How one Bernal Heights shop survived the unexpected

Over the last few weeks, many of you already submitted San Francisco Diaries entries, ranging from a first job at the Nob Hill Theater to the secret history behind the Transamerica Pyramid. At San Francisco Diaries — home of Muni Diaries — we will still feature your Muni stories (after all, how can you talk about San Francisco without talking about Muni?) alongside stories about what makes San Francisco oh-so-SF.

Today’s San Francisco Diaries entry is from Eden Stein, who gives us an intimate look at what it’s like to nearly lose the business that you created, and how she survived nearly a decade as its owner.

Eden’s store, Secession Art & Design, is Bernal Heights’ neighborhood art gallery and indie artist collective, which recently, quietly, moved to a new location. You might have seen Eden out and about in the neighborhood, saying hello to the folks at Ichi Sushi or tending to her shop on Mission Street. Owning an independent gallery (or any small business, for that matter) in San Francisco is no easy feat, especially in these changing times.

In the summer of 2014, my heart dropped when I got a letter from my landlord saying that they decided not to renew my lease at the gallery I built, but gave me an option to stay by renting my storefront month to month. For any small business, this is the red flag: that you have no rent protection or rights. Secession Art & Design was just about to celebrate its 7th anniversary. After tears and some whisky, I realized I would have to walk away from what I had created. I picked myself up and started the quest for a new gallery and boutique location for myself and more than 60 independent artist and designers I represent.

After a two-month search, I found my new location just two blocks away. It was a restaurant that had closed. The first time I walked in and saw the burgundy paint, black toilets, kitchen, and bar that all had to be removed, I said no. But the light that streamed through the front windows and the skylight kept me up at night thinking about possibilities. This was my dream gallery, and I was going to find a way. I said yes the day I signed the new lease. It took 50 gallons of white paint to get the interior back to white.

I was paying double rent for three months while the new gallery got painted, ADA bathroom and floors got redone, and studios got built. Our craftspeople were amazing, working around the clock to get me moved in by January 1st. I remember getting a call in the middle of night that the floor stain fumes were making my upstairs neighbors sick. When I arrived at the store in the middle of the night to install more fans, I could smell the fumes for a few blocks. That night, with the hope that no one would break in, I had to leave all the windows open to air out 1,300 square feet of stained floors. Oh, the things that keep you up at night as a store owner.

I was open late one mid-December night when a guy walked in, and right away, I knew he was going to rob my business. When you sit in a storefront for so many hours, you observe a lot about your neighborhood and people’s behavior. I recognized this guy because he would walk his baby girl past my store many times a day. After a moment of panic, I looked him in the eye and said I am having the worst year of my life. I lost my lease and I have to move on Christmas Day. Either do what you’re going to do or give me a hug. His shoulders dropped and all of the sudden he gave me a big bear hug and left. I still see him and his daughter around the neighborhood. He always gives me a smile and a hello.

My last day before the big move was Christmas Eve, which I have nicknamed Whisky Eve. Shots and last-minute shopping have somehow become a tradition at my store over the years. Everyone who is still around in the neighborhood stops by for some cheer. I remember, at 7 p.m., I said, “Last call, it’s time to pack and move.” A few customers where shocked that I was serious. The new store was only two blocks away on Mission Street, so we rolled most of the store on dollies and clothing racks. My in-house artist (bright pink hair and stripy socks) Heather and I did the move. My husband, her boyfriend, and at least one customer helped me roll merchandise down the hill.

Such a surreal day of winter mist, drunks on the street, and Secession rolling art, clothes, and fixtures down the hill. At one point, I remember a group of nuns walking up the street. We had a moment as we moved past each other like a dance. The owners of a few restaurants that were open cheered us on as we rolled by. I locked the door for the final day on January 1st and put the keys through my landlord’s mail slot. The new year was truly a new beginning and I never looked back. This Whisky Eve will mark 10 years in business.

Secession Art & Design opened its original location in August of 2007, and has since grown to represent more than 60 independent artists and designers. The retail location is now a gallery, boutique, and workspace combined, creating a nontraditional storefront that allows customers to experience curated shows by owner, Eden Stein, and see the process of art being made in-house by Heather Robinson. See before-and-after pictures of Eden’s store at the Secession SF blog, and check out the local artists she represents.

San Francisco isn’t what it is without you. We’re looking for your first person, true stories about living in San Francisco — something that could only happen here. You, too, can add an entry to our collective journal. Tag us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Our email inbox is always open!

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