Snarkmeisters used to call an eight-block stretch of Sacramento Street “Couch Canyon” – and not because people could get a good deal on a sectional. Topographically and economically, it’s not even a canyon; rather, it sits haughtily atop the city in the über-affluent Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights neighborhoods. Hardly bottom-dwelling territory.
The reference comes from the disproportionate number of psychiatrists who hung their shingles on this elegantly refined street, proving that money may not buy happiness, but it certainly can pay for the pursuit thereof for people with means.
“I used to manage a store down the street, Button Down,” said John DiQuattro Jr., who now manages a high-end home design store, Anthem, “And every week, you’d see the same clients at the same time. They’d shop and then go see their therapist. (But) the face of the street has changed. It’s become a real design mecca.”
These days, the shrinks are smaller in numbers, replaced by retail therapy, perhaps a more efficacious prescription for the well-heeled.
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Stroll Sacramento Street during business hours, and it feels as if the glossy pages of Dwell or Vogue have come to life. Shop after shop features a wealth of elegant, airy spaces that exude style and savoir faire. Boutiques, some so exclusive they keep the doors locked and shoppers must be buzzed in, offer fashions fresh off the runways of Milan and Paris, while myriad home décor stores feature dishware and armoires so pricey that you wonder if the decimal point was misplaced.
This is not merely another tony San Francisco retail playground. Go to Union Square if you want your flashy, name-dropping Saks, Tiffany, Prada shopping experience that feels much like an adult Disneyland. Visit Hayes Valley or the gentrified Mission if you want the quirky, artisanal, techified shops catering to every whimsical consumer fetish.
Sacramento Street, rather, both flaunts and masks its superior pedigree with an austere opulence, its storefronts architecturally congruent – but not gaudily imitative – with the neighboring Victorian and French baroque manses, its sidewalks pristine and free of panhandlers, its few upscale eateries tucked in seamlessly, its raucous nightlife almost nil since this is, above all, a neighborhood.
“I love the versatility and the beautiful objects you’ll find,” said interior designer Kate Jamieson, shopping for cutting boards at Hudson Grace. “This is a great area to buy for clients. I do a lot of work for clients in the neighborhood, so I’m lucky I don’t have to go too far. All I have to do is go a four-block radius.”
For those who call Sacramento – the city, not the street – home, and whose wealth-management adviser might raise an eyebrow at dropping $1,700 for a scarf at Susan, the street’s haute boutique, or $10,000 for a domed light fixture at March, a home furnishing store, or $45 for a scented candle at Hudson Grace called Coast (“ocean salt air, eucalyptus groves, and mountain sage”), there still is a reason to visit other than sheer slack-jawed gawking at buying habits of the swells.
Shops for the rest of us
Amid the lavishness reside several consignment clothing stores where, in the blunt words of Arlene Johnson, a buyer at one such establishment named Goodbyes, “women can look like a million on a dime.” Yes, this is Pacific Height’s dirty little secret – it has secondhand clothing shops. Far from being déclassé, however, it offers high-end, designer garments and accessories that fashion ADHDs blithely discard after a few months or one major society ball, whichever comes first.
Around lunch hour one recent day, upscale bargain-hunters of both sexes were combing through the racks at Goodbyes, which has separate women’s and men’s stores on both sides of the street, and at The Designer Consigner a block away. Another must-stop, Vintage a la Mode, was closed on this day, meaning that vintage Oleg Cassini 1980 black-sequined peplum party dress featured on the store’s website for a mere $650 wasn’t going anywhere.
At Goodbyes, buyer Becky Tower relates in almost a hushed reverence how, recently, a Chanel bag that retails for upward of $2,000 sold for less than $500. Sold fast, too.
“Bags are very popular,” she said. “Shoes, too. We get people disappointed. They come in and see the item one day, come back the next, and it’s gone. Someone will call and say, ‘Oh, I just saw this Prada blah, blah, blah three days ago.’ I’m like, ‘Sorry, it’s already gone.’ ”
At these upscale consignment boutiques, shopping is sport. Brenda Alessandria, owner of The Designer Consigner, talks about the thrill of the hunt for costumers, how they get a dopamine rush unearthing some designer garment they might see on the red carpet going for mid-three figures.
It makes sense that Pacific Heights would be the home to designer consignment because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is.
“Those $4 million homes? What do you think is in their closets? It’s not junk,” said Alessandria. “A lot of things come in with tags still on them, never worn. A lot of people have personal shoppers. They say, ‘Just fill my closet. I like to go in my closet and have my pick.’ Then, at the end of the season, that personal shopper is paid to clean out the closet and put all new stuff in.”
