When just a neighborhood becomes a real community:
an Inner Richmond story
By Mary Beth Starzel
The lucky among us live in neighborhoods where something has happened to create community and a sense of shared experience, and sometimes it just gets better and better.
Such is the case of the decorated windows of Cal’s Pet Supply, a small neighborhood store near the intersection of California Street and 22nd Avenue, now a neighborhood institution.
In 2002, after a devastating fire destroyed the store one night, neighbors, including children, painted messages on the then-covered windows to owner Roy Schmall, urging him to return. Even pets’ names appeared asking Roy to “hurry back.” The window was filled in one day’s time, Schmall says, and the spontaneous statement of community that it bespoke was the reason he rebuilt the store. The inscribed windows, now framed, are “folk art” pieces in the store.
“There’s always been a sense of community around the store since 1986 when I started here. We’re sort of a community bulletin board – some people who grew up in the neighborhood even bring their own children back to meet me,” he says.
Later, he commissioned Susan Hollenbeck, a talented, witty neighborhood artist, to paint a banner across the bottom of the new window to brighten things and display the animals who could find products in his store. The banner, about 18 inches high, features brightly colored simple silhouettes of a bird, a rabbit, two cats, a turtle, goldfish, two dogs, and a lizard.
The getting better part happened when Hollenbeck asked Roy if he’d “mind” if she decorated the banner a bit, “for her therapy!” That began a seasonal and holiday series that included costumes for each animal (the fish wore a Halloween costume covering mid-body with four legs dangling) and balloons for their self-expression and political comment.
“Susan is a very witty person and everyone has loved the paintings. In a way, it has become a neighborhood fascination as people sometimes just come in the store to say how much they like the newest versions,” he added.
Hollenbeck, a neighborhood resident for 28 years herself, raised her two daughters here and has had an active life in the community. Years ago, she initiated public soap bubble blowing, sometimes bringing a gallon of soapy substance for youngsters to “blow their troubles away” right on the four corners of the intersection.
But now, neighbors eagerly await her new artistic masterpieces.
A self-trained artist, Hollenbeck usually paints miniature porcelains (www.etsy.com). She expresses surprise that people love the art so much, as she thought she was “just venting!” Feeling she has always done a kind of profound art in whatever medium she has chosen, she notes it has been fun to make a statement with the pet store windows.
“There’s an energy any time you put something into art, and the joy to put that into Cal’s has kept things flowing,” she says. “There are so many good people here; it’s just so rich,” she said of the neighborhood. And, she loves the fun of it all. “The windows are ongoing and nonjudgmental – they are just funny.”
Cal’s is a part of the neighborhood epicenter that also includes Angelina’s Deli-Café and Catering (6000 California Street), The Bazaar Café (5927 California Street), and Phillip Brown’s Rolfing Studio (5954 California Street).
Mary Beth Starzel writes periodically for Northside San Francisco as a community resident.