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Cliff's Variety Store

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Hilario DeBaca


San Francisco

Number of employees

San Francisco

Number of locations

Cliff's Variety Store

Retail Variety store Hardware store

Area served
San Francisco, California

Type of business
Retail variety and hardware store

Cliff s variety store employees assault holiday carolers 24 dec 2012

Cliff's Variety Store and Hardware is a hardware, home goods, variety and fabric store located in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, California since 1936. It has been in business for over 75 years, is considered a neighborhood institution, and predates the neighborhood becoming the first widely recognized gay mecca starting in the 1960s. It is one of the oldest family-run stores in the city.



Hilario DeBaca, a former merchant and schoolteacher, wanted something to do during his retirement years, so opened the first Cliff's variety store - named after his youngest son Clifford - at 575 Castro a block east of its present-day location. It was "mostly a one-man operation." The concept of the variety store originated in the late 1800s with nickel and dime store offering a wide assortment of inexpensive items for personal and household use. The originator of the concept is the Woolworth Brothers whose F. W. Woolworth Company experimented with goods people could touch. Before this, clerks had to work with each customer individually, handing them goods from cases or shelves. This required more clerks, with greater knowledge, and so cost more. Inflation eventually dictated that the stores were no longer able to sell any items for five or ten cents, and were then referred to as variety stores. DeBaca's eldest son Ernie, was also a budding entrepreneur who started several businesses, and stores before traveling with his family and eventually moving back to San Francisco in the mid-1930s and re-opening his repair shop.

In 1942 Hilario moved the store 1/2 block, and closer to the main intersection of the neighborhood where Castro and 18th streets intersect. It was twice the size of his first store but still considered small. It was called Cliff's Trading Post. A few years later in 1946 Ernis had an accident which kept him off his feet for months. Ernie closed his separate repair shop and set up a workbench in the back of Cliff's where he could repair small appliances. Also in 1946, Cliff's began hosting a children's Halloween festival that featured a costume contest and ice cream-eating contest. Between the two men they had during the time of the second store introduced mechanical displays that would save on the limited counter space while utilizing the unused ceiling for storage racks.

In the late 1950s the second store was forced to close as the Hibernia Bank (now a Bank of America branch) was introducing drive-through banking. The third Cliff's opened up on the other side of 18th street at 495 Castro. By this time Hilario had died and Ernie's daughter, Lorraine Asten, had born a son and named him Ernie. Ernie Asten was old enough to work in the store, and he was joined by other employees, including his girlfriend Martha, who he later married in 1969. The neighborhood was quickly changing demographics and real estate values were rapidly rising. Since the advent of automobile and driving culture and post-WWII growth of suburbs, the declining Irish Catholic and Scandinavian populations were giving way to the much more liberal young people who were overflowing from the "Summer of Love" Haight-Ashbury neighborhood just over the hill. In the 1960s and 1970s the Castro became a "center for gay liberation." Cliff' landlord explained that the rent would be tripling for the store at the end of 1971. Luckily Bon Homme, a variety store just a few doors away was going bankrupt and Ernie DeBaca was able to buy the building outright.

The Castro Theatre originally opened at 479 Castro Street in 1910. The building was later remodeled into a retail store in the mid-1920s after the larger Castro Theater was built up the street. At the root of what was to become the best known gay mecca was the politicizing efforts of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco, who started the Castro Street Fair and was later assassinated in SF City Hall in 1978. Milk had also started the Castro Village Association to provide an alternative to the "stodgy" Eureka Valley Merchants Association that was not as accepting of the new gay businesses. Milk together with Martha Asten put out information about the new emerging businesses of the Castro. The Castro had become very gay-friendly as gay bars replaced straight ones and Cliff's became the first Castro business to hire openly gay workers. Also in the 1970s a basement had been excavated for storage. By 1979, the Children's Halloween ended as the neighborhood's population shifted from families with children to more single men. But in the mid-90s, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence revived Children's Halloween with an annual party held at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, including a costume contest and gifts from Cliff's.

In the late 1980s the Hallmark cards business next door was closing up and the space at 471 Castro became available. Sometimes called Cliff's Annex, the new space would house "fabric, linens, bedding, and bath accessories."


Cliff's Variety Store Wikipedia

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