Brown Bag broke all the rules

Michael May took the owner’s ideas and turned them into windows.

FLASHBACK | JO MANCUSO

The windows at the Brown Bag, the quirky office supply store long on the corner at 2000 Fillmore Street, were the topic of an item in Image magazine in 1991:

This is the store that breaks all the rules. Its Fillmore Street windows are really shadow boxes, maybe 4 feet square but only about 6 inches deep, so the displays look more like collages. The employees, all collectors of various kinds, bring their own stuff in to use as props. The store itself, which is supposed to be a stationery shop, sells dishes and tiny plastic eyeballs.

“We don’t want to be commercial,” says owner Dawn Christensen. “There’s nothing I won’t buy.” She is considering a “national mammogram week” window this spring using greeting cards with voluptuous Victorian women.

Employee Michael May takes Christensen’s ideas and turns them into windows. A scissors window. A cowboy window. A magnet window. A recent gold window included crowns, swans, pencils, dice, stamp holders and doilies. “It’s a far cry from forming men’s suits,” says May, a former men’s retail display worker.

“We don’t just pull merchandise from the store — we buy things for the windows and then sell them,” says Christensen.

A window sometimes has a hidden message, she says, but “the people who would be offended don’t get it.”

EARLIER: “Practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles

From the ashes of St. Paul’s

Grand Central Market at 2435 California Street shortly after it opened in June 1941.

ARCHITECTURE | BRIDGET MALEY

Since it opened in June 1941, touted as the city’s “newest drive-in market,” the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, at 2435 California Street, has been a bustling neighborhood grocery.

The News Call Bulletin declared that “a program of entertainment would signalize its opening.” A photograph appearing with the article showed a gleaming white building with a black tile base and a Streamline Moderne blade sign. There were two entrances on California Street and one facing west toward the parking lot, for customers who took advantage of the readily available parking. This modern grocery was inserted into a block that had once housed a stately Episcopal church.

The south side of the 2400 block of California Street looked drastically different in 1915 when it was mapped by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. At the southwest corner of California and Fillmore Streets was a drugstore with apartments above it. Several other businesses, including a Japanese laundry, were west of the drug store along California Street. Mid-block there were several small single family dwellings and the imposing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the southeast corner of California and Steiner were two additional small-scale store buildings.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s, designed by the architect Samuel Newsom, was a small ecclesiastical building with a steeply pitched main gable and a red stone facade. The church, which was completed in 1896, burned in 1933, and several adjacent residences, also owned by the Episcopal Church, were damaged by the fire. The church was not rebuilt and the land then became available for commercial development.

The architect of the Grand Central Market was Albert W. Burgren, who was at the twilight of his career when he designed this modern grocery. Burgren, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 to Swedish parents, began a prolific partnership with T. Paterson Ross in 1900 that lasted until 1913. Their projects included a number of hotels and apartment buildings built after the 1906 earthquake, as well as the iconic Sing Fat Building in Chinatown. After his split with Ross, Burgren opened his own office, but continued some collaborative work until Ross was severely injured in 1922 at a construction site. Burgren served in Europe during World War I, returning to San Francisco and working mostly in commercial architecture until his death in 1951 after a long and prolific career.

The Grand Central Market included a meat counter run by the Petrini family, which also had counters at the Lick Super, Sunset Market and Manor Market. Petrini’s was established in 1935 by Frank Petrini, who immigrated from Lucca, Italy, at the age of 12, and was known to have the best meats in Northern California. Petrini’s advertisements are remembered for their inspiring quotes, which also appeared on walls and signs throughout the stores. The quotes were published in a collection in 1992 titled The Proverbs of Frank Petrini: Food for Thought.

The Grand Central Market became Mollie Stone’s in 1998, one of nine stores across the Bay Area. When the new owners remodeled the building, Mollie Stone’s kept the Grand Central blade sign, with some modifications.

‘1,000 Monks’ helped create a community

FIRST PERSON | TRACI TERAOKA

Over the years, many artists asked me to consider showing their work at my shop, Poetica Art & Antiques. One day a woman walked in who was looking for a place to present a special print, which she called “1,000 Monks.” Andrea Speer Hibbard was visiting from her home in Santa Rosa. She had created the original artwork back in 2001, and her son had encouraged her to make prints to make it more widely available.

Little did I know how important that serendipitous encounter would become.

