Valencia Street’s steady evolution into an increasingly upscale commercial corridor is claiming yet another local casualty as the two-decade old vintage and costume shop Retro Fit informed Mission Local of its exit.
A bid on the shop’s space and a lease-less existence have made its continued survival on the corridor impossible, said owner Steven LeMay, adding that Retro Fit will be unlikely make it to celebrate its 21st anniversary at 910 Valencia St. this May. It’s possible he will find another location, but nothing is certain except his exit at 910.
“Staying here is no longer viable,” said LeMay, a performer, hobby-interior designer, costume and make-up enthusiast and long-time Mission resident, who said he only discovered that his storefront was being advertised for rent in November when a real estate agent brought a potential client in to inspect it.
“Sure enough, there’s my store in a real estate listing for rent,” he said. At the time, the 1,100 square-foot space was listed for some $7,250, he said, an amount that is “significantly higher” than what LeMay has been paying for rent for the past 13 years and well out of his budget. But, as a talented actor, LeMay said, he put on a poker face.
“I said, ‘well, you’re showing the space, I’m interested – I’m interested in staying,’” he said.
After notifying his landlord of his intent to pay the increased rent, LeMay said that his plans were thwarted almost immediately when he received an email from the realtor informing him that the rent for his space had increased by another $2,400.
“He responded to me with the new amount, making it even harder for me,” he said, adding that he knew then that the “rent is not going to come down anywhere reasonable for me to stay.”
Ron Heckmann, a spokesperson for Greentree Property Management, which manages the building that houses Retro Fit, disagreed with LeMay’s account, saying that they responded to LeMay’s request to extend his tenancy with a “current market quote and asked him to respond and continue discussion, but we never heard back.”
Heckmann said he was unaware of LeMay’s unhappiness until Mission Local called for a comment and at that point, he again e-mailed LeMay to see if he wants to continue discussions. “Furthermore, we have a number of properties throughout the San Francisco area, and might also be able to accommodate Retro Fit elsewhere.”
That could happen, but it is unlikely that LeMay can withstand the market rate rent at his current location.
LeMay has a keen eye for trends – good and bad – and said he sensed trouble when his building was sold to an investment corporation in 2014 as Retro Fit’s lease expired.
He has been operating without a lease since. LeMay watched as two other ground-floor commercial spaces at the building that houses Retro Fit switched hands. Some 24 residential units are above the commercial spaces.
“Instead of giving us leases and trying to sell it, they sold the building without its tenants having leases, which is better for them because then the new owner can easily evict us,” said LeMay.
That prophecy first came true in 2013 when Encantada Gallery – which sold Mexican folk artisan crafts out of two small commercial spaces adjacent to Retro Fit and was stewarded by owner Mia Gonzales for some 16 years – received an eviction notice to make room for a chocolatier.
That endeavor lasted some nine months, and the space has been sitting empty as it awaits the arrival of Smitten Ice Cream.
In 2016, LeMay’s neighbor to the left, the bike shop Freewheel, was forced to move after 18 years on Valencia Street after being served with a rent increase.
“It was basically, ‘Thank you for playing, it’s time for you to go,’” recalled LeMay.
That space is slated to be occupied by the Los Angeles-based clothing company Reformation.
“What the building [owner] is looking for is someone to take my space and do exactly the same thing,” he said.
Again Heckmann disagreed.
“The retail spaces in the building have undergone improvements in recent years as part of the building’s overall upkeep and maintenance, and there has also been tenant turnover in that period as well,” said Heckmann, adding that RetroFit’s previous lease was “below market and even the new month-to-month rate is still significantly below current market on comparable spaces.”
Because of that month-to-month lease and few legal protections for commercial tenants, LeMay may have no choice but to pack up.
The retail industry’s overall move to online sales hasn’t helped, either – LeMay said that although his clothing is featured on Etsy and he runs his own website, maintaining an online shop in the vein of Reformation and other big name brands that recently settled onto Valencia Street “is another full-time job.” LeMay can only afford to run his business as a one-man-show.
Regardless, he feels strongly that there is still a need for businesses like his own.
Colorful wigs along with racks of 1940s and 50s-era vintage line the walls of his space. A vintage sofa invites customers perusing his store to sit, rest, and most importantly, to chat.
“It’s a community hangout,” he said.
Known for its window displays, a naked mannequin draped in an American flag sent a message of “peaceful mourning” to the Mission community during the presidential elections – in recent weeks, the mannequin has been dressed in elegant black, signifying his personal mourning in regard to the upcoming move.
In the midst of coming to terms with his fate, LeMay is not ready to give up on Retro Fit, which he says has been a labor of love for more than a decade. Hopeful that another landlord will give his “secondhand a second chance,” LeMay is currently searching for a new location in the Mission.
He has applied for legacy standing through the city’s Legacy Business Registry, and hopes for financial support from the Mission Economic Development Agency if and when he is able to secure a lease elsewhere.
“My hope is we can move and secure ourselves with a ten year-lease somewhere, get some investment capital and grow,” he said, adding that he will likely launch a fundraiser next month to help him secure the money needed to start anew. “San Francisco needs a store like mine.”