In a surprising twist of fate, the virus that closed their shops, ended their jobs and unsettled their lives has presented some Mission District businesses with a lifeline to solvency, or at least a sandwich: making masks.
Throughout the Mission – from the upscale Valencia commercial corridor to the grittier Mission Street or the Latinx mom-and-pop shops on 24th Street, masks abound — homemade, imported, some possibly contraband. Often the designs are a reflection of the seller. Always, they are a promise of income.
“I’m a hoarder/environmentalist,” said Holly Samuelsen, who designs for Gravel and Gold, a small clothing boutique on 21st Street, who has been making $15 to $16 masks from material scraps she saved over the years. Her masks are woven cotton, either sunny plaids of sherbet-toned oranges or pinks or, for the more whimsical customer, a funky, boob-printed pattern.
Four blocks south, at the corner of 24th and Mission streets, where crowds gather to catch public transit or to buy freshly-cut fruit from a vendor, it’s hard to miss the $5 masks affixed to a strip of cardboard. They’re made by Gerardo Perez, a cleaner turned mask designer. Perez tends to lean toward more basic patterns, like polka dots.
For Gravel and Gold, the 1,000 masks sold since the beginning of April have helped pay the rent. For Perez, new to the business, the eight or nine masks he’s sold have at least bought him a meal or two.
But, unlike many trends, necessity drove this one.
Yaeko Yamashita, the owner of Laku, a quirky boutique selling handmade, intricate items, said the need to pay her shop’s rent pushed her innovation.
Before long, the one mask she made for her roommate turned into 30 new, hand-sewn masks a day, now selling at $15 a mask. The sales of her pretty, high-quality fabric masks have covered her shop’s monthly rent of a little over $2,900.
Nearby, masks are also keeping the lights on at State of Flux. “With the whole PPP, and this SBA loan, and funding and stuff like that, we applied for everything,” said Johnny Travis, co-owner of the clothing store. “But I can’t really depend on that to come through, to be honest.”
By pivoting to making masks, Travis’s employees still have work, and the store is also able to contribute much-needed masks to the city’s essential workers. For every purchase of a $15 reversible cotton mask (olive green and navy are the hues currently available), one is donated to local firefighters, law enforcement, and school teachers.
“The philanthropic component to it is a pretty big one,” said Travis. “At the end of the day, it was never our intention to sell masks to capitalize on a situation. It was always to help communities.”
They started making masks right before shelter-in-place went into effect, first sending out a tutorial for customers to make their own. But the tutorial masks wound up piquing customer interest right when masks became mandatory. “It just caught fire,” said Travis.
In two months they’ve sold at least 1,000 masks, donating a good amount as well, said Travis.
On the corner of 24th and South Van Ness, jewelry and arts and crafts shop Mixcoatl has also joined the trend.
Although a little late to the game, Ricardo Peña, who runs the shop with his wife, Connie Rivera, estimates they’ve sold around 100 masks since reopening a couple of weeks ago. They sell two types: one made by Pena’s brother-in-law, with brightly patterned fabric, for $15. The others are delicately embroidered by Pena’s family in Mexico and go for $18.
Some of the embroideries are nicer than others, Pena joked. The occasional mask is sewn by a relatives’ child. “The important thing is, they are made by hand,” he said.
With the sales of the masks and other popular items like incense to loyal friends and clients, Pena thinks they’ll pull through the pandemic.
But the face coverings are far from a remedy for all.
Stacy Rodgers, the co-founder of clothing shop Curator, which shares its retail storefront with bookstore Needles and Pens on Valencia Street, uses leftover light-wash and dark-wash denim scraps for her masks. She sold them online first, and now at the open front window, but 85 or so she’s sold — for $15 to $17 apiece — will not cover her rent.
“We don’t sell super crazy,” said Rodgers, guessing that she sells maybe five a day. “I know other people are like, really slinging them.”
If you haven’t already and read us regularly, please do so today. We can’t do this without you.