Noe Valley Voice June 2003

Store Trek

Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new businesses in the neighborhood. This month, we take a look at a garden center a couple of blocks down the hill in the "Trans Mission," and a women's clothing store in the heart of "Downtown Noe Valley."

Guerrero Street Gardens

1074 Guerrero Street between 22nd and 23rd

415-648-2670 and 626-PALM (7256)

When Flora Grubb couldn't take the heat, she got out of Texas and moved to San Francisco. When she couldn't take the dot-comming, she headed back to the garden.

"I came here to landscape, but I got sucked up into the dot-com craze, but realized very quickly that dot-comming wasn't for me," says Grubb, 29, who worked at Digital Talent Agency and Niku Corporation, among other places. "And I would come home every night just wanting to garden."

To relieve stress, Grubb invested in a tiny container garden in front of the building where she lived. But her enthusiasm and talent soon got her into trouble. "The garden was doing very well, but neighbors started to complain that they couldn't get to the front door!" she laughs.

So, after her last layoff, Grubb jumped right back to her landscaping career. By then, she already knew a lot about the peculiarities of San Francisco gardening. "I had spent hours soaking up San Francisco's environment--visiting the Botanical Gardens and really looking closing at people's gardens around town."

She advertised her services on Then a real estate agent who had hired her to do some work put Grubb on a list of professional services that she routinely gave to new homeowners.

"From that list, a man called needing some help with the garden in the house he'd just bought. As we were talking, something felt just too familiar to me. It was eerie. Turned out, he was Saul Nadler, a brother of my boyfriend's best friend in college at Brown University."

Nadler, 26, who at the time was a chef at Zuni Café on Market Street, and Grubb hit it off. After they revamped his garden, Nadler suggested they go into business together.

A few months later, in April 2003, they opened Guerrero Street Gardens, in the lot formerly filled by the Palm Broker at Guerrero and 23rd streets. Their new enterprise, says Grubb, is "a complete garden center with the Palm Broker as a specialty." (They bought the palm business from owner Mark Green last fall.)

While Grubb runs the garden center and gift shop, Nadler handles the palm tree side of the operation.

"I'm from New York, and I'd never seen a palm tree before I was maybe 25 years old," says Nadler, who adds that he's learned a lot in the past few months. "Did you know that palm trees come from every continent except Antarctica?"

But most important to Nadler is helping his customers improve their gardens. "I'd like to help people see their gardens as another room in their house," he says.

With his chef background, Nadler leans toward edible elements. In his own backyard on Diamond Street, he boasts five lemon trees, two pear, two cherry, one orange, one peach, a fig tree, a Thompson's Seedless grape vine, two blueberry bushes, strawberries, plus herbs and artichokes. "My backyard is about 25 by 30 feet," he says.

Much larger than Nadler's backyard, Guerrero Street Gardens is full of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants, all along winding paths. Though various containers, benches, and tables line the paths, the place has a secluded oasis feel. "I wanted this to look more like a garden than a store," says Grubb.

Still, she points out, everything is for sale. There are trellises made from willow, or from rusted and non-rusted iron ($150 and up); and sturdy year-round patio furniture, such as an epoxy-bonded steel table with a Moroccan tile top ($420). There are garden benches and chairs, even rocking chairs, made from Indonesian eucalyptus ($110 to $275).

"I like these especially," says Grubb, "because they are made from sustainably harvested wood."

And of course there are plants. "We are doing mostly Mediterranean plants, meaning types that have low water needs and are otherwise appropriate to our climate," says Grubb.

Some shrubbery and plants on hand right now include copper beach trees ($170 to $435); Joseph's Coat rosebushes ($45); several kinds of euphorbia, which Grubb calls "cool little odd Australian plants with strange green flowers" ($8 to $30); clematis ($14 to $50); and orchids ($25 and up). You can also find dwarf citrus and banana trees, starting at $100.

For those with established gardens, Grubb has stocked the store with azaleas, daisies, perennials, lavender, and assorted ground cover. All are priced from $4 to $25. The shop also carries herb starts--four-inch herbs and vegetables grown organically by Kassenhoff Growers in Oakland ($4 each).

Inside the trailer that serves as an office and purchasing counter, Grubb has a small selection of gardening tools suitable for the serious gardener, such as Austrian copper trowels, cultivators, and hand rakes ($75 and up), and ribbon hats that can fold up and fit in a purse ($35).

