African Outlet seeks options to stay in neighborhood despite rent increase 

click to enlarge Judah Dwyer
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • African Outlet owner Judah Dwyer could be forced out of Hayes Valley, where other businesses have seen rent rise at least $5,000.

The good old days, when renting without a lease was no problem, and business decisions were settled with handshakes, was when the African Outlet set up shop in Hayes Valley.

With commercial rents on Octavia Street rising from $5,000 to $7,000 and beyond, those days are long gone.

And with the owners appearing to be unfazed by a large rent increase, the eclectic and idiosyncratic shop may be on its way out, too.

There's nothing quite like the African Outlet elsewhere in San Francisco, or possibly anywhere: The corner retail space is crammed from floor to ceiling with masks, statues, clothing and art. The aroma of incense burning outside greets visitors who walk through a narrow path between the exotic treasures.

Store co-owners Judah Dwyer and Horgan Edet -- who are typically in full-on African regalia -- are trying to negotiate with their landlord, who owns several properties throughout The City. After the landlord announced that rent would increase starting Jan. 1, Dwyer and Edet offered him a counterproposal along with a long-term lease in December.

But they haven't been successful yet. Dwyer and Edet hope the additional pressure of a MoveOn.org petition, which had garnered more than 300 signatures as of Sunday, can help sway the landlord toward a compromise.

That would also save a vestige of what The City and Bay Area used to be like, they say. When the outlet first opened on Divisadero Street in 1989, Dwyer recalled, there were about 10 shops that sold African clothes and fabrics, tribal masks and ceremonial fetishes, as well as day-to-day sundries like shea butter soap.

Now, there are no others.

"We're the last place to serve this community," Dwyer said. "When we go, it's gone."

However, in the face of market pressures that have predicated massive change across town, there may be little The City -- and a petition -- can do.

There's no commercial rent control, meaning commercial landlords can raise rents as high as they please.

"We don't have a lot of power in being able to force a landlord to do something with his property," said Supervisor London Breed, who represents the area, adding that other landlord-tenant struggles -- like the one that evicted the Homeless Youth Alliance from its Haight Street home -- have also occupied her time. African Outlet's landlord, Giampaolo Boschetti, did not return a telephone message left at his Excelsior home Friday.

The prominent San Francisco landlord, who owns properties that include some Tenderloin hotels, may have bigger worries: He was booked with vehicular manslaughter charges in December after allegedly striking and killing an 86-year-old woman in a Crocker Amazon crosswalk.

Victor Makras, a well-known city real estate owner acting as Boschetti's agent, did not return a message left at his office late Friday.

Dwyer and Edet are scheduled to meet with Makras this week to discuss the situation.

The store owners know their managing style is a little old-school: they have no budget aside from the figures in their heads, and no inventory control aside from knowing where to find what among the jumble of items on hand.

But they feel their business is vital to The City's spirit. "Whoever writes the tour books to San Francisco is going to have to rewrite them pretty soon," Dwyer said Friday. "At some point, we have to say, 'OK, we've had enough.'"

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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