Fog City News, a print media paradise, to close after 22 years

Owner Adam Smith moving on, but continuity plans may be in the works

By James Salazar

Special to The Examiner

In the sea of the Financial District’s highrise towers, Fog City News lies as a blink-and-you-miss-it gem. For the past 22 years, Adam Smith and his staff supplied customers with renowned magazines, offbeat greeting cards and, most notably, artisanal chocolates from all over the world. By the month’s end, San Franciscans will have to get their fixes elsewhere as the store shutters for good on New Year’s Eve.

Unlike other retailers who have ceased operations in the past year and a half, Fog City News’ closure is not tied to rent hikes or challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Smith has reached a natural stopping point in his career.

“I don’t feel like there’s anything else I feel a need to try and accomplish with this store. Twenty-two years is a long time in retail really, it really is. I’m in awe of those places here around town that have been around for 50, 60, 70 years. That’s great. I just don’t think it’s in my blood to just keep going for the sake of going,” said Smith.

Prior to opening Fog City News, Smith spent several years in restaurant management, with his work taking him to New York, Los Angeles and then San Francisco. Though he dealt with customer service, Smith did not view the food industry as an ideal fit.

“I kind of by chance stumbled upon a store on the Fillmore called Juicy News, and I started working for them,” said Smith. “I started really looking around at downtown San Francisco and felt that there was an opportunity for an international newsstand that was of the kind of scope that San Francisco deserved.”

Thus Fog City News was created.

Offering over 1,200 magazines, Smith’s store was voted “Best Newsstand” in its first year of business and the 21 consecutive years after by local publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and SF Weekly.

Fog City News’ layout at 455 Market Street has remained largely unchanged since 1999. For years, customers have walked on 920 square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting to peruse magazines that dotted the store’s yellow walls. In addition to print media, shelf space was reserved for novelties such as music boxes, replicas of a Golden Gate Bridge rivet and a solar-powered Thomas Edison figure with a working light bulb.

While Smith and his employees are known as chocolate connoisseurs, these treats were not always part of the store’s offerings. Originally, Smith’s candies of choice were Pop Rocks, gumballs and other standard candy bars. However, the clientele who purchased European magazines asked Smith when he was going to start selling “real” chocolate and an artisanal overhaul of the inventory ensued.

Fog City News carried over 200 chocolate bars, and each bar had to be unanimously approved by the staff for it to be displayed on store shelves. Upon entering the store, customers were asked if they would like to sample chocolate. Their purchases earned them chocolate passports, punch cards that allowed customers to take $5 off their next treat after purchasing 10 distinct bars. Smith shared that 26 customers are part of the “century club,” with 10 or more full cards, and three customers have reached “triple century club” status.

For many longtime customers, Fog City News was a routine pitstop on their commutes to and from work.

“It was a great place to get cards because I work a couple blocks from here, and so I always knew that I could find irreverent, funny cards for any occasion and for people that are hard to find cards for. I also like the chocolate selection,” said Katie Murphy, who frequented Fog City News for the past 18 years.

Smith’s selection of over 1,000 cards — with at least 100 containing a swear word — also made Fog City News one of San Francisco’s largest independent card stores.

“This was definitely a first experience as far as the combination of amazing cards, unbelievable magazine collection and super high-end really good chocolate,” added Murphy. “I had not seen anything like that. There’s international newsstands in New York City, but usually it’s just magazines.”

While many businesses shuttered during the pandemic, Fog City News stayed afloat, thanks to a steady stream of mail orders placed by devoted customers. Even as Market Street mirrored a ghost town, customers lined up outside of the store to pick up and place orders behind a plexiglass window.

For patrons like Murphy, her relationship with the employees kept her coming back to the store. “I always look forward to seeing Adam and the staff and saying hi and just feeling like I have a real connection here,” said Murphy. “It’s just not a shop. It’s somewhere where they know me, and that’s really awesome.”

Reader polls, such as one conducted by 48Hills in 2019, voted Smith’s crew as the “Best Store Staff.”

Smith said that there are members of his dedicated magazine clientele who “in the last few weeks have been coming in worried, I mean, really worried about where they’re gonna buy magazines now. And I’ve said to all of them, ‘Don’t you worry. I’m working on that,’” said Smith. “There’s a couple of stores that I’m lining up to hopefully carry a similar selection to us. And that will be announced in the weeks to come.”

As the Fog City News chapter of his life ends, Smith is looking back fondly. “So many memories, just so many great customers. At the end of the day, for any retail business, or any restaurant, or any bar, it boils down to the people who work there and the people who are the customers. That’s what creates the community of that business.”

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