A vintage clothing dealer couldn’t ask for a more perfect corner than Haight and Ashbury to do business and yet, after a 10-year stand, Love Street’s owner Graciela Ronconi got out and took her stock of brightly colored vintage frocks and beaded accessories with her.
“As much as I love the craziness of Haight Street, I knew I’d be unhappy if I stayed,” she said. “What’s the point of having your own business if you’re unhappy?”
Describing the last couple of years on the street as “a little rough,” it wasn’t the people or the neighborhood’s notorious battles between merchants, residents and the all-comers who call the street home who brought her down.
“We had all that street construction,” she said of a never-ending Public Works transportation and pedestrian project started in 2018 that’s expected to continue throughout the year.
“That inhibited sales but I wanted to stick with it. I knew I’d get through it,” she said. “But then COVID hit and it was too much for me.”
Ronconi closed Love Street on Haight in June, just before high tourist season – a small retailer’s nightmare and a portent of a post-pandemic future that fans of our beloved boutiques fear. New and used book, record, housewares and clothing stores like Ronconi’s remain imperiled, and it’s not just us locals who would miss our unique mom and pop shops.
“Seventy five percent of my business comes from international tourists,” she said. The prospect of no annual pedestrian influx on the Haight over the pandemic summer, combined with the sustained construction project was the “too much” that sent Ronconi packing.
Deciding her business would be better run online from her storage space, located on an assuming stretch of Balboa Street, she beat a retreat. But sometime between moving, unpacking and organizing her multi-colored kaftans and stylish shearling coats, she and her husband, Robert, turned an overflow storage room into a proper storefront, then opened in time for the holidays.
“I don’t know where these people are coming from,” she said, sounding as surprised as I was to see her new shop open, way out west.
“A handful of people from Haight Street have made their way over but to my surprise, the Richmond District is really responding in a positive way.”
“My husband grew up here, and when we got married 30 years ago. I came out here and it seemed so foreign to me,” she said. “Now I love it. Especially when I worked in the 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 go-to spots.
Ronconi’s story is truly rooted in The City. She grew up in Noe Valley, “close to the Mission, around all that noise. And we lived next to a bar on top of that,” she said. Her single mother migrated from El Salvador in the late 1960s and found work as a custodian at the California Academy of Sciences (Ronconi’s own first job was there, in the cafe, and her future husband also worked at the museum: A few years later, they went on their first date, to 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 mom. “She’s my hero, I know people may not view a Latina custodian that way, but she went through so much and fought for so much. When I was younger I didn’t appreciate her like I do now.”
Ronconi’s interest in vintage grew in part out of necessity.
“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money and we’d shop at thrift stores,” she said. “When I was a teenager and started picking my own clothes, I noticed I could buy a nice cashmere sweater at a thrift store for a couple of bucks, instead of a Kmart acrylic sweater for double the price. You get more for your buck in used clothing.”
Clothing as a statement appealed to her too.
“When I’d go to the Castro, I would see gals and guys wearing vintage and I admired them. In the Mission, I’d see cholos and cholas wearing vintage and it seemed a little bit rebellious. Vintage clothing was very punk rock then even though now it’s more like the norm,” she said.
Ronconi learned the used clothes trade, first at La Rosa and then at Buffalo Exchange, back when Haight Street was a vintage seeker’s paradise. Stores like Aardvark’s, Departures and the New Government traded in the past, while there were still treasures to be found at the St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill stores.
“I definitely think the ‘80s were the boom time for vintage in the Haight,” she said. “I may be romanticizing it, but it was the place to go, before online shopping.”
Studying at City College and San Francisco State, thinking she’d go into historical costume design, she also picked up skills filling in for a friend at Always and Forever, a vintage shop on 24th Street.
“One day he told me he was going to sell and I said to keep me in mind. I thought it might be fun but I was still going to State,’’ said Ronconi, who ultimately took ownership of the shop, renamed it Guys and Dolls and did business on 24th and Church for 14 years.
“When 2008 hit, I decided to pivot and thought, I’m just going to sell online,” she said of the economic crash that changed so many things, here and elsewhere.
“That’s when I found the place on Balboa,” she said, but another opportunity presented itself almost immediately: There was a small space in the back of Neda’s flower shop — on Haight Street. Little by little, Ronconi expanded, then landed that prime corner spot, the very place the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared a national treasure in 2019.
“I always wanted to sell in the Haight, that’s the place to be if you want to sell vintage,” said Ronconi, who built her stock around collectible but wearable clothes and contemporary handcrafted items.
“With anything handmade there’s a special energy to it,” she said. “Both locals and tourists really love the Native American pieces,” she said of the beaded and turquoise items that account for about half of her sales.
“The pieces I buy are made for the general public, by Native American artists, and aren’t for use in rituals,” she said, denoting the difference between buying for style versus cultural appropriation, a notion she feels when she sees it or hears about it.
“About 15 years ago, a friend of mine in Michigan said she had gone to a dress-up ‘cholo party,’ and I didn’t have the words for it then, 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 in bad taste.
“I have a redheaded friend into traditional Mexican clothing who dresses like Frida,” she said. “She loves the clothing, more than any Mexican I know. How can that be wrong? If you wear it with respect, I think it’s OK,” she said.
And then there’s that side to the vintage trade she couldn’t have predicted when she was a young teen drawn to elegant clothes.
“At first, it was more a love for vintage and now it’s for the love of vintage and slow fashion, which is more important now than ever. I’m really proud of being in a business that’s more sustainable.”
While the jury’s still out on whether online shopping, shipping and delivery leaves less of a carbon footprint than traditional shopping styles, Ronconi appears to be a dyed-in-the-wool storefront retailer.
“I’ve been pretty good with this whole COVID thing, though one thing I miss is dealing with the public,” she said. Even her regulars on the corner of Haight and Ashbury could not dampen her enthusiasm for shop-keeping.
“Being in the Haight every day, you meet all different kinds of people. There are people who understood the community and then there were people who are out of their minds…We all got along pretty well. There was mutual respect,” she said, though she could have her days.
“I’d come home and I’d tell my husband, I can’t talk for an hour, I need to decompress,” she said.
Yet, there is no style, trend or demands of doing business in a major urban center in the middle of a pandemic that can stop her from buying and selling vintage pieces.
“I realized I miss it. Opening up the shop has been therapeutic for me.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.