Andrea and I quickly reached an agreement, and soon “1,000 Monks” was for sale in my shop. It has been my best-selling item, and one of the single greatest contributions my small business has made to the community. Andrea has been wonderful to work with, often hand-delivering prints so we can visit.

The giclee prints have been a source of joy and happiness, connection, strength and contemplation since the day they first arrived. Many people stop in their tracks once they make eye contact with “1,000 Monks.” They look, find a monk looking back and soon are transported, looking at different monks. The piece is instantly engaging. And that happens time and time again, day after day. Some people have told me they walk by just by hoping they can visit the monks through the window. 

For many years, the only sales I had on the website for the Poetica shop was the print of “1,000 Monks. “ I don’t sell them by the thousands, but when the bell on my phone sounds, notifying me of a sale coming through, more often than not it’s still for “1,000 Monks.”

Sales are often the result of someone seeing the piece in a friend’s home, creating a little chain reaction. A friend bought one and had it shipped to Jonesboro, Arkansas. That purchase led to several of her friends acquiring the piece in several cities in the South.

Sometimes the piece provides needed comfort. In 2015, three young people went on a murderous rampage beginning at Golden Gate Park after Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Their next stop was Marin, where they shot Steve Carter and his dog Coco multiple times. Coco survived. Steve did not. Steve’s wife, Lokita Carter, suddenly a widow, was also grappling with intense chemo treatments for a rare late-stage cancer. I heard the familiar bell notification on my cell phone that “1,000 Monks” had been ordered. It was Lokita. Andrea and I refunded Lokita’s purchase and gifted it to her. She recently told me the monks continue to be a cornerstone in her life.

Another story: Last fall, I was talking to a neighbor in front of the shop when a man stopped to look in the window and became mesmerized by the framed “1,000 Monks.” He said he was having a difficult and challenging week, and really wanted the piece. As I was processing his sale, he confided he was James Roche — a roommate at Yale of Brett Kavanaugh, then battling for confirmation as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though raised in an ultra-conservative family — his father owned a MAGA hat — Roche said he had taken a leap of faith and gone public with his belief that Kavanaugh had lied repeatedly under oath and sexually assaulted another woman who was a friend.

There is something in this piece that creates connection, happiness, contentment — and solace.

The giclee print of “1,000 Monks” is $85. It’s in stock at Poetica, at 3461 Sacramento Street.

His greatest creation was his own home

Photograph of bronze lion head fountain in the garden by Mark Evans

WHEN BUSH STREET resident Palmer Sessel still wore a tie and worked in the Financial District, he liked to get out of the office midday and think things over.

One day he walked by the historic Monadnock Building on Market Street and was struck by the cast of notable San Franciscans looking down at him from the trompe l’oeil mural above the marble cornice. The guard told him the artists who created it had a studio upstairs. He went up and engaged them to create a mural of a winged bulldog on the ceiling of the living parlor in his classic Victorian near Cottage Row.

“They tried to dissuade me” on the flying bulldog, Sessel says. But Mark Evans and Charley Brown took the commission, and also painted a Bacchanalian scene for the dining parlor, and nudes above the bed. In the process, they also fell for the neighborhood, and decided they wanted to live here.

“I told them,” Sessel recalls: “You may be in luck. The guy next door to me is dying.”

The 1880s Victorian needed work, and required resisting a committee of bureaucrats from the Redevelopment Agency, but the bones were all there. They managed to buy the house before it went on the market. “We went to Stars restaurant to celebrate,” Evans remembers. “We thought, ‘This is the last good meal we’ll ever eat.’ ”

Over the next three decades, they set about making it their greatest art project, bounteously filled with their own work and layers of treasures from around the world. On the ground level, overlooking a south-facing garden, were studios for both artists. In 1984 they established Evans & Brown, a fount of their ever-expanding creative output: murals, paintings, objets d’art, wall coverings, fabric, carpet and more. They found artistic and commercial success, and an enduring business and personal partnership.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Evans says. “No one was doing murals and trompe l’oeil on our level. And it was mostly because of Charley’s painting.”

Only days after they returned from a final grand tour of the splendors of Venice and Paris, Robert Charles Brown died of prostate cancer on November 21, 2018, at home on Bush Street. His husband of 41 years, Mark Evans, and their schnauzer, Jack, survive him.

