Eight years after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, Guenther Leopold landed his first job, sweeping the wooden floors at the Standard 5 & 10 in San Francisco. Little did he know that the variety store would become not only his life’s work, but also the family business.
Leopold, 82, who runs the store with his son, Jeff, and daughter-in-law, Michelle, continues to keep an eye on the business 67 years later.
“I love talking to our customers and the people who work for us,” says Leopold. “It’s things like the ordering and stocking new merchandise that keeps me coming back.”
The store marked its 75th anniversary recently with a series of celebratory events. It’s been an institution in the Laurel Heights neighborhood for 65 of those years.
The Standard 5 & 10 has been a family business from the day Simon Kapstein opened it in 1939 on Geary Boulevard. Leopold worked his way up from teenage floor-sweeper to business partner with Kapstein’s son, Bob Kerner. When Kerner retired, Leopold bought the store outright in the 1980s.
The store moved to Laurel Village in 1949. Except for the merchandise, little has changed. Stepping inside the 5,000-square-foot space on California Street is a glimpse into a bygone era. The neatly stocked aisles boast bouncing balls, pinwheels, rubber chickens, greeting cards, potted plants, tchotchkes, and a classic hardware assortment of hammers, screws and bolts.
Although Leopold has turned the reins over to his son, he still comes in three days a week to help customers and stock shelves. “Watch your step,” he cautions a visitor as he zips around helping customers locate requested items.
“You can find everything you need here,” he says, walking through rows of pots and pans. “In fact, you can furnish your entire apartment, except for the appliances of course.”
The shop’s original red and gold sign from 1939 (“Standard 5-10 & 25 cent”) is mounted above the front register, a reminder of the store’s longevity. “Our store is multigenerational,” Leopold says. “We have customers who used to shop here as kids and are now bringing their kids.”
The variety store is one of two of its kind remaining in San Francisco (Cliff’s Variety on Castro Street is the other). “The days of the 5 and 10 are diminishing,” says Leopold, who lives in Burlingame with his wife, Adelle, and belongs to Peninsula Temple Sholom. “Woolworth’s is long gone, but people keep coming in because we have fair prices and good service.”
Woolworth’s was the nation’s first variety store, opening in New York in 1878. It was a place to buy inexpensive items from hairnets to sardines, parakeets, fabric and other notions.
The five-and-dime concept was in its heyday when the San Francisco Woolworth’s opened in 1952 at Powell and Market streets. Many baby boomers still reminisce online about its lunch counter, which served up malted milk, milkshakes and burgers.
While the Leopold store never had a lunch counter, it did sell canned food and dry goods, including candy by the pound in the ’70s. Customers, especially children, loved picking out their sweet treats from the bins.
Jeff Leopold, 48, fondly remembers the candy from his days working in the store after school and on weekends. “It didn’t matter what entrance you’d come in,” he recalls, “you could always smell the candy.”
Father and son sit at wooden desks overlooking the sales floor through a large glass window. The elder Leopold is dapperly dressed in a suit and tie, while his son is casually outfitted in jeans as they talk about the early days of the store.
Guenther Leopold, born in Frankfurt, escaped after Kristallnacht in 1939. The family headed first to the Philippines and then made their way to America, arriving in 1946. A year later, when he was 14, Guenther got the job at the Standard 5 & 10, earning 50 cents an hour. He eventually put himself through college by working days and attending classes at night.
He has watched trends change over the decades.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was hula hoops that were big,” he says. “We also used to buy closeout socks and sell them by the gross. But as the years went on, the things got bigger, the prices were higher and people want different things.”
Jeff says the store is known in the neighborhood for its seasonal merchandise. Jewish holidays, he says, draw a large number of Jewish customers. “We sell a ton of Hanukkah gelt and have a huge selection of Rosh Hashanah cards,” he says.
In 1978, the Standard 5 & 10 became part of the nationwide Ace co-op, joining 4,000 independently operating mom-and-pop stores. Without the co-op model to keep costs down, the Leopolds say, they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open.
“We would not be here today if wasn’t for Ace,” Jeff Leopold says. “The market is very competitive, especially in San Francisco.”
Guenther Leopold calls himself “semi-retired.” After heart surgery two years ago, he was told by his doctor to cut back at work. “I only work three days a week and five hours a day now,“ he says. “I can’t stay home and twiddle my thumbs. I’d get bored.”
It’s not always easy working with family, but for the most part, the Leopolds agree things run smoothly. As the patriarch of the family, Guenther Leopold is still involved in every aspect of the business, from helping customers to purchasing. But there’s one thing he stays away from entirely. “The computers,” his son says, looking at his father affectionately.
Despite helping out in the store while he was growing up, Jeff Leopold says he never saw it as his future. “Quite frankly, I never thought I’d be working here. It was a family business, and I didn’t want to do it.”
But after graduating from UCLA in 1988 with a business degree, with no firm plans in place, he got a proposal he couldn’t refuse. “My dad and his partner offered me a job, and I said I would give it a try.”
After joining the business, he started modernizing by converting old-school cash registers that were in every department to computers at the front and back of the store. “I was against it at the time, but now I know we needed it,” his dad admits. Jeff and Michelle also own a second location in San Rafael, Marin Ace.
How do they stay competitive in an age of Internet shopping and large discount chains? “It’s the service,” Jeff Leopold says. “We go over the top helping our customers find what they need.”
It’s also about keeping up with the newest trends and staying current with products, father and son agree. “You can’t just sit back and wait for things to come to you. You have to be ahead of the game and try to be competitive,” the elder Leopold says.
Father and son say both locations are doing well and pulling in a profit, but they are uncertain about the future. “I’m always worried about it,” Jeff Leopold says. “But so far it’s good.”
He says it’s too early to tell if his two boys, 12 and 13, will be interested in taking over the family business one day. For now, they are following family tradition by helping out at the Marin store on weekends and holidays. “If they wanted to get into the business, that’s fine,” their father says, “but that’s a long time from now.”