A worker tends to furniture inside J&L Refinishing Corp on Alabama Street. Photo by Laura Wenus

Come January, you won’t be able to take your water-stained, dinged-up or weathered wooden furniture to Alabama Street for rejuvenation anymore.

J&L Refinishing Corp, on Alabama Street between 19th and 20th streets since 1988, will be packing up ahead of its deadline to leave — the company has been asked to vacate by the end of February.

While Jia Yan, the current owner of J&L, is looking for a place to relocate his business in some other industrial part of San Francisco, possibly Bayview or Hunter’s Point, he’s packing the rest up.

A table built by J&L, bearing its original stamp.


Closing up shop for such a long-lived business is no small feat, and he expects it will take two months to clean everything up and get it into storage.

The move, from a month-to-month lease that Yan describes as being below the current market rate, will also mean the company has to downsize. But he’s hoping to avoid shutting down completely.

“It’s more than just working for a living — I like this,” Yan said. “This is why we had so much opportunity.”

He and his brother arrived in the country from Shanghai in 1984.

The refinishing company is the only place he’s ever worked, he said. The brothers — 20 and 18 at the time — learned on the job. With time, they also learned to design and build their own pieces in a variety of styles.

“We were mostly self-taught. We’re old school,” he said. That means no staple guns, no nail guns, but joints. A slow method of production, but sturdy and handsome.

“Restoration is much more than just taking the finish off,” Yan said. “My job is to save the history. Each [piece of] furniture has a story to tell.”

With so much historic furniture coming through the doors, Yan says people often ask him how much a piece might be worth once he’s restored its finish.

“I say, it’s not about the worth when you sell it, it’s how much joy it brings you when you keep it,” he says.

Refinishing in progress at J&L.

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1 Comment

  1. What a lovely article! I am glad to know there are people like this still left in SF, who love their craft and know what’s important in this world. This guy has true wisdom. I wish him the best of luck with his move!

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