— Thomas Reynolds

Farewell to Narumi

For 37 years, Jiro Nakamura’s jewel box of a shop has been at 1902 Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

“You have to say: ‘This is the end. It’s time to go home,’ ” says Jiro Nakamura, with a shy smile.

Sadly for the neighborhood, that means the end of Narumi Japanese Antiques, Nakamura’s tiny jewel box of a shop at 1902 Fillmore Street. Narumi has been the go-to place for antique Japanese dolls, imported kimonos, essentials for a proper tea ceremony and a unique collection of Japanese antiques and art — including many of Nakamura’s own stained glass creations and hand-painted works — since it opened in 1981.

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Copy art had roots in the Fillmore

“Big Bucks,” a color Xerox work by Barbara Wyeth

By BARBARA WYETH

There was a brief time on the San Francisco art scene when artwork done on color Xerox copy machines was hot — the latest thing, de rigueur for experimental and accomplished artists, and for novices as well. The Fillmore was right at the center of all the excitement.

The neighborhood had a long tradition of welcoming musicians and artists. That had begun to change with redevelopment, the Geary expressway and gentrification, as Fillmore Street became an upscale shopping district for residents of Pacific Heights. Painterland, a loose collection of artists who gathered in and around 2322 Fillmore in the 1950s, was essentially over when Jay DeFeo and her behemoth painting The Rose moved out of the building in 1965.

In the mid-70s, however, some remnants of that bohemian spirit remained. The street was still eclectic and diverse, with small service businesses, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and framers, Japanese sushi shops and bars with live music. It was in this milieu that Barbara Cushman, a native New Yorker, opened A Fine Hand at 2404 California Street, now home to Smitten Ice Cream. Initially, her shop offered fine writing implements and supplies for lefties — the proprietor being one — as well as handcrafted goods and fine art. Cushman had worked in ceramics and collage art and had an avid interest in all forms of artistic expression.

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Neon on Fillmore, then and now

Photograph of the refurbished Elite Cafe sign by Daniel Bahmani

By RANDALL ANN HOMAN

The sign for the Elite Cafe, glowing again after a fire left it damaged and dark for months, is a beacon from a time when Fillmore Street was awash with neon signs announcing the street’s vibrant nightlife.

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He has his own quartet

Michael Schwab’s four street banners celebrating the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Q & A | MICHAEL SCHWAB

The poster for the 2018 Fillmore Jazz Festival is the fourth jazz image Michael Schwab has created for the Fillmore festival. All four now hang as banners on the street.

Are you a jazz fan?

Sure. I’m not an aficionado, but as a kid, back in southern Oklahoma, I remember hearing my dad playing cool jazz albums on the hi-fi in our living room — a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. In high school, I’ll never forget being introduced to Mose Allison: “You know a young man … ain’t nothin’ in this world these days.” Wow.

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The mystery of the three lamp posts

Three old-style lamp posts on Fillmore are dedicated to Katie Flavel. But who was she?

LOCAL HISTORY | JOE BEYER

For nearly a century, three lamp posts on the sidewalk in front of Calvary Presbyterian Church have added enlightenment on the busy corner of Fillmore and Jackson.

The two on either side have plaques attached dedicating them to the memory of Katie Flavel, who apparently died on August 19, 1910. But there is no record she was ever a member of Calvary.

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Zinc Details is calling it quits

Photograph of Vasilios Kiniris at Zinc Details by Daniel Bahmani

ONE OF THE best-known and longest-operating businesses on Fillmore Street is shutting its doors at the end of April. Zinc Details, at 1633 Fillmore, will end its 28-year run and its space is expected to become an outpost of Orange Theory, a nationwide fitness club.

“I’ve met amazing people through our store,” says Vasilios Kiniris, who owns the design shop with his wife and fellow architect, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris. “But it’s time.”

Vas Kiniris, who has been vice president, president and now executive director of the Fillmore Merchants Association, intends to devote himself fully to small business affairs in San Francisco. In addition, he has recently become executive director of the West Portal Merchants Association and executive secretary of the citywide District Council of Merchant Associations.

“I think it’s perfect timing,” says Kiniris. “Retail is morphing into a new reality, and I’m parlaying my knowledge of small business and what makes a vibrant street.”

At one point Zinc had three shops and 20 employees on Fillmore Street.

“There’s a real sense of community on Fillmore,” he says. “I want to share that.”

Vas and Wendy Kiniris in their first Zinc Details store, opened in 1990.

EARLIER: “Still modern after all these years