Union Street between Van Ness Avenue and the Presidio has changed a lot over the years. What began as grazing pastures for dairy farmers in the 1800s evolved into a family neighborhood after World War II. Kids roamed freely, and the street was filled with green grocers, butchers, drug stores like Burton’s, movie houses, soda fountains, Fredericksen Hardware, and auto garages.
In the early 1970s things began to change. A more urbane clientele was coming down the hill from Pacific Heights seeking finer foods, high fashion clothing, and more refined shopping. One business that started back in 1976 on Union Street is closing Feb. 17. For 42 years, Union Street Goldsmith has been a fixture in Cow Hollow, providing upscale fine jewelry and unique custom designs. We talked to owner Terry Brumbaugh before he closed to get his perspective on how things have changed since he opened his store on the street.
Why did you choose Union Street when you started your business with your partner, Glenda Queen, in 1976?
Glenda and I had met in Sausalito, where we both worked at jewelry shops on Bridgeway, which catered mostly to tourists. Even though we didn’t have a lot of startup money, we decided Union Street was really the place to be because it was the most sophisticated shopping district in the area after Union Square. It offered things no other neighborhood did. Back then places like The Coffee Cantata (now Flores) were remarkable because no one else thought to offer gourmet coffee. Perry Butler was a pioneer because Perry’s was one of the first “fern bars” that catered to single women. Before that a lot of bars in the neighborhood were kind of smoky and dark. Jeans West was probably the coolest shop on the street when designer denim first became a fashion statement. Prego and Pasha and The Deli were all very chic restaurants. Union Street was arguably the most cosmopolitan shopping district in the city for many years. At one point, there were 14 fine jewelry stores here. After we close there will be two.
As a retailer, how have you seen the street change in the last 10 years?
Around 2008, bigger corporate businesses started opening stores in the neighborhood. Brands like Armani Exchange, Ralph Lauren, Nine West, Nike, and Bebe saw the kind of customers that were coming here and had the big budgets to pay the higher rents landlords were asking. I was on the board of the merchants’ Union Street Association for seven years with Eleanor Carpenter of Jest Jewels and Lesley Leonhardt from Images of the North, and a big part of our work was to try and keep the local flavor and the small business culture thriving here. It was not easy. These corporate tenants had a lot of money but didn’t seem too interested in participating in the vibrancy of the street. Because they were corporate, it was an uphill battle trying to get them to contribute to things that the merchants’ association sponsored like the annual Easter Parade, the Union Street Fair, or the Festival of Lights.
What do you see now when you look at Union Street?
Too many empty store-fronts. I think a lot of landlords saw dollar signs when those deep-pocket corporate tenants started moving in. I’ve always been surprised landlords didn’t see that by keeping rents somewhat affordable it would benefit them by maintaining a thriving neighborhood. When an indie boutique or a local artisan can’t make it because of sky-high rents, it really hurts every business and the whole neighborhood. I hope landlords see they have a vested interest in making this neighborhood an exciting shopping and dining destination as much as the merchants here do.
You mentioned that there used to be quite a few jewelry stores on Union Street. What happened?
Two things: rents and the Internet. Union Street was known as a shopping mecca, not just for jewelry stores like Argentum, but also for bridal salons, hip boutiques like Viv, interior design studios, and art galleries. Stores and restaurants wanted to be here, and landlords knew it. As I mentioned, many of them started raising rents to unsustainable levels. It made it really tough not just for new businesses but for well-established ones, too, like Umami Restaurant and Real Foods Company. We heard of rents getting doubled to $20,000 and $30,000 a month. It was the death knell for a lot of businesses on the street.
The other thing that happened was the Internet. Of course, online shopping has changed things a lot for every retailer — jewelry stores included. Personally, I never thought someone looking for a diamond would go online and spend thousands of dollars with someone they’ve never met for a gemstone they’ve never seen in person. It just seemed like knowing and trusting the person you’re buying a diamond from would be so important to a buyer. But that hasn’t happened. Times have changed. A lot of people now seem more concerned with price than knowledgeable and friendly personal service.
What do you think is the key for a small business like yours to survive for 42 years?
Really it comes down to a loyal clientele. Of course, you have to have a great product, provide reliable service, be trustworthy, and have integrity. But without our client base supporting us, we never would’ve made it 4 years let alone 40. Union Street Goldsmith has survived floods, earthquakes, dot-com booms and busts, and a fire in 2015 that forced us to move down the block. My partner, Glenda, died suddenly a few weeks after the fire. And through it all, our customers, thankfully, have stuck with us. They kept us going, kept our spirits high and our doors open. We’ve had so many fantastic customers over the years: generations of families, Hollywood celebrities, music legends, elected officials, high society, and wonderful people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Jewelry is one of those enduring things that means a lot to so many people, and we’ve been really proud and happy to have been of service. Our customers aren’t just our customers; they’re our friends, too. They’re what I will miss most when we close.
Union Street Goldsmith’s final day will be Feb. 17. Union Street, 415-776-8048, unionstreetgoldsmith.com.