Wednesday, Felten, a performer and musician, and McQuate, a carpenter by trade, were rummaging through piles of stuff and sorting out valuables. But instead of salvaging thrown away treasures, the self-styled “scavengers” were reluctantly downsizing.

“They’re using [the seismic retrofit] as an excuse to get us out,” said McQuate, who was renting the space on a month-to-month lease. The building is managed by Greentree Property Management, a management firm that took over after the building was sold three years ago, said McQuate.

Adjacent to Junko’s, a 27-year-old botanica called Lucky Candle, also managed by Greentree, was evicted at the end of last year because of seismic retrofit work.

Ron Heckmann, a spokesperson for Greentree, confirmed that both the candle shop and Junko’s were asked to vacate the buildings to comply “with City-mandated soft-story earthquake retrofits and related building improvements.” He estimated the process would take somewhere between four and six months. 

He said that no leases have been “arranged for the retail spaces at present because of the retrofit work, but we are open to any tenants who wish to explore leasing the space.”

“I’m upset about having to leave,” said McQuate, reflecting on the changes that led up to the demise of his underground empire.

Junko’s – a former bar turned gallery – was a space that McQuate said,  “nobody wanted,” when he, Felten, and fellow scavengers took over the lease for just $900 a month in 1996.

“We made it into our world,” he said.

A Scrounger’s Paradise

As Junko’s owners cleaned house, a rack of vintage coats and a few dated photographs were the sole remnants in the emptied space and alluded to its colorful history.

“The whole floor was gold floral foil – we had a fake fireplace and a gold couch,” said McQuate, walking through converted storefront that, for about a year and half in the late 90s, served as a flashy movie house, performance space, and a speakeasy of sorts.

Square mirrors once covered a wall in the back room of Junko’s known as the Gold Lounge. There, an off-duty bartender from the nearby Bruno’s club served stiff cocktails in exchange for donations on Sunday nights behind a makeshift bar.

“We basically opened it because we wanted a place for us and our friends to hang out, a place for people to interact,” said McQuate.

A contortionist, a juggler, a magician, and Felten’s very own tap dancing routine were among the regular acts that drew audiences to Junko’s, where the party continued long after the neighborhood’s bars announced last call.

A movie screen hung over the stage and a video projector rumored to have belonged to underground avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger streamed flicks from another corner of the room.

“Supposedly the projector was the first video and porn projector on the west coast. But I don’t know if that’s true,” said McQuate.

The projector, like almost every other item that has passed through Junko’s, was either found or built from scrapped materials.

“In the city, there used to be a bunch of spaces where you could go see a movie, a show, performance spaces that were kind of underground,” said McQuate. “We were the last hold out – those spaces really don’t exist anymore.”

But in in the late 90s, intervention by the city put an end to the act.

“The captain of Mission Station came in one morning and said he knew what was going on here and that we had stolen stuff, prostitution and drugs – which was totally insane,” said McQuate. “We had to shut down or they were going to shut us down.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

After the crackdown, Junko’s served as a vintage thrift and gift shop, Gem and Jetsam that was operated by McQuate and a former girlfriend, Kathleen Maley, where he and fellow scavengers sold and traded found goods as an alternative to street vending. The space showcased the work of local artists and designers, but closed in 2014 due to a drop in sales that made the thrift store unsustainable.

“I think the people with money…a lot of them weren’t into vintage stuff and a lot of them were gone down to the peninsula on the google buses everyday, so the neighborhood was empty,” said McQuate. “And the people that were left were just worried about paying the rent.”

Still, the scavenging continued.

“We just were constantly dumpster diving and bringing loads home and I’d clean them. I sold them on the streets here forever,” said Felten.

McQuate humbly referred to himself as the “dumpster prince” and Felten, a product of San Francisco’s hardcore 80s punk scene, said he discovered his love for scavenging when he found his first piece of vintage clothing at age 13.

The pair sometimes struck gold in the city’s trash bins – once, they came up on a letter written by Ronald Reagan that became fodder for a PBS segment.

In 2012, McQuate said his greatest discovery nearly landed him embroiled in a lawsuit. While asked to clean out a home in Oakland, McQuate said he stumbled across a manuscript by Beat icon Neal Cassady, which famously inspired Jack Kerouac’s Novel “on the Road.”

A legal battle for ownership of the artifact known as the “Joan Anderson Letter,” worth some $400,000, left McQuate out of the equation – but the story itself is a badge of honor in Junko’s unconventional history.

Even as they watched other small businesses close shop in the wake of overheated rental prices, the pair remained steadfast in hanging on to their lease.  

But last year, despite its many reincarnations, news of the impending renovations ultimately sealed Junko’s fate.

Faced with market-rate rents elsewhere, Junko’s owners said they don’t have the wherewithal to reinvent their business, and instead settled on a buyout.

“To lose your place in San Francisco and have no money, you’re screwed – at some point we had to just say, this is good enough,” said McQuate.