As small retailers across The City stock up for the holiday season, Phyllis Nabhan, owner of Gaslight & Shadows Antiques on Clement Street, is paring down 40 years of collectibles, preparing to close shop. Permanently.
“There used to be 20 antiques dealers on the street,” she said, pointing toward the door while moving her arm from east to west. “I’m the last one.”
An astronomical rent increase is the reason she’s leaving, but Nabhan is neither disappointed nor hesitant about the decision; rather she’s resigned, following six years of steady rent increases and the movement toward online collecting. Nevertheless when I arrived at the store, it was packed tight with treasures sourced from every era and port of call, as well as with shoppers.
“I never come looking for anything specific but I know I’ll always find something,” said longtime customer Monica Gonzalez, who like Nabhan was San Francisco born and raised, though decades apart. Both shopkeeper and customer remembered the brisk antiques trade in town and spoke of long-gone vendors in the Avenues and South of Market. I listened closely as Gonzalez asked Nabhan how she started collecting.
“We didn’t have a dad,” she explained. “We’re 100 percent Lebanese, it was an arranged marriage, and dad left mom with three children. She didn’t have money to buy anything and I had this desire for things. When we were little mom said, if you want money, you have to get out and get a job.”
So Nabhan took the cue, and started mowing her widowed next door neighbor’s lawn.
“She’d have me in her living room, and there were rugs, doilies, beautiful mahogany furniture and lamps and she would teach me about antiques. She gave me a beautiful gold cameo hand-carved in Italy. I would dream about having more. I still have it in a safe deposit box,” she said.
Gonzalez persisted, “Yes, but what did you first start collecting?”
“I’m telling you!” said Nabhan. “The impulse came from her, the neighbor. My mom was a minimalist,” she said, and antiquing was mostly done thanks to a girlfriend’s mother with a car.
When time came for Nabhan to move out on her own to study art at San Francisco State “Mom said, ‘take the ugly green dishes.’” The ugly green dishes are known as Fire King Jadeite, and Nabhan immediately started scooping up more for pennies at thrift stores (it’s now worth considerably more).
Her aunt Lydia’s colorful Bakelite jewelry also inspired her own collection of things made from the world’s first synthetic plastic.
“They say it skips generations,” she said of the impulse to acquire things.
As conversation continued over display cases of vintage Mexican silver and contemporary handcrafted resin jewelry, a passerby slipped through the door, lured by the neon glow of the “Antiques” sign and the world’s largest assemblage of Limoges boxes on prominent display. Jackie Quan, a visitor from New York, couldn’t resist a tiny treasure depicting the World Trade Center, its twin towers, painted blue, attached upright to a red and white striped box.
“At Christmas time they used to line up out the door,” said Nabhan, who claims to hold the world’s largest Limoges box collection. But eBay changed the lining-up game sometime in the mid-’90s.
As Nabhan double bubble-wrapped and boxed the item for Quan’s trip home, they got to talking about their shared passion for marathon running.
“I have so much energy, I used to run for five hours on the weekends,” said Nabhan, a longtime volunteer with Pamakids Runners, organizers of the Kaiser Half Marathon. She also burned some energy as a YMCA fitness instructor and worked for 20 years as a bellydancer.
“I was born to dance,” said Nabahan, who sometimes goes by her stage name, Saida, which means “happy” in Arabic.
“I always hated the name Phyllis,” she said. She tried Shala Shanti when she was an art student, but it didn’t stick. When she became a clothing designer with her own brand, the label was simply “Phyllis Nabhan.”
It was of course a different time and place, a period when she lived for three years in Kabul, Afghanistan with her partner Lou, where they sourced antique swords and jewels and Nabahn designed coats and dresses for Macy’s and I. Magnin. The profits allowed her to establish Gaslight and Shadows in 1976. The rental space has served as a base for her other pursuits, from photography and photo restoration, to costume sewing (hand beaded, sequined and metallic, for the bellydance outfits of course) and her early adoption of the Internet.
“I taught myself HTML in 1991,” she said, boasting of an ability to navigate 21 online platforms. “You won’t believe how much time I spend on social media,” she said, although I think I would as one well-acquainted with the my-three-jobs lifestyle.
Though “Saida,” as I’ve come to call her, indeed seems more energized than stressed by her circumstances; her cheery disposition in the face of change could be contagious.
As Gonzalez emerged from the backroom to say goodbye and ask when the shop’s last day would be, Nabhan assured her it would be no sooner than December 15 and possibly extended until the end of the year. She will definitely remain open online.
That left me to wonder: now what? I mean, what makes Nabhan stay rather than run from San Francisco?
“My roots are here. It’s still the best city in the world and I’ve been all over,” she said. “There are so many things going on and I love the temperature, the fog, Baker Beach, Aquatic Park, Golden Gate Park, The Presidio, Ocean Beach and that I can be downtown in 30 minutes. I love everything except the traffic and Uber and Lyft,” she said. “I even love the 38 Geary.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.