A vintage clothing retailer couldn’t ask for a more perfect corner to do business than Haight and Ashbury, and yet after a 10 year old Love Street owner Graciela Ronconi stepped out and picked up her stash of brightly colored vintage dresses and beaded accessories with her.
“As much as I love the craziness of Haight Street, I knew I would be unhappy if I stayed,” she said. “What’s the point of having your own business when you’re unhappy?”
Calling the last couple of years on the street “a bit rough” wasn’t the people or the infamous neighborhood fights between merchants, residents and the all-comers that called the streets home and brought them down.
“We had all this road construction,” she said of a never-ending public transport and pedestrian project that started in 2018 and is expected to continue throughout the year.
“That stunted sales, but I wanted to stick with it. I knew I could do it, ”she said. “But then COVID hit and it was too much for me.”
Ronconi closed Love Street in Haight in June, just before high tourist season – a small retailer’s nightmare and a sign of a post-pandemic future that fans of our beloved boutiques fear. New and used book, record, homeware and clothing stores like Ronconi’s are still at risk, and it’s not just us locals who would miss our unique mom-and-pop stores.
“75 percent of my business comes from international tourists,” she said. The prospect of no annual pedestrian influx on the Haight during the pandemic summer, coupled with the ongoing construction project, was “too much” that got Ronconi packing.
Deciding that her business should be better run online from her storage bin, which is on a suspected section of Balboa Street, suggested a retreat. But at some point between changing, unpacking and organizing their brightly colored caftans and stylish lambskin coats, she and her husband Robert turned an overflow storage room into a real storefront and opened it in time for the holidays.
“I don’t know where these people are from,” she said, sounding as surprised as I was when her new store opened far west.
“A handful of people from Haight Street have gone, but to my surprise the Richmond District is responding really well.”
“My husband grew up here and when we got married 30 years ago. I got out of here and it felt so strange, ”she said. “I love it now. Especially when I was working in Haight it was such a contrast, a refuge, ”she said, citing the park, the Presidio and the variety of local markets and restaurants as her focal points.
Love Street owner Graciela Ronconi, who used to buy and sell vintage clothing in Haight, is getting a positive response in her new shop on Balboa Street. (Kevin N. Hume / SF examiner)
Ronconi’s story is really rooted in the city. She grew up in Noe Valley, “near the Mission, around all that noise. And we also lived next to a bar, ”she said. Her single mother emigrated from El Salvador in the late 1960s and found work as a custodian at the California Academy of Sciences (Ronconi’s first job was in the cafe there, and her future husband also worked in the museum: a few years later, you went to see hers first date at the San Francisco Zoo.
“She was looking for a better way of life, I don’t know how she did it on her own,” said Ronconi of her mother. “She’s my heroine, I know people might not see a Latina steward this way, but she’s been through so much and fought for so much. When I was younger I didn’t appreciate her as much as I do now. “
Ronconi’s interest in vintage grew partly out of necessity.
“When we were growing up we didn’t have a lot of money and we went to thrift stores,” she said. “When I was a teenager and started picking my own clothes, I realized that I could buy a nice cashmere sweater at a thrift store for a few dollars instead of a Kmart acrylic sweater for twice the price. You get more bang for your buck in used clothing. “
She also liked clothing as a statement.
“When I went to the Castro, I saw girls and boys who wore vintage and I admired them. At the mission, I saw Cholos and Cholas who were wearing vintage and it seemed a bit rebellious. Vintage clothing was very punk rock back then, even though it’s more the norm now, ”she said.
Ronconi learned the used clothing trade first in La Rosa and then in Buffalo Exchange when Haight Street was a haven for vintage seekers. Stores such as Aardvark’s, Departures, and the New Government traded in the past, while St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill stores still held treasure.
“I definitely think the 80s were the boom time for vintage in Haight,” she said. “I like to romanticize it, but it was the right place before I went shopping online.”
She was studying at City College and in the state of San Francisco and thought she was getting into historical costume design. She was also learning skills for a friend at Always and Forever, a vintage store on 24th Street.
“One day he told me he was going to sell and I said to think about it. I thought it might be fun, but I still wanted to go to State, ”said Ronconi, who eventually took over the business, renamed it Guys and Dolls, and did business on the 24th and in church for 14 years.
“When 2008 hit me, I picked Pivot and thought I was just going to sell online,” she said of the economic crash that has changed so many things here and elsewhere.
“That’s where I found the spot on Balboa,” she said, but another opportunity came almost immediately: there was a small room in the back of Neda’s flower shop – on Haight Street. Little by little, Ronconi expanded and then ended up on that corner, right where the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared a national treasure in 2019.
“I’ve always wanted to sell in Haight, this is the place to go if you want to sell vintage,” said Ronconi, who built her inventory around collectable but wearable clothing and contemporary handcrafted items.
“There’s a special energy behind everything that’s handmade,” she said. “Both locals and tourists really love the Native American pieces,” she said of the pearl and turquoise items, which make up about half of their sales.
“The pieces I buy are made for the general public by Native American artists and are not suitable for rituals,” she said, describing the difference between buying for style and cultural appropriation, an idea she experiences when she does she sees or hears about it.
“About 15 years ago a friend in Michigan said she went to a cholo party and I had no words for it at the time, I just knew it didn’t feel right. It’s a fine line, ”she said when it comes to good style and just plain offensive and tasteless.
“I have a red-haired friend in traditional Mexican clothing who dresses like Frida,” she said. “She loves the clothes, more than any Mexican I know. How can that be wrong? If you wear it with respect I think it’s okay, ”she said.
And then there is this side of the vintage trade that she couldn’t have predicted as a young teenager interested in smart clothing.
“At first it was more a love of vintage and now it’s the love of vintage and slow fashion that is more important than ever today. I am really proud to be in a company that is more sustainable. “
While the jury is still unsure whether online shopping, shipping, and delivery have fewer carbon emissions than traditional shopping styles, Ronconi appears to be a wool-dyed retailer.
“I’ve been pretty good with this whole COVID thing, though one thing I miss is dealing with the public,” she said. Even their regulars on the corner of Haight and Ashbury couldn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the store.
“When you go to the Haight every day, you meet all kinds of people. There are people who understood the community, and then there were people who are crazy … We all got along pretty well. There was mutual respect, ”she said, although she could have her days.
“I would come home and tell my husband, I can’t speak for an hour, I need to decompress,” she said.
However, there is no style, trend, or requirement of doing business in a large urban center in the middle of a pandemic that could deter them from buying and selling vintage pieces.
“I realized I miss it. Opening the store was therapeutic for me. “
Denise Sullivan is a writer, cultural worker, and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: Personal Stories and Little Fictions in San Francisco”. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the reviewer. Follow her on www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @ 4DeniseSullivan.
San Francisco San Francisco Newssmall Business
If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, you can join our Examiner membership program.
Learn more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/