Goodbye Mr. Stag


root - Posted on 01 October 2001

The Myth on Market Street Series Continues....

by Martha Bridegam

Market Street between Sixth and Seventh offers a large choice of restaurants
where you can buy coffee for less than a dollar. Pick a place with a large,
clean, front window. Sit down with your coffee where you can see into the
street. There is usually something to watch.

This immediate area contains a pharmacy, some bars, a methadone clinic, two
nude theaters, a lot of residential hotels, and two check cashing
storefronts. Also nearby are the respectable Golden Gate and Warfield
theaters, a federal courthouse, and several tourist hotels. And a slummers'
best-kept secret, the the ambrosial Tu Lan Vietnamese restaurant on Sixth.

This is a picturesque block but it is not a slum exactly. It is a necessary
kind of urban place where people of all social classes mingle and
occasionally communicate. Now it is going the way of New York City's Times
Square: it is being cleaned up.

While drinking your coffee you may see someone pass by wearing a padded
winter jacket in an unusual silver-tan color with a wide black stripe
running across the shoulders and down both sleeves. The Mr. Stag Fashion
Center, down the block at 1041 Market, was selling those in early October
2000 as "The Puff Daddy Jacket." For a while they were asking only 30 dollars
apiece, marked down first from 80 dollars and then from 59 dollars. At least one man who
bought a 30-dollar jacket was homeless at the time. After some days'
wear he said the jacket was a good one.

But the 30 dollar jackets—and the 20 dollar second-hand blue
jeans—are no longer for sale. After 31 years Mr. Stag was evicted in the
fall of 2000, along with its brother institution, Jeffrey's Men's Shop. In
their place is a plywood enclosure covered in layers of advertising posters.
Inside, renovations are still going on. High up on the front wall is an
architect's drawing of the property's future as an office building.

In the block around Mr. Stag, one of the two House of Blue Jeans stores is
closed. Other bits of the neighborhood are gone, too. The Homeless Advocacy
Project, where I work sometimes, has been displaced from Sixth and Market to
Ninth and Mission. The Eviction Defense Collaborative itself was unable to
hang on to its mid-Market offices and shifted to South Van Ness. The St.
Francis movie theater has closed and now has its own dreary shell of plywood
sheathing.

While new "live-work" loft projects stand empty in suddenly boomless South
of Market, the renovations continue around Market and Sixth. Maybe there
really will be tenants to fill these newly cleared buildings once they've
been polished up to Financial District standards. But whether new paying
tenants do or don't appear, the evictions of the old neighbors can't be
undone.

In 1969 Al "Big Red" Sultan founded Mr. Stag and Jeffrey's on the ground
floor of the seven-story former Weinstein's department store, along the
south side of Market between Sixth and Seventh. He hung on for 31 years
through earthquake, fire and riot, and watched three different owners give
up on renovating the rest of the building. The upper floors stood empty all
that time, except when unauthorized pigeons and persons found their way in.
A small storefront between the two clothing stores was vacant for eight or
nine years, too after a McDonald's restaurant failed there. But Sultan said
his own business thrived right up until the eviction.

The building is a hodgepodge of structures from the early 20th Century, a
fact that makes renovation difficult. Paul Boschetti, who sold the property
for development this past spring, said the section that housed Jeffrey's—on the right as you face it—is the former Hotel America, built in 1910.
The rest of the building is probably 70 to 80 years old. City records show
the department store's founding family assembled the property from smaller
lots between 1924 and 1931.

But by 1969, Sultan said the store had closed and the upper floors were "in
terrible shape" from disuse. He convinced the owners to let him convert the
ground floor to storefronts. "The electrical, elevators didn't work. It was
just a bad situation up there, you know."

I taped a long interview with Sultan the day he closed up shop for good.
That was October 17, 2000—11 years to the day after the Loma Prieta
earthquake kicked Mid Market into an economic slump but failed to dislodge
Mr. Stag and Jeffrey's.

So what was the neighborhood like 31 years ago?

"You know, funny, much like it is now," said Sultan. "Hasn't changed—to
me, I don't see it changed at all. It's the same bunch of people, same
crowds, same everything, you know. We do get a few more tourists now than we
did years ago because they've made some improvements of hotels a block away
around the corner."

