Noe Valley Voice June 2003

Florence's Family Album:
The Kingston Corner

By Florence Holub

In this slightly updated reprint from the June 1989 Voice, Florence Holub remembers her father John and his Mission Street storefront business.

The building at 3434 Mission Street has been around for a very long time. Some 70 years ago in the 1930s, when I was young, it was already very old. Located on the corner of Mission and Kingston near 30th Street, it stood silently--dark, unused, and uncared for--just a few doors away from Bud's Creamery.

Bud's was the place where we teenagers gravitated after a game or a movie, to consume the thickest, creamiest milkshakes in town and to feed dimes into the jukebox that played our favorite songs, like "Basin Street Blues." The ice cream parlor was freshly painted, brightly lit, and filled with noisy high school students--a hub of vitality that stood in sharp contrast to the empty storefront we passed coming and going. Years had worn the old building's paint away, but the decorative moulding on the façade reflected its Victorian vintage. For decades, it remained unchanged, an imposing, derelict edifice.

In the 1940s, my father, who was a building contractor, took me to see a new property he had purchased to remodel. It turned out to be the same old building, now even more worn. Both the exterior and the interior were in shambles--with peeling paint, faded and stained wallpaper in the three living units, and hanging garlands of ceiling paper loosened by the leaky roof. Piles of rubbish, and a series of charred patches on the floor, suggested that transients had found shelter there.

It was an uninspiring sight, but my father possessed a vision. He saw not what was, but what would be when his work was completed--a bright, shining image of acquisition following the architectural taste of the era, which dictated off with the Victorian gingerbread and on with the stucco. Within a year, the structure had been stripped, painted, and remodeled to match all the other sleek modern buildings.

The rear ground floor became my father's wood shop, and in the storefront he installed his own retail business: Mickelson's Paint and Unfinished Furniture Store. However, my father was an active man and soon became bored with tending the shop, so he asked me, his only daughter, to work behind the counter for "a couple of days"--days that eventually grew into seven years.

This was during the '50s when old-timers who still lived in the area dropped in to buy paint and talk about the "good old days."

Through these customers, I learned that my father's building once held the last feed and supply store at the edge of town. In the 1860s and '70s, for miles to the south, there was mostly open land tilled by truck farmers. The farmers supplied the young city of San Francisco with fresh fruits and vegetables, which they hauled into town in horse-drawn wagons they called "trucks."

Before the combustion engine, the horse was the main mode of transportation, and the animals had to be maintained, in the same way our automobiles are today. Judging from evidence that surfaced on the building itself, the supply store must have taken care of the horses' needs, as well as the farmers'. The rear upper peak had been painted--not stuccoed like the rest of the exterior--and the paint had worn thin over the years, revealing the words "Harness Shop," in letters large enough to be seen from a distance.

Today the letters are barely discernible, and can only be seen if you walk west from Mission 50 paces on Kingston, then look back. Records from the San Francisco Water Department reveal that the building owner signed up for water with the Spring Valley Water Department in 1884, but there could have been a well before that date.

But back to the '50s. My father--who preferred to be called John once my two brothers and I had reached adulthood--worked either in his shop at the rear of the store or, more often, out on the job, dropping in at the end of the day to pick up or make deliveries. He was inexhaustible. A widower (our mother died when we were teenagers), he often went to dances with his friend Alfred, also a widower.

Following Alfred's death (he died of a heart attack while dancing at a Swede-Finn picnic), life wasn't as much fun, but John continued to stay busy with his building, and he enjoyed keeping it in good repair. He was an exceptional landlord whose tenants usually became his friends.

I remember one renter who was under constant pressure because of his daily schedule. He was a young, married-with-children veteran who often returned home early in the morning, so weary that he would park his car in a no-parking zone, intending to awaken in time to move it before the patrolman came by. On this particular morning, he didn't make it, and the policeman was there, about to write out yet another citation, when my father decided to plead in his tenant's behalf, telling how this brave veteran went to school all day, then worked through the night, getting only a few hours rest out of 24. The policeman, who was understandably moved, put away the citation pad, then slowly pulled from his other pocket another batch of tickets--to the policeman's ball. This was right up John's alley--he loved to dance!

In the late '50s, I retired as storekeeper after the birth of our son Eric, to whom I shall always be grateful for rescuing me from a position that I found less than exciting. My father was occupied with his construction company, so he closed Mickelson's Paint Store and leased the property.

The storefront was rarely empty after that. A series of businesses came and went. A few failed, but most succeeded and outgrew the place. The owner of Bud's Creamery, for example, decided to open a drapery business when he began losing ice cream customers to that new phenomenon, television. He rented our store space, and since draperies enhanced the television picture, the business boomed. He eventually moved to a larger accommodation.

The years passed, and by the late '70s my vital father had grown old. His doctor, noting this, asked, "John, what is bothering you?" to which my father replied, "Doctor, I used to be able to dance all night, and now I can't, and that's killing me."

It was only a few weeks later that this good man died, quietly and with dignity, at 87 years of age. In his will, he gifted the store to me, and for the past 25 years I have tried, with my husband and sons' assistance, to be the kind of landlord he was.

Now, in 2003, the business occupying the ground floor is called Hillside Press. It is a small, one-man press specializing in fine printing. The printer is a young, hard-working pressman whose work has been praised in the Fine Press quarterly and whose clientele includes a number of publishers and designers, including Arion Press.

This extremely talented printer just happens to be our son, Eric Holub--John's grandson.

This story, of course, is as much about a man as it is about a building. It is about my father and the crumbling old structure that he rescued and endowed with new life. And it is about those who lived and labored within its walls--and those to come. h