Grubb says she is happy to share tips on selection and planting, and for a small fee will provide design, installation, and maintenance services. You also may hear her occasional gardening advice on a KFOG radio feature called "In the Dirt with Flora Grubb."

For those hankering for the romance of a swaying palm tree, Nadler says prices run anywhere from $35 to $9,000 for Canary Island palms that are 1-1/2 to 16 feet tall (price includes installation).

"Some people do come in and buy the big ones because it can add a lot to the value of a house," he says, "but we are careful to advise customers about how fast they grow and how tall they will get."

During the summer, Guerrero Street Gardens will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

--Heidi Anderson


3901 24th Street at Sanchez


If you enjoy shopping at Dharma's stores in the Mission and the Haight, you no longer have to venture far to see what's new at this eclectic clothing boutique. In early May, Dharma hung out a natty new sign and opened its doors on the corner of 24th and Sanchez streets, in the space formerly filled by Tom and Dave's Juice It.

Though new to Noe Valley, Dharma has been around for two decades. The first boutique opened at Haight and Clayton in the early '80s, and a second opened on Valencia Street four years ago. Owner Jackie Wilson and general manager Peggy Ingalls now have their hands full with three stores, but the 24th Street boutique represents years of trying to find a suitable Noe Valley storefront.

"We really wanted to be in this neighborhood," says Ingalls. "Twenty-fourth Street is a great shopping strip with a lot of foot traffic. So when we saw this space, we jumped on it."

Wilson had her eye on the spot for other reasons as well. "I have always admired the merchant mix here," she says. "It's a very creative and artistic community of merchants."

Though the store space was smaller than they'd wanted, Ingalls and Wilson decided that the prime corner location was worth the tight squeeze. "It is different from our other stores," says Wilson. "Peggy and I had fun because we discovered a new kind of modular display system that works well in a super-compact space." Aside from the sage green walls and colorful pillows adorning some high shelves, there is little actual décor to speak of. Instead, says Wilson, the merchandise takes center stage.

Like many other women's boutiques on 24th Street, Dharma offers a full range of casual clothing: dresses, tops, and pants suitable for a day in the sun or a night out on the town. The emphasis is on the ethnic and whimsical, and many designs and fabrics hearken back to the '60s and '70s. Among the store's more popular labels are Star of India, Mercury, and Basement Clothing.

So what would make Dharma stand out? According to Wilson, it's the element of surprise. "We want to surprise the customer with something that's special and different--that they would not already have in their wardrobe or be able to find in a department store," says Wilson. "Something with a little artistic flair. And we want to surprise them with the price--that it costs less than they think it would."

In May, Kharma Highway's gauzy blouses and skirts in Indian and African prints were selling for less than $30. So were linen blouses from Ashley USA, in white, baby blue, and cotton-candy pink.

Dharma also sells reasonably priced scarves and other accessories. A few years ago, Wilson made contact with an Indian company selling luxurious silk scarves. Going through the normal channels of distribution would have made them too expensive, she says. "So we import them directly. There are a few extra steps you have to go through, but it's worth it to keep a reasonable price."

She is equally enthusiastic about the shop's assortment of embroidered and beaded totes from Fashion Fuse, which she buys directly from another Indian family. They cost about $15.

Patrons of Dharma will typically find themselves browsing to an African beat. While the store's soundtrack matches the ethnic flavor of the merchandise, Dharma has another connection to the music. Wilson is married to Kenneth Okulolo, one of Nigeria's best-known bassists and music producers. Wilson first caught a glimpse of Okulolo when she was on a buying trip to Africa and he was performing with the band Monomono.

Today, in addition to running Dharma, Wilson helps run the music enterprise that Okulolo built during his long career in Africa and the U.S. Nowadays, Okulolo not only plays on his own record label, Inner Spirit Records, but he performs in three African bands: the Nigerian Brothers, Kotoja, and the West African Highlife Band. The groups gig all over the Bay Area and beyond, and Wilson helps manage the logistics. "When you are trying to organize a tour of Northern California and you have that many people," she says, "it's a lot of work."

In May, Okulolo returned the favor by playing a few sets at Dharma's grand opening on 24th Street. Passersby were surprised and delighted by the sight and sound of live African music coming out of the tiny boutique. (There's that element of surprise again.)

Dharma is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.

--Sharon Gillenwater