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Opening Doors: Repurposed SF Garages Give Creatives Space to Pursue Passions and Chase Dreams
Friday, May 20, 2022

Opening Doors: Repurposed SF Garages Give Creatives Space to Pursue Passions and Chase Dreams

You could say that the Bat Cave-themed garage in the Outer Sunset’s iconic Starship House is the granddaddy of tricked-out San Francisco garages. 

The quirky two-story row house with Art-Deco accents—which also features a replica set of the Starship Enterprise, rooms dedicated to local history and much more pop-cultural bric-a-brac—is among the city’s more unique homes.

James T. Kirk—his given name—started tinkering with his family home, which became part of a high-profile property war late last year and recently found a buyer, after moving in about 20 years ago. (Kirk plans to live in the lower half of the home and pay rent to the new owner; a possible Airbnb experience is also in the works.) Over the years, the home has become an eccentric landmark for out-of-town lookie-loos as well as a chill hangout for locals to stop by.

The gregarious Kirk is happy to chat just about any time of day. 

James T. Kirk made the Starship House in the Outer Sunset a local landmark with a replica set of the Starship Enterprise’s famous bridge from the TV series ‘Star Trek.’ | Eloïse Kelsey

“You know, a lot of people think it’s kind of crazy, but I really enjoy having the open-door feeling,” he said, likening his home’s come-over-whenever policy to the one that he grew up with during the 1970s and ’80s in the Sunset.  

“We had a lot of open doors and a lot of people would just invite you in,” he said. “It was just a different, different world.”

While the pandemic has driven some to recoil from society, it has led others to rediscover the communal spirit that Kirk remembers so fondly—opening their (garage) doors in uniquely creative and entrepreneurial ways. 

Some are passionate hobbyists, who use their spaces as workshops and ateliers for their crafts, while others are trying to manifest their own Silicon Valley origin story by launching a full-fledged business out of their humble car park.

It’s not always easy. In fact, things may actually be harder for those who are good at what they do, as permitting and zoning rules can turn a talented artist or artisan into a scofflaw in short order.

Creative Space: Some Just Want More Room For Activities

After drag artist and writer Joe Wadlington woke up in a “pile of drag” in his bedroom one too many times, he knew it was time to find a space for his alter ego, Jubilee, to stitch costumes, apply makeup and store her many wigs and glittery costumes.

While pulling off the lashes and sequined evening wear from the previous night’s show was satisfying, Jubilee’s moltings were starting to drag on Wadlington’s life outside of drag.

Joe Wadlington, who performs under the drag queen name Jubilee, in front of his costume atelier in the Mission. | Eloïse Kelsey

“If I was in a drag show that week, the entire week—making the outfit, conceiving the number—took over my entire room, so I couldn’t do anything else,” Wadlington, now a graduate student at San Francisco State, recalled.  

So when a garage opened up in his building, Wadlington, with some trepidation about adding onto his monthly rent, leased the space. He hasn’t looked back, even though the endeavor is more of a “money pit” than a thriving performance-based business. 

Wadlington rents the garage for $250 per month (on the lower end of San Francisco garage rents, which can go for $300 to $400 or more), but only takes home about $70 from each drag show after transportation expenses. And that’s not counting the cost of costumes, makeup or the loss of in-person performance opportunities due to the pandemic.  

Still, for Wadlington, the creative (and storage) space is worth it. 

“I don’t see a life for me where I don’t have a workshop going forward,” he said. 

Similarly, Stephen Amato-Salvatierra’s garage in the Outer Sunset is more of a “sacred little zone” and studio space to “indulge” in his “creative impulses.” 

Stephen Amato-Salvatierra creates a bag made from a repurposed sail. | Eloïse Kelsey

Working in the wine industry by day, Amato-Salvatierra started making handbags out of old sails about 10 years ago. The Ocean Beach Yacht Club, the name he has given his side project, is headquartered out of his garage. 

“It’s kind of an area where I can just go unplug from everything else and get sort of lost in the creative flow,” said Amato-Salvatierra, who mostly focuses on commissions, making small collections of bags and one-offs. “I don’t really intend on making it like a full-time job. … I want to continue to treat it as sort of an art practice.”

Side Hustle to Startup: Turning a Passion into a Profession

Andy Omvik and his four housemates are running a side-hustle incubator of sorts out of their Outer Sunset garage.

After one of his roommates acquired a screen printer and an industrial-strength heat-setting dryer a little over a year ago, Omvik, along with his flatmates, friends and creative collaborators have been churning out T-shirts, artistic prints and other screen-printed apparel. What started out as a way to make some quick cash and spread neighborhood pride is starting to look like a viable livelihood for some of them.

