San Francisco is not, generally speaking, known for its egg coddlers.
But now, whenever I break two eggs into a porcelain cup, screw on the metal lid and slip it into boiling water for six minutes, I'll think of fog, cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge -- and three gorgeous September days I spent in San Francisco.
I'm always looking for ways to see much-touristed cities from new angles; in San Francisco, I decided to go with a shopping spree. It was a doubly unlikely concept for me. First, like clipping my nails or getting an oil change, shopping is an activity I undertake only when it can be put off no longer. Second, a spree implies unrestrained spending, the very opposite of frugality.
But I've almost always found that a dose of personal discomfort is often a sacrifice worth making in the search for good travel experiences. So for three consecutive afternoons, I shopped. From the Castro to the Mission to the Tenderloin to SoMa, sometimes hitting stores that were on a list I had compiled in advance, but often wandering in to places I just happened upon. And to keep things within a budget, I limited my spending to $100, to be spent on whatever I found appealing, whether I needed it or not.
The egg coddler fit into the "not" category. I bought it for $24 at Cookin', a 35-year-old store in the Lower Haight neighborhood piled high with a dazzling array of used kitchenware stuffed into a narrow space that smelled just slightly of the owner's 6-year-old Lhasa, Tank. My first instinct was to go for a vintage Theatre II hand-cranked popcorn maker ($20), until I spotted that porcelain cup, painted with a flower-and-peach design and made in England by Royal Worcester, the Cadillac of egg coddler manufacturers. My microwave has a popcorn button, I reasoned, but no coddle mode. Decision made.
One of the spots I happened upon was the Other Shop (othershopsf.com), just a few doors down from Cookin'. It calls itself an "antiques and collectibles" shop, but I'd call it a "things I vaguely remember seeing in the 1970s" shop. (It actually includes plenty from the '50s and '60s.) I found Heller plates, the stackable, unbreakable dinnerware on which I enjoyed countless hard-shelled Old El Paso tacos back in the day. They also had a serving bowl made from a molded "Saturday Night Fever" LP, vintage Julia Child cookbooks, eight-track tape players and plenty of classier things I don't have good enough taste to care about but others might, like chairs and lamps and coffee tables. I tried very hard to find something to buy, but failed. I'm making it sound chaotic, but the place -- in fact, a collective of 15 local dealers -- is well-curated, more museum than flea market.
No matter. I had more luck at the Alemany Flea Market, a relatively small-scale affair held every Sunday in a Bernal Heights parking lot. I was rummaging through coral jewelry and 1960s campaign pins and dental instruments that didn't look very sterile when I came across an unopened 1970s version of Mille Bornes, the French card game produced (in those days) by Parker Brothers. On the same table was a 1950s Bradley "Genuine Leather Luminous Travel Alarm," which unfolds from a leather case into a stand-up clock. It struck me as both a great item to travel with and a very likely way to miss a flight. I bought them for $2 each, which is less than it cost me to ship the Mille Bornes off to my nephews.
That package was also filled with other items obtained in the Mission, San Francisco's traditionally Latino but much-gentrified district. After a fruitless but entertaining stop at the Community Thrift Store (communitythriftsf.org) ($1 books, $2 canine Halloween costumes, $4 records), I made a find at Clothes Contact , where clothes are $10 a pound: a T-shirt perfectly suited for my brother, Jeremy. "McRib is back!" it read, featuring a cartoonish depiction of the on-again, off-again McDonalds sandwich that happens to be one of Jeremy's favorite meals. (His palate is a slight genetic mystery to the rest of the Kugel family.) That added 0.434 pounds to the package and $4.34 to my tab.
