Three years ago, an ambitious realtor decided to rebrand a trapezoidal chunk of the Mission and the Castro as “The Quad,” theoretically to appeal to post-collegiate newcomers. It was near-universally derided and (thankfully) never stuck, but Steven LeMay of Valencia Street vintage store Retro Fit observed something about its dimensions.
“If you drew an X from each of the four corners,” he says, “my business and my home are dead center.”
But in spite of being the epicenter of Mission cool, all is not well for Retro Fit, an emporium of party wigs, theatrical makeup, and handpicked secondhand scores that has been without a lease since about the time the Quad went kerplunk.
“We’ve been around for 20 years, I’ve had it for 12-and-a-half, and the lease ended two years ago,” LeMay says, adding that he knew what was coming well before the landlord decided to triple the rent to close to $10,000 per month. He knows what typically comes next, too.
“I talk to people about what’s happening, and a lot of my friends try to give me advice: Just close!”
Without a lease, it’s virtually impossible to get a loan or invest in a business — even through the Mission Economic Development Agency. Having been around for two decades, Retro Fit qualifies for legacy-business status, but that’s no guarantor of longevity, either.
“There’s still no magical-protection thing where suddenly, they can’t kick you out,” LeMay says.
Even if he were to get $30,000, that would only cover the costs of a move, plus a deposit on a new lease.
It would not, for instance, help develop the T-shirt department, fund an expansion into vintage home furnishings, or pay a worker to maintain the store for a year as LeMay took on those tasks.
His understanding of what happened is simple: Valencia Street essentially ate itself, going from a precinct affected by occasional gang violence to one where affluent condo-dwellers reside cheek-by-jowl with Latino families. The building has changed hands multiple times over the years, its fortunes rising and falling with the city’s economy. But the last few owners have been management companies, LeMay says, and without a single landlord to establish an interpersonal relationship with, there’s effectively no one to appreciate the non-material values a longstanding business can bring.
“They only see numbers,” he says. Although Dog-Eared Books and Javalencia Cafe have tenaciously hung on, many small businesses have gradually evaporated from the block, from thrift shops like Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul to a Mexican art gallery, a bicycle shop called Freewheel, and another quirky vintage store next door called Room 4. That space later became a high-end confectioner called Chocolatier Blue, which lasted for only a year, and now it’s set to become a Smitten Ice Cream.
Smitten’s a well-known and much loved local chain, to be sure, but otherwise, Valencia has increasingly become colonized by deep-pocketed brands that can act as loss leaders for their corporate parents while simultaneously evading the formula-retail ordinance that bans many companies with more than 11 locations. Opening a brick-and-mortar on a street with international cachet can vault an obscure clothier to the stratosphere — and if they drop several hundred thousand dollars on a renovation while they’re at it, that’s a capital improvement for the property owner as well.
But apart from sweeping the sidewalk, patronizing fellow small businesses, and otherwise embodying the Jane Jacobs-esque petite-bourgeois ideals of city living, LeMay is well-connected in San Francisco’s entertainment world. He performs under a drag alter ego of the same name — punning on lamé, the fabric — and appeared on the all-drag episode of Project Runway on which RuPaul announced the forthcoming debut of Drag Race. The MotherShip buses to Reno that Heklina and Peaches Christ have organized every Easter weekend for years depart from outside Retro Fit, and many procrastinating queens can be found making last-minute purchases from the shop (and starting the party off with mimosas).
So LeMay is not giving up, even as prospective future tenants covertly come in to kick the tires. Feigning innocence while chatting with folks, he’s managed to glean financial intel on the sly, while occasionally throwing real estate agents for a loop. Once, when he discovered his space’s new listing price, he sent a letter of intent to the landlords, who then stone-walled him and later raised the price even further out of reach.
It’s a virtual certainty that before this summer, Retro Fit will leave the place it’s called home since the late 1990s, long before many archetypal Valencia businesses ever opened. As a retail shop reliant on foot traffic, moving is risky, but LeMay is actively pursuing a new location elsewhere in San Francisco — he declined to say which neighborhood — and he’s set to launch a crowdfunding campaign later in February. There’s also the possibility of forgoing a physical location entirely and becoming a truck that makes the circuit at events like the Alameda Flea Market.
Meanwhile, buyers for companies like Coach and Marc Jacobs still come into Retro Fit, scouting for inspiration. As much as he loves helping broke young style mavens find a look, LeMay calls them his ideal customers, fashionable people who move quickly and in teams, buy a lot, and seldom need to try anything on. He’s rightly irritated that, with shops like his on the verge of extinction, the bottom may be about to fall out of the fashion ecosystem — and meanwhile, tech companies have moved into the Mission, often flush with funds that Retro Fit has no access to, largely on account of gentrification. That he would largely put those funds toward an increased online presence is just another grim irony of the underlying dynamic, and one that isn’t lost on LeMay, either.
As we speak, LeMay is regularly interrupted by people asking about wigs or to use the dressing room, but he resumes his defiant protests almost without breaking stride. Returning to the subject of the Quad, he says he’s proud and almost perversely happy to be an “impoverished person” in such a trendy neighborhood. Yes, it’s frustrating how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chang bought a home nearby and have never been seen on the block — “you know the merchants’ page would be blowing up,” he says — but in the end, Retro Fit was never about making piles of money.
“I don’t need a car,” LeMay says. “I’m in secondhand clothing. My clothing is free! I don’t need a lot to live: I only need to pay rent and buy food. If 100 people came in and bought $3 eyelashes, it adds up. Every sale helps.”
Retro Fit, 910 Valencia St., 415-550-1530 or retrofityourworld.com