Jonah Ledingham-Valenzuela gets ready to screen print on a shirt for his clothing brand in the Outer Sunset garage he shares with four housemates. | Eloïse Kelsey

The group recently made a series of prints for the Outer Sunset coffee shop, Avenues, and screen printed tees for local musician ZOLA. Omvik has also been putting the screen printer to work on a project for the Santa Cruz-based apparel brand penpal. Omvik is also a photographer and runs photoshoots out the garage where another of his roommates shapes surfboards.

He says that over the course of the pandemic he’s not only been able to dive deeper into his creative process, but also think more about his photography and screen printing as a business.

After losing his job, Omvik says he was even able to cover three months’ rent through one print sale.

While Omvik and his crew have yet to formalize their screen printing venture as a business, they do hope to turn a profit one day. 

Business is also on the mind of freelance graphic designer and Inner Sunset condo owner, Roy Tahtinen, who was inspired to convert his garage and photography studio into an art gallery after showcasing his photos of hidden hearts in SF as part of SF Open Studios last fall. 

Sunset condo owner Roy Tahtinen converted his garage into an art gallery to feature his heart-themed photography. | Eloïse Kelsey

Open Studios not only allowed Tahtinen the opportunity to comfortably share his artwork with others during the pandemic in an airy, open space, it also encouraged him to think about the heart-themed photography he’d been shooting for years and posting online as less of a hobby and more of a business. He sold about 40 pieces during Open Studios and made around $1,000. Converting his garage into an art gallery also allowed Tahtinen to experiment with showcasing his photography for just a few hundred dollars in light renovations. 

“The gallery gives me that launching pad to start from, to be able to print things out and see things together and rearrange things,” said Tahtinen. “If I had to do that within the envelope of my own home, I never could have taken it that far.”

Roy Tahtinen in front of his open art gallery in the Inner Sunset. | Eloïse Kelsey

Tahtinen has since started opening up his garage for online pickup orders and as an art gallery pop-up on Fridays and Sundays, when people can see his photography up close.

While Tahtinen was unsure if he could convert his garage into an art gallery at first, he says the process of formalizing his space with the city was pretty easy. He called 311, “and they said that as long as I’m not serving food and I have my proper licenses that I am free to do what I want in that space,” said Tahtinen, noting he has a tax ID with the state and a business license with the city.

“The city seems to be supportive of the arts,” he said. It’s now a “goal” of his to “do more on the business side” with his art gallery. 

All In: The Full-Fledged ‘Garagepreneurs’

Since moving to San Francisco in 2013, ceramicist, apparel and homewares designer Anne Gates had long struggled to balance her artistic passion projects with her day job as a graphic designer in tech. 

A layoff in 2018 forced her to pivot to contract design work, but the pandemic in March 2020 finally compelled her to embrace her own creative small business, Anne Gates Studio, full time. She moved out of a high-rent apartment in the Mission to a more affordable two-bedroom with a garage in the Outer Richmond. Gates is no longer working with a sewing machine two feet from her bed and now has the room to work with clay at home, which comes in handy, seeing as her ceramics studio shut down due to the pandemic.

Ceramicist and designer Anne Gates in front of her Outer Richmond garage studio. | Eloïse Kelsey

For Gates, having a garage has not only given her the physical space to make ceramics and store her wares. It’s also given her the confidence and ability to pursue her business full-time. 

“I’m so happy that I am able to be a working artist in the city,” said Gates, who stayed afloat during the pandemic by sewing masks. “This house has been such a gift.To have the full-time focus be the business and have this safe space and beautiful space to really thrive… it’s been wonderfully empowering.”

Despite the cancellation of craft shows and closure of brick and mortar establishments where her SF-themed greeting cards were sold during the early days of Covid, Leah Jachimowicz’s stationery business, Coffee n Cream Press, similary took off over the course of the pandemic, even though she had been working out of her garage in the Outer Sunset for eight years. 

Coffee n Cream Press founder Leah Jachimowicz in her letterpress printing studio, where she makes greeting cards and stationery. | Eloïse Kelsey

Jachimowicz not only had more time to focus on her letterpress business, but the Covid shutdown also spurred her to finally set up an online shop to sell her stationery. Commissions from companies, wedding invitation orders and starting to sell her cards at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile made 2021 Jachimowicz’s best year in business, she said. 

Her sales doubled between November 2020 and 2021, and her sales were 50% higher in 2021 than 2019, she noted. 

But more than anything, Jachimowicz came to appreciate the gift of her garage and being able to run a business out of the comfort of her own home, right in the heart of her community. Not only did she not have to worry about a commercial lease or rent (her family inherited the home from her grandmother), she was able to connect with her community more by selling at the farmers markets instead of going out of the way to sell her work at far-flung craft shows.

Leah Jachimowicz in front of her garage studio in the Outer Sunset. | Eloïse Kelsey

“The garage and having the family house and family support has made the business way more doable,” she explained. “This is the best place for me to be, especially during the pandemic.”

The pandemic also pushed coffee industry veteran Dan Streetman to start his own roasting business, Bird and Bear Coffee Company. About a week after the city locked down and he was laid off, Streetman decided to start roasting beans out of his family’s Cole Valley garage. 