She pointed to a black leather jacket by Costume Nationale hanging behind the cash register, shining like onyx.
“If you keep walking this way (west on Sacramento Street), you get into really high-end retail,” Alessandria said. “The ladies in the neighborhood buy it there and it ends up at our store. This Italian-made coat came from Susan (a boutique a block west). You have to buzz to get into Susan, really high end. I’d say it went for $2,200 in their store. We’re selling it for $200.”
It’s not just budget-conscious tourists who frequent the consignment stores. In fact, most of the tourists shop at Allessandria’s second store in Union Square. The Pacific Heights store draws locals, who may not admit to it, as well as ardent consignment hounds who, like antiquers, make it a weekend pastime.
“There’s a certain person who wants to come in, touch and feel,” she said. “It’s almost like a museum sometimes. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember that dress. I had that Ralph Lauren five years ago.’ But we mostly carry contemporary. We will take vintage if it’s fabulous. It’s always a compliment to us when people ask, ‘Are you sure this is used?’ ”
These frugal fashionistas are not just women. At Goodbyes, customer Andrew Davies was pawing through the dress shirt offerings. He lives across town in Potrero Hill, but makes periodic sojourns to hunt for bargains. He pointed to the suit rack, where a $2,095 Dolce & Gabbana black-gray wool and twill suit was selling for $250, then motioned to the shoe section, where a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo lace-up brown leather shoes was priced at $190.
“I bought a couple of cashmere sweaters here that were surprisingly inexpensive,” Davies said. “I like nice clothes, but I don’t really like (spending) a huge amount of money.”
No shame in that. But, apparently, some like to shop on the sly. Traci Teraoka, who owns Poetica Art and Antique across from Goodbyes, says she’s seen some celebrities slink into the consignment store. Locals, too.
A male shopper who pleaded to not be identified said he buys all of his suits at Goodbyes.
“I found some high-end Armani suits, great fabric, for less than $100,” he said. “I always recommend guys to come here if they need a suit in an emergency situation – like wedding or funeral. No one can tell where you got it from.”
Certain stores on Sacramento Street are so unusual, bordering on unique, that you certainly can tell where the items were purchased.
Take Glassybaby, a newly opened store dedicated to votive candle holders. That’s it; only product. The votives sell for $44 (10 percent of proceeds go to charity) and the color scheme is impressive –from crème brûlée to hidden moss; ripe olive to wet dog. Sales clerk Katie Dunaway’s favorite is Jane’s Caramel, but says each is unique because “we have 40 glass blowers and it takes four people to make each one, and 24 hours for each one.” She added, “We did great business during the holidays.”
Crossing the threshold into Poetica Art and Antique is like entering the den of a famous adventure author. It is laden with objets d’art and antiques. A preserved early 20th century Royal typewriter sits atop an antique farm table, while mounted on the walls are felt heads from animals that look like deer, but much happier.
“Whimsy has an important place here,” Teraoka said. “Look at this (mixed media, wire, fabric, beads and stones, ceramic and paint) sculpture by Suzanne Molton, a local artist who’s done work for (director) Tim Burton. It’s called ‘Mama Llama.’ Say it. Say it fast. I love saying ‘Mama Llama.’ ”
At $275, the piece also is affordable. Teraoka has high-end items, but she prides herself on being inclusive for those whose bank accounts aren’t the size of the GDP of an emerging European Union nation.
“I like people to come in and think it’s for them, not just for people with $20 million in their bank account,” she said. “I also like people to be curious about the history of a piece or the design of a piece beyond the price tag. You can’t always get that (on the street).”
Perhaps the most hyper-specific shop is The Ribbonerie, which, as its name implies, sells ribbon. Ribbon from all textiles and countries of original imaginable.
Owner Paulette Knight, who holds the distinction of being the first American importer for French wire ribbon, has been in this space for nearly seven years. The former American Airlines flight attendant had been a longtime Pacific Heights resident and “knew this would be the place” for her specialty products.
The colorful display room was spilling with spools of satin, taffeta and grosgrain material. Customers range from interior decorators to brides to “everybody from the homespun crafter to a lady who makes pasties for strippers.”
Known for her French collection, Knight actually is more enamored with her Japanese offerings.
“They have a beautiful way with textiles in general, but especially ribbon,” she said. “They can make polyester look and feel like silk.”
That might be the only polyester you’ll find on Sacramento Street, clearly a silk road.
Certainly, the hand-sewn and dyed linens napkins at tony design boutique Sue Fisher King or Hudson Grace wouldn’t dare sully the purity of the process with so base a material.