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The Brown Bag served up an eclectic mix

Treasures from the Brown Bag, the emporium and office supply store at 2000 Fillmore.


Every time I walk past the corner of Fillmore and Pine, I am transported back to the Brown Bag, the stationery store that was a mainstay on the northeast corner for many years.

Back in the day, I owned a small business in North Beach, but was struggling. I met Dawn, one of Brown Bag’s owners, when I was helping out on weekends at the nearby California Street Creamery. We had become friendly, and when I decided to quit my store, Dawn offered me a job at the Brown Bag.

I’d had ongoing connections with the Fillmore neighborhood since moving to San Francisco, so working at the Brown Bag seemed like a good fit. I loved its eclectic mix of practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles. It reminded me of the old-fashioned 5 & Dime in my Midwestern hometown. The place even included the smell of bacon wafting in from the Chestnut Cafe next door.

But what I loved most was the neighborhood feeling. Back in that dark, pre-Internet age, the Brown Bag offered copy services. And we could send faxes, too. The store had accounts for most of the businesses in the neighborhood: the medical offices, architects, restaurants, landscape designers, the wash and fold, Mrs. Dewson’s hat shop, Leon’s Barbeque, the dress shops, Pacific Heights Bar and Grill, Harry’s, the gallery across the street, the bird store.

We served families and lots of school kids as well. I especially related to the girls from St. Rose Academy in their dowdy brown uniforms, having been stuck in boring navy and white during four years at my all-girls high school back in my hometown. I loved to hear their enthusiasm when talking about their school projects, and the fun, girlish scribbles and doodles they left on little scratch pads we supplied for testing pens and markers.

“Help Wanted,” a photograph of the Brown Bag entry by Jean Collier Hurley

The store also sold expensive and very high-end fountain pens, each with its own singular way of supplying ink. All those cartridges and all those pens! One heart specialist favored pricey writing implements back in the day. He seemed to be the classic brilliant but absent-minded professor. He would hover over the glass-cased counter right by the front door and ruminate forever, it seemed, contemplating ink color and nib sizes.

Congestion at the pen case caused a traffic jam with the neighborhood moms, many with one toddler in a stroller and another child in hand. We talked about creating a store rule about leaving strollers at the door, maybe even setting up a stroller rack — one that could accommodate the child, too. We eventually decided against it. But the stickers! Kids loved them, pulling on them as they unrolled to the floor. Ringing them up later was a chore because each was priced differently by size, shape and vendor. No SKU electronic pricing, just a handwritten confusing chart taped up at each of the two registers.

Sheila, the Brown Bag’s other owner, handled the office and art supplies; Dawn favored all the little toys and charms, cards and gift wrap. She found not only stickers, but also old German cutouts and vintage seals, the kind of ephemera that she knew from childhood. I also collected that sort of stuff and still have paper and stickers I got at the Bag and am loath to use.

The Brown Bag was on the northeast corner of Fillmore & Pine for decades.

The store’s windows faced Fillmore Street. They weren’t really display windows but we made them work, incorporating both the fun and the serious things that Brown Bag offered. Dawn knew my favorite drink and frequently coerced me into staying late to do the window display by plying me with a dry, double olive martini in a Styrofoam cup. It worked. It was like play. We managed to incorporate erasers, long-pronged push pins, ledger books and drawing pads with replica water pistols and vintage paper seals. People loved those windows.

We did have to watch our language around the Bag, though. Sheila had a sweet old shepherd mix named Greta. Most of the time, Greta slept at Sheila’s feet as she sat at her desk doing paperwork. When merchandise arrived, the worker bees would price the items, then shelve them or store them in a crowded back room as necessary. When the cartons were empty, duty called. “Box! Get the box, Greta,” we’d command, and she became a snarling beast, ripping the box to shreds. Once satisfied with the job, she would head back to her spot behind the counter. We would then sweep up and bag the remains for recycling. We just had to be very careful not to use the word “box” in the store unless we meant business.

There were resident cats at the store as well. Chubby Cheekers, the store tabby, liked to hunt down the rabbit’s feet key chains and present his trophy to us at the counter. He also liked to bat around the carefully displayed novelty erasers that would then need to be arranged again. Foundling kittens that needed homes were also frequently part of the menagerie at the Brown Bag.

Because we were at a bus stop corner, a number of interesting characters would wander into the store. One day a man walked in and announced: “I’m 52 and I need a dollah.” We didn’t quite follow the logic, but he got his dollar and we gently escorted him out the door.

The store’s windows incorporated the fun and the serious things the Brown Bag offered.

After a lot of thought and consideration, I was lured away from the Brown Bag — not for a dollar, but for the promise of an exciting new enterprise. Another Fillmore Street business owner had a small letterpress print shop behind the old Browser Books when it was located beside the Clay Theatre, and was expanding to a new shop south of Market. I’d be working with graphic designers and learning about the trade and the art of letterpress printing.

Still, my attachment to the neighborhood never left. Some years later, I found myself back nearby, working in a neighborhood that feels like a second home. When I walk down Fillmore Street, many great memories will always walk with me.