But he soon realized:I’m doing this all wrong. I need to get a table and have some coffee ready and, you know, roll up the door.”

Streetman now roasts the beans off-site, but has been holding coffee pop-ups at his garage on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when customers can pick up bags of coffee. He also offers a subscription-based coffee delivery service and has been selling his beans wholesale to local corner stores and groceries. 

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Being able to build his business out of the garage (his in-laws own the building and Streetman lives with his wife and twin daughters on the building’s third floor), has helped Streetman keep overhead low, prices competitive and not have to worry about San Francisco-expensive commercial rent. It’s also given him a chance to connect with his community.

Locals gather in front of coffee entrepreneur Dan Streetman’s Bird and Bear Coffee pop-up in Cole Valley. | Eloïse Kelsey

On a typical Saturday, a steady stream of parents with baby carriages and neighbors walking their dogs stop by to pick up a bag of freshly roasted beans. 

“I think the biggest thing that we are trying to do is really, like, meet people where they are,” said Streetman.

And the formula is working. Last year, Bird and Bear did about $200,000 in gross sales, according to Streetman. 

But the business has not been without its challenges, which come mainly from navigating permitting between city and state government agencies. Not long after being profiled by Eater San Francisco, Streetman said the city contacted him to tell him that he needed a cottage food operations permit, but when he inquired further, the city went silent. 

Although Streetman says he has a processed food registration from the state and registered with the city as a business, he feels like his garage-based venture exists in a bit of a “gray area.” He worries about getting a letter from the city telling him to shut down, but has decided not to let the uncertainty keep his business in limbo. 

“If we have to shut it down then we have to, and we’ll figure out how to sell through local businesses,” he said.

‘Not the Fun Police’: Government and Business Sometimes at Odds

Except in the case of one-off rummage sales, selling items directly from one’s garage or driveway is a no-no, according to the Office of Small Business and Office of Economic and Workforce Development, although making goods out of one’s garage and posting them for sale online is generally acceptable. They say that garage-based businesses should have proper paperwork filed with the city and state, including a business registration with the city, and if needed, a seller’s permit or cottage food operations permit. Other permits or licenses may apply depending on the nature of the business. 

Andy Omvik (center) and his roommates in their Outer Sunset garage. | Eloïse Kelsey

“Entrepreneurs often find their homes to be the most educational playground for testing concepts and ideas before taking their business idea to the next step,” said Katy Tang, executive director of the Office of Small Business, in a statement. “Before one decides to start a home-based business, we strongly recommend connecting with the Office of Small Business to understand the regulatory requirements, which vary widely based on the type of business being started. We want to set people up for success from the beginning.”

Small Business Commission President Sharky Laguana notes that “a garage is a luxury in San Francisco,”  but that it can help some entrepreneurs get off the ground even when they don’t quite “have all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted” yet. 

“Some of the largest companies in the world started as a garage-based business: Apple, Hewlett Packard,” said Laguana. “Every business has to start somewhere.” 

Interior detail of Anne Gates’ ceramic studio in her garage. | Eloïse Kelsey

That being said, health and safety for consumers should come first, he says, and that all serious businesses should get to a place where “they gradually do cross all their t’s and dot all their i’s. … That’s what we want to see.”

He encourages would-be entrepreneurs to visit businessportal.sfgov.org to start their business journeys.

Ultimately, whether a business can legally run out of a garage in San Francisco comes down to zoning and the type of business someone is trying to run at that location, explains Dan Sider, chief of staff for San Francisco’s Planning Department. 

For instance, someone selling goods out of their garage: “If it’s in a residential district, it’s probably going to be problematic,” said Sider, “if it’s in a commercial area or a mixed-use area, [it’s] probably going to be fine.

If someone did want to sell goods out of their single-family home garage in a residential district legally “the most straightforward, universal solution would be to actually rezone the property,” Sider said, but rezoning would have to merit a change to the planning code and go to the Board of Supervisors for review.  

Anne Gates throws a mug inside of her ceramics studio. | Eloïse Kelsey

“If whatever they’re doing, be it storage of clothing or art-making, producing widgets, if that rises to a level where it is of a commercial nature or public-facing, then we begin to have to look at it a bit more critically,” Sider said.

Sider says prospective business owners can check the zoning of their location at this search portal and learn about the process of starting a small business in the city at San Francisco Planning’s website.   

Sider notes that “there are plenty of provisions in the code” for home office-type businesses. For instance, “a home artisan producing a craft product on sort of craft scale,” who sells their wares off-site, “that’s compatible with the planning code in general terms,” he said. 

And as for those simply working on a serious hobby in the spot once occupied by their automobile, the planning department is probably not going to get involved.   

“I think I should probably make it clear that the Planning Department is not the fun police,” Sider said.

Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected].

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