Also in the Mission is 826 Valencia, better known as Dave Eggers's Pirate Store (826valencia.org/store), which helps finance his neighborhood tutoring center. It is certainly wacky and worth a visit, if only to see glass jars of faux medicines like Scurvy Begone, which appeared to actually be lemon jelly beans (side effects include "sudden onset of fake English accent"). Not finding anything in my price range, I headed to nearby Paxton Gate's Curiosities For Kids (paxtongate.com/kids.aspx). Though much of the selection was pricey, I found a bunch of $1 "twig pencils" -- colored pencils made from actual tree branches, for my artistic nephew Grady.
I did actually come up with one much-needed, well-priced item for myself, at Jeremy's Department Store (jeremys.com) off South Park on an upscale corner of the area known as SoMa (South of Market). Halfway between Marshall's and pricey boutique, it sells discounted overstock clothing, including some from upscale designers. Alexander McQueen shirts, for example, went for $100 -- outside my price range but a fraction of their usual cost; women's clothing and shoes from similarly fancy brands were usually at least 75 percent off as well. (Some of the items are damaged or irregular.) My lone, long-abused brown belt had recently suffered a detached buckle, so I picked up a Hugo Boss distressed leather belt for the undistressing price of $24. (Searching later, online, I found similar Hugo Boss belts for $95 and up.)
I also dropped by the Castro, perhaps the country's best-known gay neighborhood, to sightsee and stop into Cliff's Variety (cliffsvariety.com), a combination hardware and everything-else store. Included in "everything-else" are a lot of kitchen items -- I briefly considered a $20 pomegranate de-seeder, and admired a $3.49 device that stamps an image of the Virgin Mary on your toast. But as I pondered an $8.99 box of fake mustaches, a Cliff's employee happened upon me and, from her pocket, pulled a sample bushy mustache and recommended the kit highly. ("Don't ask why I have a Tom Selleck mustache in my pocket," she said.) Sold -- as part of a yet-to-be-determined Halloween costume.
I also wandered Chinatown shops, passing on the $20 sandstone Buddhas but picking up some 79-cent soy sauce holders for sushi. And I enjoyed the Japan Center malls (japancentersf.com) in Japantown, where you can find all the sushi magnets and samurai swords and Hello Kitty merchandise you want. (I didn't want any.)
But by far the most surprising store I visited was Kayo Books (kayobooks.com), downtown on the edge of the rather sketchy Tenderloin neighborhood. Specializing in pulp fiction and "sleaze" from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is unlike any other bookstore I'd ever seen. Upon a recommendation from the owner, I bought an $8 copy of Jim Thompson's 1958 crime novel "The Getaway" -- but most books were cheaper than that. And many books were far sleazier; just try not to peruse shelves with categories like "Prison," "Tramps and Trains," and "Catholic Guilt." There were some fascinating nonfiction sex studies from the era, and even a travel section featuring titles like "Brothels of Nevada" and "The Five Continental Sin Spots" -- you know, if you're into that sort of thing. I, of course, am not -- but I did pick up a couple titles for friends.
Of the money I spent -- $106 in all -- it turned out that I only bought one thing I truly did not need (I've already successfully coddled some eggs.) It happened in Haight-Ashbury, the historically hippie neighborhood that was at the center of the 1967 Summer of Love and now, predictably, has cafes and brunch places and pricey boutiques. They were fun to wander around, and maybe even buy something if you're into $30 T-shirts or $1,150 tie-dyed petticoats. I thought I had made it out of the neighborhood purchase-free when I spotted an irresistible sign on an odd little store a block off the main drag: "ALL YOU NEED LUCK HERE," it read, and the shop, called Things Lucky turned out to be an Asian bazaar of necklaces, vases, masks wind chimes, Buddhas and plenty of jewelry.
A Thai woman working there was so incredibly helpful in explaining just what kind of luck could be had from the endless array of stones that I felt I had to buy something. I ended up taking home a $1 chunk of green fluorite, which, according to a sign in the store, would nurture my intelligence, knowledge and wisdom; calm my emotions; reduce stress and loneliness; enhance mental concentration; relieve arthritis; and ease stomach problems. Not bad for a buck, although for overall value, I think the fake mustaches were a better deal.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.