What would he miss here? "Every customer, every face—I miss it
all. To me, this is—it's like burying one of my children. This is, this
is the feeling I have, closing this store."

Right up until moving day, these two stores formed a lively part of Market
Street's toughest block. Both stores, especially Mr. Stag, had broad open
displays that extended onto the sidewalk during business hours. This meant that
they had to be watched carefully against theft. Like many Mid Market
business people, the staff stood up front with the merchandise, or sometimes
out on the broad sidewalk facing it. They were part security guards, part
salesmen, part bartenders—part of the lively jumble in a downmarket
retail district that is now being smoothed out.

They packed up Mr. Stag first, on the morning of the 17th, loading all the
merchandise into a truck bound for a warehouse in Sacramento. Sultan said
the inventory of both stores would stay there until it could be sold at flea
markets.

Manager Delbert Hicks, who had helped to run both stores for most of the 31
years, paused in loading the truck to answer a shocked questioner on the
sidewalk. No, the business hadn't failed, he said, "We've been dot-commed."

Evicted, yes—dot-commed, no, not exactly. Scott Harper, a Whitney
Cressman broker working with the building's new owner, said in late 2000
that he would want conventional office tenants for the rehabbed building,
like engineers, architects and lawyers—not dot-coms. "The landlord is
motivated by having someone he knows will be paying the rent in a few
years," he said dryly.

The afternoon of the 17th, Jeffrey's was full of customers paying last
visits. One of them, John Lamantia, had made a special trip from San Jose—"because he has outstanding clothes, and they're something you can't find
all over, and I look good in them."

The two stores' stock in trade was a shrewd mix of the flashy and the
practical. Mr. Stag featured puffy jackets, plus a table abundantly stacked
with 20 dollar pairs of second-hand blue jeans—the only second-hand
goods sold in either of the two stores. Jeffrey's front window showed off an
impossibly oversized display model of the wide-lapel "Joe Hollywood" blazer,
specially made for this store only, available in six colors of bright
wave-pattern velour. Inside, the stock was mainly modest-colored men's suits
and jackets, though a shirt with "Millenium 2000" holograms—a big seller
the previous winter—was still on display.

"We don't compete with nobody, because nobody competes with us," Sultan
laughed. "Nobody dares compete with us because they don't dare carry what we
sell."

He claimed to have no equal among neighboring stores, though Kaplan's
sporting goods and military surplus does carry some new outdoor wear, and
there are several storefronts nearby selling shoes and casual clothing. He
guessed his customers would shift to the Ross's and Marshall's bargain
stores along Market to the east of Sixth.

A grizzled customer, who gave his name as Lucky, said Marshall's would make
a poor substitute. "I know. I've been, I've gone here a lot of times. He's
got the best little location, the best clothes for a working man's, uh,
pocket." His voice gathered strength as he repeated himself: "That's what
you're dealing with. You're dealing with a working man's pocket. You know,
he had good quality clothes for—for the average man who really couldn't
afford to go into, like, Nordstrom's and stuff."

Asked when he got the eviction news, Sultan turned serious. "May. May. End
of May... that was when the bomb fell." Despite a "financial settlement,"
Sultan expected to lose three to four hundred thousand dollars. "I wanted
my year. I wanted my year here. A year, I could have liquidated my stores in
an orderly manner."

Walter Armer, a director at Seligman Western Enterprises, said part of the
building was seismically unstable, to the point where "we felt badly about
having occupants in the building." He said his company is overseeing the
renovations on behalf of the new owner. The owner is a limited liability
corporation with its address at the Michigan offices of Seligman & Assocs.,
Inc.

About the eviction agreement, Armer says, "Suffice it to say, I think that
everybody was happy at the end of the day. That was certainly our goal and I
think that Mr. Sultan felt that way as well."

Those vacant floors upstairs wore out a lot of investors' hopes over the
years. Although the department store closed in the sixties, the building did
not change hands until 1984. That year property records show the Weinstein
Investment Co. deeded the property to Alexander and Binyamina Anolik, who
were to pay $1.75 million for it over time. But by 1996 the Anoliks were
facing foreclosure and had to hand the property back. Sultan says the
Anoliks' development hopes for the building failed because of the savings
and loan crisis and an early—'80s glut of San Francisco downtown office
space.

