Since opening in 2010, Stuff has been San Francisco’s coolest mall. With its matter-of-fact name and curious location on Valencia Street between a former Baha’i Temple (now home to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus) and the Central Freeway overpass, it’s long been the place to find everything from dinette sets and Mickey Mouse collectibles to vintage ashtrays and 19th-century carousel animals. Housing some 60 vendors on two floors, it’s curated right down to its tagline.
“It wasn’t a dirty, dusty antique store with granny shit in it,” says sales manager Marty Scibilia, who’s been there from the start. “For many years, we didn’t say the word ‘antiques,’ just ‘vintage.’”
Now, in a tale that seems to be as depressing as it is familiar, social media and some local news outlets are awash in the news that Stuff may face a drastic rent hike that poses an existential threat to the august establishment. But the details of said rent hike are very much in dispute, and Stuff’s current lease will remain in place for nearly 18 months, which is actually a good chunk of time.
Owners Will Lenker and James Spinello allege that their landlord, Tom Murphy of Aralon Properties, who bought the property in 2017, wants to charge them an unaffordable $75,000 per month (or $900,000 per year) which would triple the current rate of $25,000 per month. Such a drastic rent hike would effectively force Thorn and the other five dozen small businesses, many of them retirees, to vacate 150 Valencia St. Stuff’s five employees would also find themselves out of work.
Their lease doesn’t expire until February 2024, which is well over a year away. But last week, a tweet from the son of one longtime Stuff vendor, Judith Thorn, went viral, drawing attention to his mother’s (eventual) plight. Anyone with a bit of social media savvy would likely do the same thing, as San Francisco—and the entire internet—loves a David-and-Goliath story involving greedy landlords and a beloved local institution.
This is what Lenker, Spinello and Scabilia claim, anyway. But while Aralon Properties collects monthly rent from Stuff, its owners—Lenker and Spinello—are essentially landlords too, as their primary role is collecting rent from their subtenants. Conversations with all parties—a staffer, a vendor, both business owners and Aralon Properties—revealed that numerous details about Stuff’s less-than-imminent demise remain murky and, in some cases, irreconcilable.
At the heart of things is the alleged proposal to triple Stuff’s rent. Both Lenker and Scibilia told The Standard that they’re willing to go as high as $42,000 per month, which would still represent a 68% increase over the current rent, and that they’re seeking only one five-year extension.
Reached for comment, Murphy disputed ever proposing a $75,000 figure, saying that “what we’re getting now is a fair rent.” He would not comment on the validity of Lenker and Spinello’s $42,000 counteroffer, nor would he confirm whether he had asked for a rent increase of any kind.
Murphy and Spinello both referred to a series of heated emails that would allegedly prove the other is not telling the truth about the proposed rent increase. However, neither party was willing to share that exchange with The Standard in spite of multiple requests. By phone, Murphy read out loud a brief, testy excerpt from one email Spinello allegedly sent last week, which was filled with the kind of intemperate language many people would use if their business were threatened with annihilation. For his part, Spinello offered to send a picture of several emails, but when pressed on the point that simply forwarding them would be easier, he abruptly terminated the conversation and never provided them in subsequent text messages in spite of several requests.
Other details of this saga do not align. Lenker and Spinello say that they obtained sufficient financing to purchase the building after Murphy broached the possibility, but Murphy says he never intended to sell. The pair also claim that Murphy hopes to put in an elevator; he says that’s not true.
Asked why he doesn’t simply renew the lease for five years if he feels the current rent is fair—as Lenker and Spinello have requested—Murphy retreated into abstract language about the rental market. He says an expiration date 18 months out is too distant to renegotiate.
The Standard spoke with a commercial property owner who agreed, saying that six months is a typical starting point; however, a commercial real estate broker said that 18 months isn’t unheard of for larger spaces, and that it would be to Stuff’s advantage to renew their lease as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Murphy says that San Francisco’s economic picture is so bad that Stuff—by all appearances a thriving business that, according to Scibilia, takes in about $2.5 million to $3 million in annual sales—might not survive until 2024, anyway.
“He’s trying to get me to make a decision, and what he really wants is for me to sell it to him for $7 million,” Murphy says of Spinello.
He also claims that Spinello, who is the chair of the board of the SoMa West Community Benefit District, has threatened to use his political clout in San Francisco to make the landlord’s life miserable if he doesn’t get his way. Spinello denies this.
Scibilia, meanwhile, believes that Murphy is stringing Stuff along without any regard for the fate of the 60 small businesses that comprise it. To him, the 18-month window is irrelevant. If a huge rent increase is written in stone, as he and the owners claim, then vendors may start looking for a new place to set up shop or just throw in the towel altogether, causing Stuff to die a gradual death. This regrettable outcome would resemble the fate of other, more typical malls across America.
Failure to resolve this dispute would be terrible for vendors like Judith Thorn, a retired professor and master weaver who, like Scibilia, has been with Stuff since its inception. Selling “a little of everything that I think is beautiful,” she pays $1,443 per month for a 12-by-15 foot space filled with textiles, paying a 16 percent commission to Stuff on all sales.
If Stuff were to disappear, Thorn believes there are few places left to go, citing La Rosa and a smattering of other vintage boutiques in the Haight. The vintage mall’s success has not come without another, less visible cost.
“Stuff became so popular that anyone who’s anyone came here to sell,” Thorn says. “So one by one, all the little shops around the city closed.”
150 Valencia St., San Francisco
Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]