Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
When Ernie Asten died in March, a piece of San Francisco history went with him.
Asten was the fourth-generation owner of Cliff's Variety, an-all-things-for-all-people retail institution that for 83 years has embodied the Castro neighborhood's joyful, anarchic spirit. It was Ernie who, in the mid-1970s, worked with Harvey Milk--California's first openly gay elected official--to unite an upstart group of gay business owners with the local merchant association that had initially rebuffed their membership.
Asten's wife Martha, who has kept the books at Cliff's for more than 50 years, recalls sitting in on an early meeting of the gay merchants' group at the invitation of the owner of The Gilded Age, a local antiques store. She insisted Ernie attend the next one. "He thought the separation was ridiculous," she says. "He said, 'Why? We're all working toward the same things.'"
Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, a year after his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was a founder of the new group. After Ernie was elected president of the older association, they partnered to merge the two. Milk's camera store was a block from Cliff's. To this day Cliff's, along with other neighborhood merchants, creates window displays honoring Milk on his birthday.
On other days, the store's windows have reflected its more whimsical character. For years a soap opera unfolded behind the glass starring two drag queen mannequins: Anita More and Wanda Rollover. Cliff's' Halloween displays--featuring animatronic elements built by Asten and, earlier, by his grandfather Ernie DeBaca--are locally famous, if occasionally controversial. "One year we did The Exorcist with the girl in the bed and her head spinning around," Martha says. "We upset people because we had a cross on the wall. We got some Christian groups protesting."
But Cliff's Variety isn't in business to change the world, or even to entertain it. It exists to provide 40 employees with an income and customers with virtually everything else. In a city synonymous with life lived through screens, Cliff's remains the paradigm of sensory, serendipitous, social shopping.
Upon entering Cliff's, the first things you see are board games on the right, power tools on the left. There are Le Creuset pots and Hot Wheels cars, gaskets and bunny slippers, flower seeds and a vast array of fabrics. Some products target the neighborhood's large stock of Victorian homes, such as plaster medallions for framing light fixtures and hooks for hanging pictures on walls with ornate moldings. Novelty items tilt predictably left: Democratic candidate action figures and key chains depicting Donald Trump defecating. "We buy from 600 or 700 vendors," says Terry Asten Bennett, Ernie and Martha's daughter and Cliff's' general manager. "Not going too deep into any one thing has allowed us to change with the times."
The business also stocks false eyelashes (specifically #301 from Elegant Lashes, the choice of informed drag queens); feather boas, wigs, and glittery high-heeled shoes with helpful signage ("Your Men's Shoe Size + 2 = Queen Shoe Size"). Cliff's' selection of all things rainbow is exhaustive.
The store attracts tourist hordes, but that has not discouraged regulars, many of whom have shopped at Cliff's for decades. "If you need something specific, Cliff's most likely has it," says Larry Lare Nelson, an activist who also helps companies throw LGBTQ events. "But you can walk into Cliff's without a shopping list and you will find something to buy." Nelson, who has been a regular at the store since moving to the Castro in 1976, shops at Cliff's for everything from paint to potting soil. "If you buy a light bulb they will take it out of the package and stick it in the socket and test it before you pay for it," he says. "Now that's personal service."
Dinosaurs and painted ladies
Although Cliff's skipped a generation with the succession of a grandson, it has always been a family business. Hilario DeBaca, a retired schoolteacher from New Mexico, landed in San Francisco and, in 1936, opened a store there selling magazines and used greeting cards. ("They would use ink eradicator on the writing in the cards so they could resell them," Bennett says.) DeBaca named the business for his youngest son, Clifford. It was a ploy to lure Clifford away from his life as a saxophone player into a steady job. No dice. Clifford never worked in the store.
DeBaca's oldest son, Ernie, was more practical: He owned a fix-it shop in the Tenderloin. But in 1946 Ernie injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and moved operations to a workbench in his parents' store. Ultimately he decided to remain at Cliff's and take it over. He brought in hardware for his own repair work and also as merchandise. He stopped selling magazines and upgraded the greeting cards to new ones.
The Castro back then was Irish-Catholic, blue-collar: a neighborhood of families. But in the '60s, its demographics began to shift. Families moved out, and more single men moved in. By that time Ernie DeBaca's grandson Ernie Asten had taken over the store. Ernie shared not only his grandfather's name but also his mechanical aptitude. "When he was 6 or 7 he had his own repair kit, and he would go around the neighborhood fixing people's TVs," Bennett says.
The growing gay population, meanwhile, was buying up the neighborhood's old Victorian homes--known as "painted ladies"--and restoring them. Cliff's stocked more home-improvement products than its competitors and became the sole distributor for a popular line of decorative moldings based on those in local houses. Ernie and his staff were experts in the painted ladies' plumbing and carpentry. "There were two other hardware stores at the time," Martha says. "But we had more knowledge."
Tears and tradition
Scarcely a business in the Castro was untouched by AIDS. Throughout the '80s Cliff's operated to a drumbeat of loss.
"People you had known as healthy would come in with the purple spots, and the next thing you know they would have wasted away," Martha says. "And in The Bay Area Reporter you would see that they passed."
Some employees died as well. Bennett says in the early '70s Cliff's was the first straight-owned business in the city to hire openly gay staff. (Today about two-thirds of the workforce identifies as LGBTQ.) In the '80s, as disease ravaged the community, Martha and Ernie encouraged everyone to let out their feelings and help each other through it. "If someone had to have a cry," says Martha, "they had a cry."
Cliff's weathered any AIDS-related loss of business as it had conventional economic downturns. And while some old friends died, new people kept flooding into the neighborhood, eager to shop and to work. A loyal local populace antagonistic to the growing dominance of big-box stores also helped the business survive. In 2002, Cliff's joined the ACE buying cooperative. "We kept it quiet," Martha says. "We didn't want people to think we had become a franchise or sold out to a chain."
More recently, residents have lamented that the incursion of tech workers is diluting Castro's LGBTQ identity. ("When buses full of Google employees pass through we flip them the bird," says Nelson, the activist and party planner.) Shopping at Cliff's is the antithesis of the faceless, touch-less e-commerce experience promulgated by those interlopers. And Cliff's' enduring engagement with the gay community is appreciated by longtime customers--even by the majority who don't know that Ernie Asten built the bearing system for the landmark rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza.
Then there is the staff. In a notoriously high-turnover industry, Cliff's keeps employees an average of 13 years, chiefly, Bennett says, by giving them a sense of ownership. For some that includes buying authority. "Their tastes have helped develop the flavor of the store," she says.
As bars and other gay-owned businesses lose ground to technology wealth, Castro's older residents increasingly cleave to the mainstays. For those people, many of whom view themselves as survivors, the friendliness and familiarity of Cliff's' employees remain a balm. "When I have been down about something," says Nelson, "I say to myself--and I'm not the only one--I think I'll go to Cliff's and see who is working."