By BARBARA KATE REPA
When Vasilios Kiniris opened a huge new home for Zinc Details, his upscale design and furniture emporium, last month at 1633 Fillmore in the former dollar store, he called it an “expansion” and a “remaking.”
Others called it brave. Or foolhardy.
But Kiniris, with 24 years of design and retail experience — most of it in the neighborhood — sees the move as a way to change with the times: to meet the needs of a changing demographic, to take his business in new directions and to build a sense of community among other independent business owners who call the area home.
“We’re stretching the goodness of Fillmore down the street,” he says.
It’s a tough stretch. Imbibing dudes hang out on the Geary bridge, chic by jowl with the line forming nearby for the best new restaurant in America, as the James Beard Foundation last year dubbed State Bird Provisions.
What was once the Western Addition is now Lower Pacific Heights, according to the real estate listings. But Kiniris has another idea. “We’re calling it LoPa,” he says.
Educated as an architect at UC Berkeley, Kiniris and his friends had early success making art furniture.
“We were all itching,” he says. “And lots of innovation comes from that.”
Their retail lives changed forever in 1991 when Macy’s invited them to create a pop-up shop of their furniture in its basement. “It was back in the day when retail buyers used to get ideas from Macy’s,” he says.
That paved the way for a national platform, wholesaling to the likes of Barney’s, Sak’s and museums. Their carefully curated collections also caught the discerning eye of Iris Fuller, owner of Fillamento, the beloved furniture and gift emporium that long lived at Fillmore and Sacramento. She became a big supporter.
“I would fill up my car and hash it out with Iris,” Kiniris recalls. “She would usually buy up the whole carload.”
Then came the terrorist attacks in 2001, which drastically changed wholesaling habits. “We decided to close our wholesale business and focus on retail,” he says.
It was a better fit for the gregarious Kiniris. “With wholesale, I was stuck behind the desk — with no connection to the user or buyer,” he says. “I need to deal with people directly. They enrich your life.”
With a shop at 1905 Fillmore already up and running, he added an annex on Fourth Street in Berkeley — and in 2006, opened another store at 2410 California Street, splitting the furniture and accessories.
“It’s a different selling process. Your customers deserve the same level of attention and hospitality no matter what they spend,” he says. “But furniture buyers need more time and attention — and they can be frustrated by the diversion of shoppers who buy a magazine. By the same token, those buying a magazine want to get in and out quickly, without having to wait for those considering a couch.”
But running three retail shops started to feel like a grind. He closed the Berkeley shop in 2007, and then got an offer from One Medical Group to take over the California Street space. He took it and reconsolidated the business back at the original 1905 Fillmore shop, which had doubled in size when the Big Pagoda left next door.
For a while, the 1900 block of Fillmore became a design and furniture mecca — with Design Within Reach, Big Pagoda, BoConcept and Ruby Living Design all showcasing modern designs.
But furniture on Fillmore is a tough sell, according to Kiniris. “The foot traffic on upper Fillmore does not allow you to focus on customers,” he says. “The weekend shoppers coming in from the suburbs want to sip a latte and stroll the street. You can’t sell them big pieces of furniture.”
Another practical point: A furniture store needs space to display its inventory.
“Folks need to sit down on something before they’ll buy it,” Kiniris explains. “Most don’t want to shop from an image they see on a computer screen.”
All the furniture stores except Zinc Details have since relocated, mostly to get larger showrooms.
And size was one of the things that mattered when Kiniris was considering the new location for Zinc Details.
“I really wanted to get back to showing more furniture — that’s where my heart is,” he says. “This space was magically sitting there vacant.”
He has big plans for the big space: 5,000 square feet on the main floor that will allow for more furniture lines and more vintage furniture from Knoll and Herman Miller, 5,000 more square feet in the airy basement — plus an additional 800 square feet on the mezzanine as offices. “Now at last we have room to show off the lines we already carry. We’re only two blocks away from our other Fillmore location — and true San Franciscans appreciate that.”
Zinc Details is also becoming a hit with newcomers. Unlike some who grouse that the influx of tech workers and fashion and beauty boutiques has tilted the chic-by-jowl character of the street too heavily toward high-end, Kiniris says he welcomes the change in demographics, especially in his new location.
“I appreciate the new folks. Now we have people without knowledge of the history of the Western Addition,” he says. “They just see it as a great place to live. They don’t know the former prejudices of the place.”
He also appreciates the other independently owned businesses nearby, such as Dosa, Asmbly Hall, Spice Ace, Song Tea, Fat Angel and Social Study — and is planning events at which they can highlight one another. “I can actually walk in and talk with the owners,” he says. “They don’t have to check with corporate headquarters first. There’s a willingness to work together, not apathy.”
Kiniris also sees an opportunity to lease part of his own space to showcase product launches and pop-ups. “For two decades we’ve been curating products from indie designers and craftspeople. The pop-ups within the store will allow us to foster a dialogue between designers and make them rub shoulders with one another,” he says.
“The large space will allow me to be collaborative with the young designers — to host graduation shows and design competitions. These are not any old kids. They’re mostly the best and the brightest, coming from the top design universities worldwide,” he says. “Design is no longer laughed at, and now it makes money. San Francisco used to be the backwater for design; New York and L.A. were trendsetters. Now we’re seen as the innovators.”
There are two more years left on Zinc’s lease at 1905 Fillmore, now back to its original size, which Kiniris says will function as a design gift store, with only a few furniture pieces.
And while Kiniris seems like an eternal optimist, he also recognizes the risks in the move. “It’s super scary — even now,” he says, eying the furniture and accessories at the new store arranged in vignettes of a bedroom, dining room and study to help customers visualize how they might work together. “I’m anxious, but the signs are so positive already. So I’m encouraged.”