This Week from Lisa Congdon: Gravel and Gold

by Lisa Congdon


Living in San Francisco I am spoiled by countless amazing shops in scores of neighborhoods. Shopping for housewares, art and design objects in my Mission District neighborhood alone is an incredible experience. One of my favorite shops just moved a few months ago to 21st and Valencia from a less central location and I could not be more excited. Meet Gravel and Gold , one of my favorite spots in the Mission.


I love Gravel and Gold for so many reasons. It's clear they celebrate and honor us "makers" of the world, and its mix of vintage and new, mid-century and folk, useful and useless, unique, one of a kind, hand-made stuff combined with it's super current design perspective make it unlike any other shop in the hood. It's a must-see for handmade, design-minded folks living in or visiting San Francisco.


I talked to Cass, owner of Gravel and Gold recently about her shop!


Lisa: Who is Gravel and Gold ?

Cass: You'll see a giant rainbow pyramid on the outside of the store and inside you'll find the power of three all over the place. When we first started Gravel & Gold in a tiny spot on Treat St back in March 2008, I was working as a writer, Lisa was working on a documentary film about the folk musician Michael Hurley, and Nile was beginning her graduate studies in nurse midwifery at UCSF.

At first we thought that we would keep working on these separate projects and share the responsibility for the shop equally. As time went on, I found that the shop brought together many of my interests--finding beautiful + unusual objects, telling their stories, creating a welcoming meeting place, and extending that space online. When we decided to move to the bigger place on 21st Street, I stepped in to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for the shop, though it remains very much a three-way collaboration.  These days, you'll find each of us the shop every week, while at the same time Lisa is wrapping up production on the film and Nile is in her last year at school.  


Lisa: How did you begin the Gravel and Gold journey? '

Cass: Lisa and I used to get together every couple of months or so and chip away at a project that we thought of as a hive of production and resource sharing. We imagined finding a building with three floors: quarters for an artist in residence at the top, studio space for different artists, writers, and makers on the middle floor, and a shop on the ground floor that would serve as a gathering place and point of distribution for all that happened above. We wanted it to have a homey feel to it. We imagined that the shop would be set up like a flat where you could buy the clothes you found in the closets, buy the ceramics out of the hutches, and then sit down around a table at the end of the day and have a long conversation over supper. 

Then one day, Lisa found that a tiny 130 sq foot space made of cinder blocks was available on the ground floor of the building where she kept a studio for film work. It was nothing at all like what we imagined, but we went for it, thinking that it would be a great opportunity to explore what it would be like to work together and to learn about retail. Nile, my long-time, dear friend, was in on the project without question. We needed her verve and enthusiasm to get it up and keep it going.

Now that we find ourselves in a real-deal shop space with lovely wood floors, big windows facing the street, and plenty of elbow room, we have the space to experiment with selling different types of items (lamps! chairs!) and also to host workshops and other community-based events. It feels like we've managed to create the ground floor of our imagined experiment. 


Lisa: What kinds of things do you carry and how/where do find the inspiration for curating your shop?

Cass: Useful, well-made, appealing things. We'll carry anything that catches our eye, so long as we consider it the best of its type. It doesn't need to be simple, but it needs to perform its function perfectly--and that includes being super bling if super bling is what's called for. So we've got the best wall-mounted bottle opener, the best folding scissors, the best tall sheepskin boots, the best simple leather wallet, the best beaded Auntie shell earrings....

Many of our goods are vintage--I love the high quality and attention to detail you find in older things. The newly made items are of the same caliber, and sometimes they do carry a higher price tag, but with they carry the added appeal that you are supporting a maker who continues to produce things the right way, without cutting corners.


Lisa: Where do you source most of your goods?

Cass: Flea markets, friends, friends of friends, people that wander into the shop, walking around aunties' houses and asking, What is this? Where can I find something like that?

I've also gotten real hip to the whole ask and you shall receive method (and certainly, be careful what you ask for). It's pretty amazing how quickly things can come together when you're able to be specific about what, exactly, you have in mind. Extra-thick neon rainbow cashmere legwarmers. Sha-Blam! Holly, an amazing seamstress who walked in one day and now does sewing for us, says her friend Kurt, who works up the street, can't stop knitting. We get him in here, and it's done.


Lisa: What is the most fun about owning your shop?

Cass: The people are the most fun part--all the people who help to make it a changing and improving project.

First off, it is a great privilege to work with my friends Lisa and Nile, who have become like sisters. Then, it's always a thrill to track down and encounter new makers. It's amazing how many people devote their time to making useful and beautiful and curious things--and how many of them wander into our shop not knowing that they were about to form a collaboration. And of course, our lovely customers. Ah, the multitude of friendly, knowledgeable, interesting and interested strangers that pass through--a cross-section of young and old, veteran neighborhood folk, friends and family. I love that all these people know where to find me, and that they come by, bring me lemons from their yard, talk story, and model their sock monkey socks for me. It's important to me that we talk about the items in the store--they they know what they're looking at and who they're supporting should they choose to take something home.  


Lisa: Tell us a little about the special events you have?

Cass: Our goal is to offer at least one workshop taught by each of the makers in the shop--70s craft co-op style--and also to be open to suggestions to anyone in the community who would like to teach what they know. So far, we've learned about scents and pickling, hosted a DJ battle and a poetry reading, served beans and prize-winning pesto, and organized a car bedazzling station with an old school sign painter named Ira Coyne. On Wednesdays, we're a CSA pick-up location for Eatwell Farm veggies. CSAs, more than any other model, inspire us to keep the connection between makers and consumers front and center. 

Lisa: So Awesome. Thank you so much for telling us a little bit about the magical place you've created!


Visit Gravel and Gold at 3266 21st Street at Valencia in San Francisco.

Jan Halvarson


Diana said...

what a gorgeous find. This looks like my ideal shop.

Anonymous said...

Great feature - that shop looks fantastic! I wish I lived in San Fran!

Jessica Nichols said...

What a fascinating interview! I am gonna have to head to the City soon to check it out in person.

Designs by Val said...

Oooohh..Can't wait to check out this store when I visit next month!

Coco Cake Land said...

ooh looks awesome... another thing to add on my list for a future visit to SF!!