On retaking the property, the department store's legal successor, a trust,
sold it to Paul G. Boschetti, owner of the nearby Aida and Verona Hotels.
Boschetti says he got the building for just $650,000 by agreeing to take it
"as is"—which meant a leaking roof and upper floors full of pigeons and
trespassers' damage that looked like a "war zone."

Boschetti fixed the roof and elevator and covered a window to shut the
pigeons out. (Well, mostly out. Some were shut in, with unfortunate
results.) He originally planned to develop the property into a tourist
hotel, and was thinking of converting the former McDonald's storefront into
a lobby. However, Boschetti, too, had to give up on developing the place.

In spring 2000, the building finally gave Boschetti a profit. He sold it on
June 2, 2000 to a limited liability company identified on public papers as
1050 HCT LLC. Computed from public transfer tax information, the selling
price from Boschetti to 1050 HCT was $5.5 million.

Four days after the purchase from Boschetti, 1050 HCT sold the property
again to 1035 Market Street LLC, which is the current owner. The purchase
price in this second sale, also as computed from the transfer tax, works out
to $7.75 million.

The "1050 HCT" entity—the buyer that apparently bought and sold the
property at a $2.25 million profit in four days—was represented on the
sale documents by James I. Hunter and had its address in care of Hunter's
HCT Investments, Inc. in Alameda.

Reached by phone recently, Hunter took a moment to remember the building
involved, then said the $2.25 million difference between the prices sounded
high—"I didn't think we made *that* much money. There must have been
something else." Later, commeting on the deal, he said, "Sometimes you lose
and sometimes you win." He declined to name the investors, but confirmed
that the profit from such a deal goes in several directions. "Yes, and it
goes in several directions when you lose."

How could the buying and selling prices have been so different from each
other within such a short period? He said, "at that time it tooked like
offices were going to go down Market and that area was going to be
rejuvenated." He said, office businesses had previously avoided the area
because of too much "hassle." Had I seen the alley behind 1035 Market?
"They're dealing drugs all the time... It hadn't been regarded as safe."

But Hunter was speaking in the past tense, at least about the San Francisco
office space market. "All that has changed."

"There's millions of square feet [of office space] available 'cause of all
those dot-commers gone bust."

Did he eventually expect buildings along Mid Market would turn into business
offices? Sure, he said, "They eventually should." They're near BART, and
"Market is a hell of a street...That area should've gone a long time
ago.... it should've gone in advance of the South of Market area." Why
hasn't it? "The difficulty of doing business in San Francisco."

Why did South of Market "go" first? He guessed because the warehouses, with details
like "big wooden beams" were more to the taste of the dot-com companies,
and there were "not as many people to hassle their employees."

Did he feel sorry for the current owners, stuck renovating the building in
the newly fallen market? "I think they'll be fine in the long term."

Theories vary about what has kept mid-Market rents low since the days when a
department store could flourish between Sixth and Seventh. Some old-timers
think it started with the BART subway construction diggings on Market Street
in the early 1970s. Also in the 1970s, Boschetti suggests, the city's
skid-row focus was driven westward from Third Street to Sixth by the
hard-fought Yerba Buena displacements, which cleared two whole blocks of
dense, cheap housing to build the complex between Third and Fourth Streets
that is now a park, convention center and entertainment complex.

After the displacements came the downtown office space glut of the 1980s,
and then the 1989 earthquake—all of which has probably helped preserve
Sixth Street as the last big low-rent enclave in the South of Market
district. "Low-rent" being a relative concept on Sixth, however: subsidized
rooms at the Seneca Hotel cost $450 per month, and even the worst privately
run hotels can now get $150 per week and upward for a single room with
bathroom down the hall.

With nonprofit offices being replaced by businesses up and down the street,
and even Sixth Street poverty getting expensive—well, yes, the last
scruffy block of Market Street is probably turning around.

Last fall Armer, of Seligman Western, expressed excitement at the task in
front of his company: making a commercially rentable property out of "almost
a hundred thousand feet of vacant space that's been collecting pigeons." He
said the renovation would keep the existing facade and fire escape for a
"funky, retro-type look," while doing some seismic strengthening and
bringing the mismatched parts of the building to a uniform height. The
architect is Gelfand RNP.

