By Brittany Doohan
Where else can you buy a pot to boil some noodles, a paper lantern for your outdoor patio, fur fabric for your bed and a rainbow tulle skirt all in one place? Cliff’s Variety, which is known for its, well, variety, is the Castro District’s one-stop shop for housewares, crafts and gifts. (Warning: You may be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of amazing-ness and adventure that you will experience when stepping foot in this store).
The first store opened in 1936 at 545 Castro Street by Hilario DeBaca, a former merchant and schoolteacher from New Mexico. He named the store after his youngest son, Clifford and pretty much ran the shop himself, with the occasional help of his granddaughter, Lorraine. The store sold everything: magazines, smokes, greeting cards, sewing goods, toys, and candy. Soon Hilario’s other son, Ernie, joined in on the business with his father, not the store’s namesake, Cliff.
In 1942, Hilario moved his store two doors down to 515 Castro Street. His son Ernie created many innovations in merchandising at this location. In 1946 he organized a children’s costume contest in the front of the store, which also included musicians, clowns, jugglers, an ice cream eating contest and a parade. This tradition lasted over 30 years until it got too large, and turned into crowds of tens of thousands of rowdy adults fighting and breaking windows. He also created machines to save space by suspending chains to the ceiling where products could be brought up and down so the customer could reach.
In May of 1960, Cliff’s was then moved to 495 Castro Street. Eureka Valley (where the Castro District is located) was quiet in the 1960s — that is until the hippies came to town. Haight-Ashbury brought an overflow of people who naturally found Eureka Valley because it was nice and affordable. There were already a few gay owned business on Castro Street then: a record store, an antique shop, a gift shop and a bar — and gay men and women were becoming more visible in the Castro. As more and more gay people started to flood in, straight bars turned into gay bars and the Castro District was born.
In 1971, Cliff’s moved to its final location (where it is now) at 479 Castro Street. Cliff’s was the first straight-owned business on the block to hire openly gay employees. As the neighborhood was rapidly changing — so were the skills required of the sales clerk at Cliff’s. In addition to knowing the basics of hardware, plumbing and electrical, Cliff’s hired people who could give advice on decorating, costuming, cooking, sewing and entertaining.
In the late 80s, Ernie Asten (Ernie DeBaca’s grandson) and his wife Martha bought the space next door to expand Cliff’s. This store is called the Cliff’s Annex and carries things like fabrics, stationary, costumes, funny gifts and bath soap.
Cliff’s Variety today has all kinds of goodies for all kinds of purposes. The knowledgeable and friendly staff can help you find what you need and give you some solid advice about how to use it. Head over to Cliff’s Variety and see for yourself!
[Photo: Yelper Amy C.]
479 Castro St
San Francisco, CA 94114