Noe Valley Voice May 1999

Noe Valley Stores and Students: The Way It Was and Could Be

By Bob Crowley

I visited Noe Valley recently and happened to see the February edition of the Noe Valley Voice. As a former Noe Valley resident (1945 ­ 1965), I read with interest two articles, one dealing with the life and passing of Mike Callahan's wife, Peggy Burge Callahan, and the other reporting a meeting between Noe Valley merchants and students at James Lick Middle School.

The stories brought to mind how businesses in Noe Valley and their relations with young customers have changed over the years. And not necessarily for the better.

I never knew Peggy Callahan, nor frequented her shop Cathexis, but from her husband's description she sounded like the type of merchant who operated in the Valley when I grew up there. Honest, innovative, energetic, and helpful, she apparently won the hearts of those around her. I sense from her husband's comments that she got along well with kids and adults alike.

In his memoir, Mr. Callahan mentioned Al Frey's Toy Store as a business that had been displaced by skyrocketing rents and the changing nature of the neighborhood. I am sure most of today's Noe Valley residents have never heard of Al Frey and his store, which was located next to Wong's Meat Market. (Wong's was at 24th and Castro, where Miss Millie's is today. Al's toy shop was in the next building up 24th Street.)

Let me take a minute to describe Al Frey, a unique individual. These comments will have a bearing on the current situation between merchants and students at James Lick.

Mike Callahan's description of Al Frey's business as a "toy store" was very generous. I'm not sure how you would characterize his store by today's standards. There were toys, but there were also things like candy, baseball equipment, and hardware and hobby supplies. The shop had no fancy displays, no signs for sales, no slick decorations, no salespeople (except Al Frey himself), and no apparent organization. There were counters that were filled with merchandise and boxes arranged in haphazard fashion. Boxes and cartons-- some opened, some not -- were strewn all over the store. I don't know how Mr. Frey ever found anything in that place, but he always did.

What was remarkable about his store was that it had no set hours of operation. Sometimes you would find Mr. Frey in the store puttering around, but more often than not, he wasn't there. He had a sign in the window that said, in effect, if the store is not open, "Call Al in the Alley!"

The alley was located next to the store, and you opened the alley door and yelled, "Hey, Al!" In a few minutes, this kindly old gentleman would come rambling down the stairs from his apartment and open the shop. It did not seem to matter to him if you came to buy 10 cents worth of candy or a $10 baseball glove, or called him at 9 in the morning or 7 at night. He was always cheerful.

To his customers, mainly in the 7 to 15 age group, Al Frey's store seemed like a treasure trove. Every one of those boxes had some hidden treasure inside, or at least we thought they did. His youthful customers would ask for something, and Mr. Frey would rummage around for a few minutes and come up with an item. It was just a matter of finding the right box. Because of all the unopened boxes and their unknown contents, the store held a great attraction for all of us.

No one ever seemed to leave emptyhanded -- at least not in my day. Whatever amount of money you had, it always was enough to purchase something, especially candy. If you were interested in a big-ticket item like a baseball or model airplane and didn't have enough money, Al Frey would sometimes give it to you and tell you to pay the difference later. He might even reduce the price to what you had in your hand. Of course, the honor system was in effect. You always paid Mr. Frey back, even if it was just a few cents at a time.

Given the way he operated, he must have had a hard time making any money. I wonder how he was able to stay in business, with such a laissez-faire approach. Maybe he was independently wealthy and operated the store for fun, just because he liked kids. I wish I had been smart enough then to ask him about things like that, but unfortunately I wasn't. Whatever his reasons for being in business, he was one of the most beloved people in the neighborhood.

It would have been easy to "take" something from Al Frey's store. There were no security cameras, guards, or salesclerks to watch you. Once Mr. Frey turned away on one of his quests for merchandise, you could have picked up a toy and he never would have been the wiser. I'm sure the thought crossed some minds, but none of my friends ever actually shoplifted. How could you steal something from a man who was likely to give it to you if you asked?

I can't say for sure that other businesses operated the same way Al Frey's did or had the same close relationship with the children of Noe Valley. They probably couldn't have if they'd wanted to stay in business. Still, their relations with Noe Valley students and young people in general were good. The owners of the true five-and-dime stores -- Smith and Meyer's -- and Bud's Ice Cream and the Castro Pharmacy, to name a few, seemed to get along well with neighborhood children. They were fair and treated their youthful customers with respect and patience. For many kids in the Valley, working in one of these stores after school or during the summer was their first real job.

I know this is 1999 and things have changed dramatically in Noe Valley over the years. I'm not saying bring back the good old days of my youth (though they were good and a lot of fun). Those days are gone forever.

What I'm saying is that whatever the year, merchants and students don't need to be at loggerheads. Human nature hasn't changed, nor have the qualities that most adults and children want to experience. At the top of that list would be respect and courtesy, followed closely by honesty and fairness.

I sense from the comments in your stories about business people and students that both sides want to get along. It is obviously in their mutual interest to do so. By meeting, they have taken the first step toward resolving their differences. I hope they will meet again and continue their dialogue. I also hope that when they meet, they will remember Al Frey and his magical store.

Bob Crowley now lives in McLean, Virginia.