Trophy Hunters: The City's Great Changes Mean Death for Little Gold Sportsmen

America is weak. Our young are soft, narcissistic, self-absorbed, thin-skinned, wholly unable to cope with even mild criticism, or get off your lawn. And who's to blame for this? June Wong, that's who.

If you believe the younger generation has been ruined by the notion that everybody should get a trophy, regardless of performance, few have provided more trophies to more people in this city than Wong, who founded Trophy Masters with her engraver husband, Gary, 53 years ago. If everybody is, indeed, getting a trophy, it would follow that the trophy business must be booming. And for a time, it was: When the Wongs made their foray into the field half a century ago, there were 18 trophy shops listed in the Yellow Pages. Forty years ago, in 1973, that number had grown to 26.

Today, there are five.

If there really has been a proliferation of trophies transforming our society, it certainly hasn't resulted in a proliferation of trophy stores. In fact, the plight of the trophy-store owner matches that of so many beleaguered San Francisco merchants. Vast demographic shifts and big-picture economic factors rocked the business, and overarching societal changes have forced the few survivors into new and unfamiliar roles.

The trophy business may not explain San Francisco's metamorphosis. But it does help illustrate it.

Wander into a typical San Francisco trophy shop and you'll be greeted by a chorus line of tiny metallic basketball players outfitted in even tinier metallic short-shorts and hoisting goofy hook shots.

These sorts of awards have been distributed to youngsters ever since basketball players actually looked like that. In cities teeming with kids, they still are — just as hawking retiree golf tournament trophies is a lucrative endeavor in Florida. But a business plan requiring children in San Francisco is dependent upon a dwindling resource. “We don't do a lot of that Little League-type business,” confirms Dennis Wong, June's son and a 30-year man in the business himself. “There's just not much of that stuff happening here.”

Trophy Masters opened in 1960, just like Candlestick Park. Back then, children represented nearly 25 percent of the city's population. By the 2010 Census, a shade over 13 percent of San Franciscans were under 18 — the lowest percentage of any city in America. There are now 31,000 fewer families in the city than in the final year of the Eisenhower administration. Meanwhile, the overall population has grown by 65,000.

It's not young people decrying today's “everybody gets a trophy” society; it's people who once may have looked a great deal like the pomaded basketball player atop the trophy. So it's a bit odd to note that, in the days of yore, everybody really did get a trophy. Provided you rolled decently on League Night.

In the American Graffiti era, several dozen bowling alleys dotted the city. Now there are three — and only one in which people, for lack of a better term, are bowling unironically.

When the alleys gave way to condos, trophy shops were doomed. Bowling alleys were the miner's canary for San Francisco's disappearing middle class — let alone a middle class with leisure time and disposable income. Trophy shops supplied the birdseed for those canaries.

A snapshot graces the endless array of plaques, paperweights, and crystal items at a local trophy shop: then-Mayor Willie Brown being handed a small, translucent award and smiling beatifically. Those in the trophy biz speculated that Brown must have needed a warehouse to store the legion of honorary doo-dads presented to him during his mayoral terms. When asked, half in jest, if no longer making plaques for Da Mayor has put a dent in his bottom line, one trophy purveyor responds “Oh yes!” with unexpected fervor.

So, there's yet another way in which Hizzonor was a business-friendly mayor.

Catering to businesses is now the last refuge of brick-and-mortar trophy shops buffeted by the Internet. A great deal of plaques marking sales quotas met or years of meritorious service are still bought and sold in this city. But fewer merchants are fighting over a diminished field.

Workers whose value to their company used to be indicated by attractive engraved plaques are now reminded of their worth via mere continued employment. One trophy merchant recalls the day when a local businessman told him he'd no longer continue his monthly employee recognition program. Doing the math, the businessman calculated he could instead keep two more people on the payroll every year. It's hard to argue against that kind of logic.

Even still, this is where the money is: “The high-end awards on the corporate level — that business is doing quite well,” says Steve Wieber, the longtime editor of A&E Magazine, the trophy business' trade publication. (There's a trade publication for everything; there's even a trade publication for trade publications.) Wieber maintains that the kiddie participation trophies of the sort supposedly accelerating America's rot are only loss leaders meant to drum up real business.

“A plastic trophy might cost five dollars. But a really nice wooden plaque — a desk set with a plaque on it or an engraved clock — you're talking about $100.” Hawking the crappy trophies to the lawyer or businessman who coaches a team is an entree into selling that same person expensive executive plaques — or a wide variety of other services. No trophy merchant can survive merely selling trophies in this Internet-dominated era. He's got to master a range of products, and the computer programs and equipment necessary for laser engraving. “You've got to know how to use a computer in this day and age,” Wieber says. “It's become a more sophisticated approach to business.

“In San Francisco, there aren't a lot of kids,” he continues. “But I'm sure there's a lot of corporate stuff going on.”

That sounds about right. In this game, and in this town, there's no prize for participation.

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