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Legacy Shops in San Francisco’s Marina District

Books, Inc at 2251 Chestnut Street. Heritage photo.

by Kerri Young

Following our post last week covering some of the Marina’s established food businesses, this week we are spotlighting some of the district’s legacy shops. These include a bookstore, camera store, and art store, with two located on the Marina’s bustling Chestnut Street commercial district, and one in the bayside Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture.

Books, Inc.

Date placed on Registry: February 27, 2017

After striking it rich in the gold fields, Anton Roman was persuaded to sell some of his gold for books at Shasta City shop Burgess, Gilbert, and Still, which he intended to sell to miners in their winter camps. The venture turned out to be so profitable that Roman abandoned mining and went into the book business full time. By 1859 he had opened a permanent bookstore on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, and by the 1860s he needed to hire assistants. These were Alex Robertson, and famous American short story writer and poet Bret Harte. Harte talked Roman into founding the “Overland Monthly,” a literary monthly with stories about the happenings in California’s mining regions. During this time, Roman’s bookstore also published local books, including “Roughing It” by Mark Twain in 1972. Robertson took over the store with a partner after Roman’s death, creating San Francisco’s biggest bookstore “Pearson & Robertson,” and then just “Robertson’s,” until Robertson’s death in 1924.

San Francisco has an array of small bookstores that anchor their neighborhoods as cultural hubs, and in the Marina District that bookstore is Books, Inc. It happens to be the West’s oldest bookstore, having been in continuous operation (though various names and ownership) since 1851. Bavarian Anton Roman struck it rich in Shasta City, California during the Gold Rush and set himself up in business selling books. That small bookstore was moved, bought, sold, burned, rebuilt, renamed and became Books Inc., as we know it today, in 1946. Presently, Books Inc. has three locations in San Francisco: Chestnut Street in the Marina, on Van Ness Avenue near Civic Center, and its oldest location on California Street in Presidio Heights/Laurel Heights. They also have eight other locations throughout the Bay Area, including locations of Books, Inc.-owned Compass Books.

Bookplate for Books, Inc. predecessor, Gelber, Lilienthal Inc. c 1925. In 1925, new owners Leon Gelber and partner Ted Lilienthal opened Gelber, Lilienthal, Inc. on 336 Sutter St., and went on to establish Lantern Press. Gelber was the former head of the book department at the Emporium, and Lilienthal was son of the famous longtime President of Anglo Bank, P. N. Lilienthal.

The three San Francisco locations have proven to be important assets to their respective neighborhoods as a place for locals and visitors to purchase books, newspapers, magazines, or attend events such as book launch parties for local authors and in-store events for readers of all ages. Each neighborhood store reflects the needs and wants of the community and employs one or more literature specialists who host a variety of bookclubs, storytimes and events and have become great resources for patrons looking for their next read. Opened in 1998, Books Inc. in the Marina quickly became a district favorite. According to Books, Inc. this location has the most popular in-store book club of all its stores – “Classics I Forgot to Read” selections are avidly followed all across the city. The store caters to the local community, from the dog treats at the front desk to the children’s department designed for toddler’s first reading experience.

Books Inc. maintains close relationships with local schools, conducting book fairs on school-sites as an opportunity to help school PTA’s and libraries raise funds, while bringing the independent bookstore experience onto their school grounds (this will likely be put on hold during the pandemic). Importantly, Books Inc.’s main objective in conducting book fairs is to foster excitement about books and spread the love of reading. Its Marina store also has regular shopping night fundraisers for the Bay School and the Cow Hollow School. Community involvement is an important piece of the Books Inc. business model, and in addition to schools the each location continues to develop partnerships with nearby libraries and organizations to promote and foster literacy.

Today, with 10 stores and around 200 employees, Books Inc. serves as a shining example that independent bookselling can continue to survive and prosper. The pandemic poses another great challenge to this business, but Books, Inc. has adapted by maintaining an online store with curated selections, as well as hosting virtual readings, talks, and virtual bookclubs. In addition, you can support them by purchasing gift cards for your favorite book-lover. Its locations, including on Chestnut, are open for browsing with social distancing protocols in place.

Fireside Camera at 2117 Chestnut Street. Heritage photo.