It's still not clear what kind of tenant is likely to replace Mr. Stag and
Jeffrey's. Sultan mentioned a rumor about a Starbucks moving into his spot,
but Armer chuckled at that suggestion, saying a Starbucks would need high
pedestrian traffic and a lot of nearby office workers—not a likely
combination around Sixth Street. Sultan also guessed his space might be
attractive to a large drug store chain if it decided to crowd out the fading
Merrill's pharmacy at Seventh and Market. Armer declined to comment on the
suggestion about Merrill's.

Merrill's is distinctly part of old Mid-Market. Its red and white awning
formed the background to a memorable realist scene in the 1994 Terry Zwigoff
documentary "Crumb." On a visit to one of his eccentric brothers, the
cartoonist R. Crumb sits sketching on a sidewalk bench while an elderly
woman with flaky dry skin and a painfully bent neck stands nearby
overfeeding the pigeons.

Whether or not Merrill's hangs on, the "Crumb" scene already belongs to a
different Market Street of the early 1990s that is no longer reproducible.
The pigeon lady disappeared around 1995. Around that time they took out the
benches, too. Mr. Boschetti takes credit for reducing the pigeon population
by shutting off their roost in the empty floors above Mr. Stag. Everything
is cleaner and duller now.

One of the customers taking a last look at Jeffrey's on closing day was city
police officer Darryl Jones. He looked at the jackets and bought a tan suit.
Sultan carried the pants back to his work table in the storage room and took
in the cuffs while reminiscing about his store's dramatic moments.

He told about a 1979 fire that demolished part of the Kaplan's building and
caused smoke damage at Jeffrey's and Mr. Stag. Then the earthquake in 1989,
which caused "a depression" in mid-Market retail and forced Sultan to watch
expenses for a while. Then there was the Rodney King riot in 1992, when
looters broke into Mr. Stag and set a fire. Luckily Sultan arrived in time
to put it out, so his loss was limited to theft and carpet damage. And now
it was time to leave.

"You know what's going to happen when I leave? When this business closes,
after today and tomorrow, every business in this block is going to feel the
impact of the loss of these stores because of the customers that we draw
here... Lots of times... if I get a customer for shoes, I mean, I always
send them down to my neighbor down the street, where he can get some nice
shoes. Sometimes my neighbor sends them here because they know, well, you
know, where they can go to get a nice suit. And... everybody benefits from
that. But now, we'll be gone, what are you going to do?"

Sultan finished with Officer Jones' trouser cuffs and excused himself toward
the front of the store, muttering, "I gotta go back and get him to put his
pants on." He turned me over to his accountant, Julian McClendon, who was
sentimental too, and also a little bit dazed.

"...Well, Al is like, an icon, you know, certainly from my point of view, I
mean, not so much from the point of San Francisco, I'm not quite sure how
they view him, but I'm sure that with - with all the customers that they
have in here that they're going to miss him. But this is probably my last
client that's on this street. Most of them are in the Financial District and
although you get tired of the smell sometimes and that sort of thing when
you walk up Sixth Street, still, it's a part of what sort of keeps people
alive, all those different smells and things that they see, you know, that
sort of thing, and when you're no longer on Market Street because your
clients are gone, and you're just in the Financial [District] area, you
know, they kind of change, and you just kind of miss it."

How does Sultan see his block two or three years from now?

"Well, I see it as the same characters walking the street. I don't care how
many millions of dollars they put in fixing buildings here, everything,
you're not going to change the same people that walk here, because of all
the types of remaining businesses that are here - check cashing places, and
those places, you know."

Some time ago one of the Sixth Street hotel landlords told me he expected
the residential hotels there would turn into hostels for young backpack
tourists. But Sultan dismissed this prediction—"No, I don't think so...
eventually somehow the city will buy up those buildings somehow and try to
get all of those places closed out and get everybody out of there and then
resell the properties to developers. But I think that—the only reason why
it's there now... it's the only place they can get housing for, you know,
the poor."

McClendon, the accountant, agreed Sultan's stores could have survived if not
for the eviction, but at the same time he predicted the neighborhood would
change. "Oh, it's just—it's just dot-coms, and—and in the retail area
it'll be selling to people that can buy retail but they'll also be able to
afford four-thousand-dollar-a-month apartments... 'Cheap'
four-thousand-dollar-a-month studio apartments. So the kind of retail that
you're going to see in here is going to be a different kind of retail.
Because the common folk will just be out of here."


© 2001 Martha Bridegam

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