“Neighbors matter – now more than ever,” was the message from David Talbot in his recent San Francisco Chronicle column about his block in Bernal Heights. For Ken and Amy Shelf, the owners of Succulence on Cortland Avenue, their relationship with their community has been, and continues to be, a core value they’ve built their business and lives around. In San Francisco, a common complaint of our tech-centric culture is that we are so engaged with our phones, we’ve lost our connection to each other. When I sat down with Ken, I heard a different story, one of living from the inside out. He and his wife Amy, acted on a deeply felt, internal desire to appreciate the richness and beauty of life, while putting down roots in Bernal Heights. For years they’ve worked hard to cultivate and grow a home and garden store, that began in the back of a video store.
How did you come up with idea for Succulence and would you tell us a little of the backstory?
This store originally opened in 1986 as Four Star Video and the building itself is almost 100 years old. This was one of the great neighborhood video stores with a collection of almost 25,000 films in this tiny space. My wife Amy and I were the fourth owners and we bought it in March of 2007, knowing and hoping that we’d have about three to five years until technology changed. We ended up getting five and a half years, while we figured out what to do next. After two and a half years in, we ran Succulence inside the video store, so it had a chance to grow and find its feet. We let everybody in the neighborhood know all along that we were really just interested in having a relationship with the community. At one point I think we had a letter up in the window that said, “Look, we don’t actually care what we’re selling, we just want to be a part of this great neighborhood.”
It was our friend Darcy Lee, who owns Heartfelt, that suggested the idea. This was before they became so popular. She noticed that when she had little succulent plants in her store they would always sell out. One day she said, you’ve got this nice backyard, maybe you should try a succulent business. It was really cool for a neighboring business to suggest a business.Then, my wife had the idea for the name which was less about the plant and more about our concept for the store. It’s about the richness of life. We came up with the idea of selling supplies for a succulent lifestyle. For us that means, paying attention to the beauty that’s all around us at all times. The plants are a good analogy for that, but it spreads into all corners of your home and garden. So when we had the name idea, that’s when it all came together. The name made us feel as if we could take whatever we really loved about our lives and bring them into the store concept. A lot of things came together at once, a dying retail store, a love of our home, our garden, an amateur love of these plants, and a supportive neighborhood.
What is it about Bernal Heights you feel is so special and what do you think about how it’s changing?
I think a city is a living thing and always goes through changes. It’s sort of a normal thing. If you look at the history of San Francisco, it’s a city that’s changed and changed, burned down, got rebuilt, burned down, got rebuilt. If you look in the history books you read quotes about San Francisco being a city full of creative forces and business minded young people who loved good food, since, like, the 1830’s. When I got here in 1998, it was an amazing neighborhood and I think it’s still an amazing neighborhood now. We’ve been in the neighborhood coming up on twenty years and we’ve been store owners for ten. Amy and I have two kids who were born at home, in Bernal Heights, so they’re Bernal natives.
It’s a real community, a place where families have lived for generations. There’s also a lot of new people and it’s a little off the beaten path so it retains a bit of privacy. You come to Bernal Heights to come to Bernal usually, not just to pass through to get somewhere else. It’s a place where people know each other and we‘ve watched kids grow up. It’s like a village in a city. It reminds me of the small towns they make movies about. That’s what we’ve got going on here.
How about the times when business was shaky because of the economy?
The year after we bought the store, the whole bottom fell out and we were really wondering how we were going to make this work and how we would survive. We watched a lot of people close down. I always felt committed to Bernal Heights in particular. Even when we first decided to become home owners it was sort of “Bernal or Bust” for us. We wanted to live in this neighborhood. I still feel that way, like it’s a bit of a haven that I want to be a part of. I would say from 2008-2011 was tremendously difficult. I felt like my wife Amy and I had weekly meetings to try and figure out how everything would work, next week. Even now, I think living in a place like this is a hustle for everybody and we both run our own businesses so we sacrifice things for that. But when I walk in here every single morning I’m totally thrilled at the space and I feel lucky that this is where I get to spend my time. Like everyone, I don’t always love my work life, there are challenges, but I’m really grateful this is where I spend my time.
A big part of it is that we’re not looking for the one shot customer, we’re looking for a relationship. In the end, all business and all of life is based on relationships and connections with people. Whether it’s a customer or a vendor or the postal person, it’s about having a conversation and sharing a life with people. I feel like that’s why it’s so perfect for us to be here, because we’re in a neighborhood where relationships are so valued and so important to people. Creating a business that’s founded on that concept, in a neighborhood that values it, is ideal.
What is it like on Cortland between the merchants?
We have a merchants association and we’re definitely connected. We all want to see each other succeed. Some businesses can survive on the neighborhood, other businesses like mine, depend on people coming from outside the neighborhood. But I think we all want to provide the neighborhood with great service, great food and I love how we’ve been building a little more of a shopping area. I feel someone can come over and check out, then go over to and get a cool gift, come over here and get a plant, go across the street to to pick up a great bottle of whiskey and grab coffee at . We are blessed beyond with great food. When I desperately need that comfort, I got to , that’s my spot, but there’s so much here like , which is brand new, and . I’m only naming a few because there’s great food on Cortland and Mission Street.
Your store is so visual and beautiful it feels like a bit of a haven, who creates that feeling?
I can’t take responsibility for that, I have an amazing group of people working here and they all have the opportunity to imprint the space with their design ideas and feelings. Everyone who works here brings us product ideas and creative ideas. We think of ourselves as more of an experience than a retail store. The management team have been here two and a half years and they are amazing. Rob Jolin is the store manager and he has made friends with everyone in the neighborhood. He’s a visionary and someone who’s really transformed the whole look and feel of the store. Dan Vagnoni is a brilliant artist, plant lover and handles a lot our design business. We recently did seven big pieces for Vega across the street. They’re creative, hardworking and fun to be around; I feel so lucky to work with them.
I do my best to offer the people who work here an opportunity to grow and try new things. They find themselves facilitating workshops or becoming a living art creator and learning office management. I take the growth of the people that work here very seriously and I try to spread the experiences around so they’re all exposed to different things we experiment with.
A side from the fact you can walk in and buy something, we hold a ton of workshops in the store. We’re really committed to our workshops. It’s a chance for us to sit with people and get them excited about these plants and give them good information. We want people to buy beautiful plants and have them thrive. We also do team off sites both here and at offices downtown, kids birthday parties and bridal showers. Our team creates living and non-living green art for restaurants, medical offices and private homes. We represent local artists, by selling one of a kind jewelry, ceramics and art. I think we are a great antidote to the disposable concept of gift giving, because you can come here and buy a living plant, or beautiful handmade hat or piece of art.
Succulence Life and Garden Workshops402 Cortland Avenue
– Journalist and Author
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Jen Baxter is a writer, photographer and San Francisco native.
She tells stories encouraging people to be independent, more aware and more creative.
You can find more of her work at JenBaxter.com