Posts Tagged ‘Clement Street’


San Francisco changes constantly. For thirty years, Jesse Fink, 61, owner of Toy Boat Dessert Café on Clement at Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District and unofficial “Mayor of Clement Street,” has kept his finger on the neighborhood’s pulse.

Jesse and his wife Roberta opened the Boat in 1982. People asked why own a store “way out there?” Once, the Richmond, built on sand dunes, was thought uninhabitable. But it had long been thriving when Jesse arrived. The neighborhood was home to a large Russian community and many Russian bakeries. Chinese moved in from Chinatown. “Already there were people from Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand,” Jesse notes. Irish settled in the Richmiond. Russian Jews came in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As the British prepared to shed their last colony, Hong Kong Chinese bought real estate.

Jesse is proud that Clement remains one of San Francisco’s few un-gentrified streets. “We kept Starbucks and most major chains out,” he says. “The retail orientation is local.” The problem with chains? According to Jesse, former president of the Clement Street Merchants Association, “Chains take away the integrity and individuality that mom-and-pop stores offer neighborhoods. They’re basically rubber-stamp businesses. People come here from Manhattan, which is filled with chain stores, and say, ‘This is so nice.’”

A welcome change: upscale stores and restaurants span Clement from Arguello (equivalent to First Avenue) to Third. Jesse would love hipper stores to open nearby and bring their customers in. But few properties become available since relatively few businesses leave. Still, the Seven-Eleven at Tenth Avenue and the framing shop just west have been vacant for years. Jesse’s take: landlords may not want to give long-term leases or want too much rent or just seek tax write-offs. “You never know what’s really going on.”

Rents go up regardless. As a result, Toy Boat had to change its business model. Jesse and Roberta established the Boat as a coffee and dessert place, open from 11 am to 11 pm. To counter rising rent, they added breakfast and lunch, opening the store at 7:30 am.

People like to hang out at the Boat. Supervisor Eric Mar comes by frequently. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped in recently. Robin Williams came by a lot. Jesse would speak with him as a neighborhood guy, not a big star. Out-of-towners drop in, too. Now, young people—including students at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State—are returning to the neighborhood as rents in the hipster-oriented Mission District soar. “There are a lot of bars on Clement. You come here on a Friday or Saturday night, and there’s no parking.”

Jesse, like all City retailers, faces rising labor costs. In April, he raised prices before San Francisco’s May 1 minimum wage increase. Only two customers said anything. “Everyone’s prices have gone up to compensate,” he says. As the minimum wage ascends to $15 an hour, prices will have to keep pace.

Two important questions patrons ask: What’s the Boat’s best-selling ice cream? Chocolate Salted Caramel. Jesse’s favorites? White Pistachio dipped in hot fudge and Soy Cherry Chip.

How long will Jesse keep at it? He’s not sure. But he loves coming to work. Toy Boat, he says, is a performance piece. It’s a performance worth catching.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at

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When Carolyn and I moved to San Francisco in 1974, we settled in the Richmond District. We were drawn to funky Clement Street. In 1982, a novel ice cream shop opened on Clement at Fifth Avenue. Ever since, I’ve been going to Toy Boat, presided over by the man who’s earned the title, “The Mayor of Clement Street.”

Jesse Fink, 61, and his wife Roberta opened “the Boat” in 1982. A born schmoozer, Jesse sounds like he still lives in Brooklyn where he attended PS 193. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts/Art at Queens College and an MA in Arts and Education. Degrees in hand and accompanied by his dog Sidney, Jesse drove his 1968 Dodge Coronet to art schools throughout Massachusetts and Vermont seeking a teaching job. The market was down. He headed west.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1979, Jesse worked for his brother Steve and partner Michael Sachar, who’d opened an ice cream shop on Castro Street and developed their own brand, Double Rainbow. That’s where Jesse met Roberta. They’ve been married thirty years and raised two children. After traveling in Europe, Jesse and Roberta came up with the concept of an ice cream shop—offering Double Rainbow, of course—that sold toys.

“Everyone likes toys,” Jesse explains, reflecting his love of art. “They’re fun to look at.” At first, the Toy Boat focused on unique tin toys. “We collected, bought and sold old toys,” says Jesse. Today, the Boat features the Bay Area’s biggest collection of Pez candy and collectible dispensers—bigger, Jesse claims, than the Pez Museum in Burlingame. (Yes, it exists.)

His biggest seller ever? Beanie Babies. “People used to line up down the block to buy them. We always kept our prices low, and we sold a lot. It was the oddest thing to ever hit the market.” Toy Boat also sells lots of retro toys, which adults purchase far more than kids. For example, there’s Gumby, the clay animation figure from the TV series of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jesse relates that most of his employees have never heard of Gumby. Big sellers also include jacks, small plastic submarines propelled by baking soda (I played with them in the bath tub) and hand buzzers, the kind that used to be advertised in comic books. The buzzer fits in your palm and goes off when you shake someone’s hand. Jesse’s stock also includes Pee Wee Herman and Star Wars toys.

Jesse also sells a lot of Spalding pink rubber balls. New Yorkers (myself included) called them Spaldeens. We used them for playing handball, punchball and stickball. He also sells stickball bats while acknowledging that as kids, we made bats by cutting off the handles of old (sometimes not so old) brooms. He notes that, “Many people fifty and above come in, look at the toys then tell me a story about growing up. Kids in their twenties or thirties buy Spaldeens and stickball bats for their fathers, who’ve told them stories about growing up in New York.

Jesse shares stories and conversations with everyone. Patrons often seek out his advice, as well. He offers it freely. I even held the launch party for my novel THE BOY WALKER at the Boat. Of course, Jesse has seen Clement Street evolve, reflecting the major changes that have affected San Francisco. More about that next week

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.