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Fillmore 1996: a moment in time


Two decades ago, in the summer of 1996, I photographed shopkeepers and workers on Fillmore Street. I thought there were wonderful looking people in my neighborhood, people who looked like characters. They understood the performance aspect of small shops, the need to create a style.

I could see that the street was changing, as independent stores and thrift shops diminished and branding put a shellac over individual expression. I wanted to hold on to a moment when individuality was celebrated. The people in this series of photographs all owned or dreamed of owning their own shop, or they were living the dream of expressing themselves through their choices. There was an ideal of earning a modest living through self-expression that may have been sentimental, but it was an era when to be inimitable was prized.

I regret not taking a picture of Cheryl, who was given the dress shop Jim-Elle by its previous owner, which was true for several shops on the street. She was very funny and I can still hear her joking. She married the handsome Irish UPS driver we’d all known for years and she was gone in a snap. Lucky guy.

Kima Kamman at Coup de Chapeau
1821 Steiner Street

Kamman, a hat designer paid by Coup de Chapeau to push her imagination as far as she could, was the first inspiration for this series of photographs. She grew up in Chico, where she said people thought she had landed from Mars. She moved to New York and designed women’s clothes for small manufacturers by day and for cross-dressing performers by night. When she moved to San Francisco, she said, she didn’t want to get stuck in one style.

Stephen Damon at Browser Books
2195 Fillmore Street

Born in Brooklyn in the 1970s, Damon took what he calls “the Kerouac Trail” west, which involved experimenting with psychedelics. The bookstore opened in 1976 and Damon was working there when the previous owner said he would sell it to him, then disappeared. Damon became an ordained Zen priest and, in 2005, started Browser Books Publishing, specializing in spiritually oriented poetry and prose.

Jose LaCrosby at LaCrosby Style House
1552 Fillmore Street

After serving in the Army in Korea, LaCrosby was the only man to go to the Charm Beauty School in 1955. Being male and black made it hard for him to rent space. Eventually he owned a little chain of beauty salons, had five children and started various lines of hair products. He said he was nearing retirement when pictured here, but he continued to work for another decade in shops around the neighborhood.

Allyson Beaulieu at Gimme Shoes
2358 Fillmore Street

Beaulieu was 26 and had just decided against her lifelong dream of becoming an actress. She planned on paying off her car and then opening a shop with her sister in Paris. Meanwhile, she was taking college courses in anthropology and French.

Phil and Eric Dean at Fillmore Glass and Hardware
1930 Fillmore Street

When Philip Dean came to work in his mother-in-law’s shop in 1966, many owners lived behind their stores and rents for the storefronts were $50 a month. By 1996, they were $4,000 a month. Phil imagined that when he retired, his son Eric could rent the premises and live on the proceeds in Tahiti.

Ronald Hobbs at Spectrum Exotic Birds
2011 Fillmore Street

In 1978, Hobbs was in New York having lunch when he got chatting with Jamie Yorck. When it was time to go, Hobbs said: “If you want to continue this conversation, you’ll have to come to San Francisco.” Yorck and Hobbs ran their bird shop for two decades, and Hobbs has now lived on Fillmore Street for more than 50 years.

Lara Taylor and Gina Martocci at Betsey Johnson
2033 Fillmore Street

Taylor said she barely made it through high school. Then there were schools she pretended to her mom she was attending — and drugs, boyfriends, wrecked apartments. She hoped there was a future for her at Betsey Johnson. Martocci got her start designing jewelry for the company. She was the manager, brought here from Los Angeles by way of New York — a place she missed terribly.

Marcella Madsen and Judy Gilman at Nest
2300 Fillmore Street

Judy Gilman and, later, her daughter Marcella Madsen studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1974, Gilman’s marriage broke up and she had two kids to support. She started selling at the fledgling Marin Flea Market. She’d had two stores on Haight Street and another at Fillmore and Pine when in 1994 she and her daughter opened their shop at Fillmore and Clay, which is still thriving.