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 www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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