Q&A: Mendel’s owner on far-out Haight

Name: Naomi Silverman

Age: 44

City: Pacifica

Position: Owner of Mendel’s, “the store for crafty people”

 

Naomi Silverman

J.: You are the third generation of storekeepers at Mendel’s Art Supplies on Haight Street, which Mendel and Sarah Herscowitz — your grandparents — established in 1968 after opening down the block in 1952. Their daughter Bette Mosias took over in 1978, and now you are the owner. How does that feel?

Naomi Silverman: I enjoy my job and I also enjoy being part of a legacy. I take seriously that I’m doing the same thing my aunt and my grandfather did, though at first the store sold house paint and linoleum flooring.
Isn’t that a far cry from the art supplies, costume accessories, fake fur, “far-out fabrics,” feathers, decorative buttons and oilcloth you sell today?

My grandfather would be surprised to see what the store has become, but Mendel’s is a connection to the past, and that is a strong force in my life. Plus, my grandfather would appreciate that we are still here and going strong, with 14 employees. We just keep morphing into what we need to have as far as craft supplies.
Which merchandise is popular right now?

Coloring books for adults. It’s what knitting was four or five years ago. You can do it alone or in a group, and it’s a craft project for people who don’t consider themselves to be artistic.
Do you consider yourself crafty?

I like sewing and creating stuff. I get into niches sometimes. For a while I did mosaics, and then I painted, changing the colors of everything around me. I go through phases.
Do you design Mendel’s whimsical window displays?

My employees do the windows. That’s a skill in and of itself. It would be hard for me to spend six weeks planning a display and then taking eight hours to install it. It’s quite a project.

 

Naomi Silverman, Sarah Herscowitz and Bette Mosias (from left) in front of store in 1995

Tell me about Halloween at Mendel’s.

Every year, I ignore Halloween until August, when I get heart palpitations because it is by far our busiest time. Halloween is fun — it’s a self-indulgent holiday and everyone is in a good mood. We put out all the merchandise Oct. 1, but it seems that few people plan ahead, because most of them come in at the last minute.
What do you sell for the holiday?

Wigs, makeup, boas, ears, bow ties and hairspray. Some customers head to the fabric department for fake fur or some fabric to make a cape. The crowds carry over to the Day of the Dead, and then we go back to being an art supply store again.
Where did you grow up?

I was raised in Tiburon, graduated from Redwood High School and then graduated from San Francisco State University in 1996 with a bachelors’ degree in German, with a minor in Jewish studies.
And when did you start working at the store?

When I was young, I spent some weekends with my grandparents, and I’d go to the store with them. I thought that was great, but I am the only one of my siblings who took a liking to it. I started working in the store with my Aunt Bette in 1991. She passed away in 2013.

Is there another generation coming up?

I started bringing my son to the store when he was 6 weeks old. He’s 10 now, and he helps sometimes when he is here, just as I used to help my grandparents. He has skills, but it’s too soon to think about it.
Did you ever think you might have a career in a different field?

I thought about teaching, but it was evident that I liked working at the store and I had the skills necessary for it.
What do you like best about your job?

It’s hard for me to say what my favorite thing about it is, because I do a lot of different things. I manage employees, order stock, organize stock and deal with customers. That’s all part of managing the store. That’s the best part, I think — that I do different things all the time.
How have you seen Haight Street change over the years?

Haight Street is cyclical. It goes up and down. It’s a little more upscale recently, but we still have the usual issues with the homeless, the street kids and the visitors. Sometimes it’s edgy and sometimes it’s calm, but it’s always changing. Of course, you can’t ever keep anything the way it was, and change can be good, especially if you welcome it.


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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.