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Reflections from a neighborhood glass shop

Photograph of Rosalba Martinez by Sharon Beals

By NIKKI COLLISTER

In the front office of SF Silver Glass & Mirror, every piece of glass tells a story.

There’s the decorative French window with colorful stained-glass panes, made by founder Salvador Martinez for his wife, Rosalba. And a tall, narrow mirror with diamond-shaped bevels cut by Salvador’s son, German. A round, larger-than-life mirror was donated by a happy customer many years ago. Another decorative mirror on the wall came from a prominent hotelier. 

The collection, mounted proudly against brightly painted walls, reflects both the longevity and family-oriented nature of the business.

In a city filled with Victorian homes, antique window and mirror restoration is high in demand. But few businesses offer what Silver Glass & Mirror does: a wide array of glass working skills with a personal touch. From large-scale public jobs to residential work, there’s no project too large or too small for this hard-working team.

Husband and wife Sal and Rosa Martinez first opened the business in 1982 at 2176 Sutter Street. A decade later they moved to 2401 Bush Street, where the shop has occupied the corner of a historic auto garage at Bush and Pierce ever since.

Since Sal died in 2001, Rosa has kept the business going strong.

When she and her husband — who were both born in Colombia and met in Los Angeles — first decided to open the shop, Rosa relished the opportunity. “I thought, this is beautiful, because I can work with my hands,” she says. She had previously worked at a data systems company for more than 20 years, but had always considered herself a creative person.

Her husband Sal had learned the glass trade as a young man in Colombia, and had spent many years as a union worker. He began showing Rosa how to cut and handle glass, which she learned quickly.

Rosa’s specialty is antiquing, the process of applying an artistic, vintage finish to a mirror.

“Like people, mirrors get wrinkles,” Rosa says with a smile. She can give any mirror this “aged” look by applying acidic chemicals and paint. Sometimes she’s working with a hundred-year-old mirror that needs a touch-up, other times she’s antiquing a brand-new piece of glass. It’s a precise and time-consuming process that can take up to four weeks to complete. 

The result is a finish unique to each mirror, and an art form in itself.

In 2001, Sal signed a contract to restore part of the glass facade of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. But he died from prostate cancer before the project was completed.

“Before he died, he said, ‘You have to prepare yourself, because when I’m gone I don’t want anybody mistreating you.” Although glass restoration has historically been a man’s profession, both Rosa and Sal knew she could do the job. “He was a kind man,” she says of her late husband. “And a hard worker. I learned all of the ins and outs of the shop from him.”

With the deadline for the conservatory looming, Rosa got to work and finished the job, overseeing a team of 21 workers and cementing her place as proprietor of SF Silver Glass & Mirror. 

Over the course of four decades, the business has built up a loyal customer base, taking on projects of all kinds, whether it’s designing shower doors for the Salesforce Tower gym, repairing delicate glass panels in a household lamp or installing windows in historic homes. 

Rosa employs a small team of glaziers — expert glass workers — who can be found in the high-ceilinged workshop cutting, sanding, and etching glass. Many of them have been with the company for years. “We are like family,” Rosa says of her staff. 

The family sentiment extends to their customer base as well. “This place could keep going on and on just from returning customers,” says German Martinez, Rosa’s stepson. “But there’s still new customers that come aboard.” 

It’s a testament to both the team’s quality of work and Rosa’s unwavering dedication to her clientele. “I take good care of my customers,” she says proudly. “They are the most important.”

It’s been many years since Rosa came to America as a 20-year-old migrant from Colombia, but she has no plans to retire. She still works six days a week, employing the same work ethic she’s shown her entire life. She muses that her stepson may someday take over the business, but doesn’t concern herself too much with the future. 

For now, she’s happy to remain at the helm.

Reflecting back, she takes pride in having employed people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Ultimately, it’s the craft that brings them together. “Glass,” she says with a twinkle in her eye, “has its own language.”

This article is part of a series produced by reThinkRepair, a grassroots group that has interviewed and photographed 40+ local repair businesses since 2018. Composed of a small team of eco-conscious San Franciscans, reThinkRepair celebrates the art of preservation by sharing stories of local repair shops with the broader community.