Fireside Camera

Date placed on Registry: October 22, 2018

Like Books, Inc. Fireside Camera is located in the heart of the Marina’s commercial district on Chestnut Street. Fireside Camera was founded in the district as “Fireside Studios” in 1954 by father and son William and Egon Fireside as an independent photo store. The family came to San Francisco by way of Austria (where William and wife Dori fled the rise of Nazi rule), then Shanghai (where Egon obtained an apprenticeship to a photographer), then Bolivia, after which they finally settled in the City by the Bay after changing their minds about moving to Canada. For 40+ years, Egon Fireside photographed many of San Francisco’s elite, specializing in weddings, portraits, and event photography and becoming one of San Francisco’s most renowned wedding photographers.

Inside Fireside Camera back in the day. Photo undated, courtesy of Fireside Camera.

In the 1970s, photography became more commonplace and people took more of their own family pictures, so Fireside Studios evolved and added retail to its services. Fireside Camera was born. Fireside Camera was one of the first importers of Olympus cameras. As retail became a larger and larger part of the business, the business hired a sales team, including Jack Shim in 1976, Edmond Lee in 1983, and Spencer Pon in 1984. Egon continued his portraiture, wedding, and event photography work. His wife Lucy was also an integral part of the store, from making children smile
during portrait shoots to handling the receivables and payments and investments, everyone in the Marina neighborhood knew and liked Lucy Fireside. Not only did she have good relationships with the Marina business owners, but with many merchants across San Francisco.

Inside Fireside Camera today. Photo courtesy of Fireside Camera.

In 2000, Egon and his wife Lucy decided to retire and offered the store to Shim, Lee, and Pon, who purchased the business and remain the current owners. Under their ownership, the business has kept alive the “service first” attitude that made Fireside Camera the destination for all of San Francisco’s photographic needs.

Today, Fireside Camera remains San Francisco’s oldest independent camera store. It offers an excellent selection of new and used equipment including Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica Cameras, lenses, camcorders, and accessories. Fireside also produce prints from film, memory cards, and cell phones, can scan old photographs to make copies or discs, and can transfer old movies and tapes onto DVDs. In addition, they can service your camera equipment, and also have a limited amount of equipment available for rent.

During the pandemic Fireside Camera is open for walk-in sales daily from 11:00 AM-4 PM. Covid-19 social distancing rules will apply and face masks are required at all times.

Inside FLAX’s Fort Mason Center store. The business is located in a historic property known as the Old Brook House/Quarters #2, built in 1863 as part of Fort Mason. Courtesy of FLAX art & design.

FLAX art & design

Date placed on Registry: February 13, 2017

A cultural icon in San Francisco and the Bay Area art scene, FLAX was founded in 1938 and is now run by the 3rd generation of the Flax family.
437 Kearny Street, the first FLAX location, 1938.

After having lost virtually all their savings during the Great Depression, Herman and Sylvia Flax left New Jersey for San Francisco to start a new life. Inspired by the success of Herman’s brother Sam in New York, who got his start selling art supplies out of the trunk of his car to vacationers in the Catskill Mountains, with $100 Herman opened a small art supply store called Flax’s Artists Materials on Kearny Street in downtown San Francisco. Initially the family lived in the store’s backroom, but soon they rented an apartment and converted the free space into a custom framing department. Now run by Herman and Sylvia’s grandchildren, FLAX Art & Design (as it has been called since 1991) continues to offer one of the city’s largest selections of arts and crafts supplies and materials, from paints and art surfaces to drawing supplies and studio needs. You’ll also find kids art and craft supplies and gifts for the creatives in your life.

FLAX’s second location at 255 Kearny, 1950.

Jefferson Airplane in front of Flax sign at 255 Kearney, 1967. 

1699 Market Street, 2012. FLAX anchored the corner of Market and Valencia for 38 years, but was forced from that location to make way for 162 condominiums, part of a housing boom that is transforming Market Street from Powell Street all the way to the Castro.

The business relocated several times – first to another location on Kearny Street, then to Sutter Street, and eventually to 1699 Market Street where it operated for 38 years. After owners of the Market Street property announced plans to construct 162 condos on the site, FLAX spent a year searching for a new home for its flagship store within the city’s boundaries, but ultimately moved to Oakland. It still maintains a presence within the city, however, through a 5,000 square foot store within Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Fun fact: FLAX’s Fort Mason store is the only art store in the country located within a national park!

FLAX also offers a plethora of community programs, including free art classes, hands-on demonstrations, its annual KidsFest, a Live Artist program, publications of artist interviews, and donations to local schools and nonprofits.

During the pandemic, FLAX is using an appointment system to help manage the number of people in the store at one time and safeguard the health and safety of customers. To book an appointment, visit Alternatively, you can shop online at for curbside pickup and local delivery.

Legacy BusinessesMarina

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