The merchandise is packed into Siegel’s Clothing Superstore like meat stacked into an overstuffed deli sandwich. This is a big store specializing in selling big suits, and it’s hard to overstate just how many of them there are in here.
Every rack is tightly crammed with blazers and pants in colors befitting the Jell-O aisle. Hundreds of accompanying hats range from Lewis Carroll nightmare to Samuel L. Jackson casual wear. There’s an organizational system here, but the sheer mass of goods at hand is overwhelming. This is what a menswear shop would look like if it was operated by the Collyer brothers of hoarding fame.
When you walk into a big place with individual character, a fantastic array of eclectic merchandise, and a small army of staffers damn-near immediately asking “You need help, Hombre?” one can’t help but think “I can’t believe this place is still around in the Mission.”
Come January, it won’t be. After 91 years on-site, Siegel’s is abruptly closing down.
In September, Michael Gardner, who operated the shop for more than 40 years, told Mission Local‘s Julian Mark that its building, listed for $6.5 million, would be taken off the market. It wasn’t for sale. And, even if it did sell, he pledged “Siegel’s is not going anywhere.”
Last month, the building sold. And, now, the signs plastered on the walls and windows pledge a “Huge one million dollar inventory liquidation.” Everything must go: “LIQUIDATING TO THE BARE WALLS!!”
“Everything must go” is a painfully familiar sentiment for the predominantly Latino Mission-dwellers (and ex-Mission-dwellers) who kept Siegel’s a viable business — until it wasn’t. Many of them went, too.
At the end, Siegel’s business model was to sell clothes that people in the Mission used to wear to people who used to live in the Mission.
The erasure of this neighborhood’s working-class Latinos and the local businesses they ran and supported is steady, ongoing, and, perhaps most painful of all, feels more and more inevitable. Nobody was surprised by the demise of yet another longstanding Mission institution; we’ve become inured to such news.
The loss of Siegel’s, however, staggered people. And that’s because, more so than the many other much-lamented defunct Mission businesses, this place was, by design, irreplaceable. This isn’t a “they don’t make ’em like they used to” situation. They never made them like this.
Like Kaplan’s Sporting Goods on Market, Siegel’s was a one-of-its-kind establishment that recalled a different, happier, more personable era — but was, also, unique in any era. It was also, like Kaplan’s, so old that it had seemingly always been old. And always been there.
Siegel’s was the place where you could get everything. It was a place that, pun intended, had woven itself into the fabric of the Mission. Now, that community and culture are fraying. So is Siegel’s.
Everything must go.
Roberto Hernandez is 62 years old and has lived in the Mission his entire life. The number of items he’s bought at Siegel’s is incalculable. As is the number of times he’s walked past. But, “to this day, I stare at the window and look at all the zoot suits every single time. I don’t care how much of a hurry I’m in,” he says. “I stop and stare at the clothes. Every single time.”
Siegel’s looms behind nearly every element of Latino Mission life. John Nuño, Jr. and Samuel Reveles, now 50 and 53, and relocated to Los Angeles and Daly City, respectively, first went there with their families to buy uniforms for St. Peter’s School.
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“My tux rental for my first wedding — I got it there,” 47-year-old bus driver Daniel Salazar tells me. Construction worker Leroy Bermudez grew up around the corner from “The Latino Men’s Wearhouse” and just bought a suit there last month; he wanted to look classy when he surprised his 10-year-old daughter by taking her to an Ozuna concert. Twenty-five years earlier, Siegel’s was the place he went when, like many Mission dwellers, he wanted to look classy by dressing just like Cypress Hill.
By being all things to all people, Siegel’s managed the impressive feat of changing while staying the same. After the Luis Valdez play and movie Zoot Suit came out in the late 1970s, Mission dwellers stampeded to Siegel’s to buy them. Even now, autographed glossy photos of Latin and swing musicians are plastered to the walls, lauding the “best zoot suits on the West coast.”
At almost the same time that fans of Zoot Suit were buying zoot suits, shoppers swarmed Siegel’s to buy Pendleton shirts like the ones the actors wore in Boulevard Nights (1979). So, you could walk in and buy your Pendletons and Derby jackets made just over the hill at the factory on Potrero or you could buy your zoot suits; you could buy your Stacy Adams shoes in lollipop colors or you could buy your “wino shoes;” you could buy your pachuco-style clothing or clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in a lumberyard.
You could do all of these things. But the common denominator is “walk in.” Gardner didn’t return messages left on the phone or in person for this story, but he had purportedly complained, loudly, that there were weekdays when nobody walked into his store. “My kids never had the experience of going to Siegel’s, because you can buy everything online now,” concurs Reveles. “And a lot of us moved away.”
Like many Mission merchants, Gardner reportedly despised the red transit lanes expediting bus routes. He apparently liked to recount a story in which he was forced to run out of the store and transact business with an out-of-town customer who could not find parking; the driver handed over the money and Gardner handed over the merchandise right there on the curbside.
And yet, this anecdote reveals bigger problems than transit lanes and parking. When thousands of Latinos are economically banished from the city and your business relies upon these people, any problems brought about by red lanes seem to be akin to the straw that broke the camel’s back.
One should be wary of focusing on the straw at the expense of all the weight that preceded it.
Salazar, who drives the 14 and 49, rolls past Siegel’s daily in those red lanes. On the weekend, he does the same in his ’66 Buick Skylark lowrider.
He has a closet full of clothes he bought here and even a few fancy suits in storage. But those, like memories of a bygone Mission, are fading with age.
“I think we’re going to lose a lot more” establishments like Siegel’s, he says. “But I won’t be pushed out. I have my house. I will die here.”