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    Cliff’s Variety

    Cliff’s Variety Photo

    This issue of the San Francisco Bay Times launches a new page dedicated to small businesses in the Castro and beyond. Holding a place of honor as the first business to be profiled in the series is Cliff’s Variety. A landmark of the Castro, Cliff’s has been in business for 88 years and long predates the neighborhood becoming the first widely recognized gay mecca, which started in the 1960s. Like the Bay Times, it is a San Francisco Legacy Business. Cliff’s is also one of the oldest family-run stores in the city.

    Terry Asten-Bennett

    The hardware, home goods, variety, and fabric store is both a destination for visitors seeking quality, distinctive goods of all kinds and is a mainstay for locals who rely on Cliff’s for essentials and more. Here, Cliff’s General Manager Terry Asten Bennet, who is also President of Castro Merchants, shares her thoughts about the business that her great-great grandfather Hilario DeBaca founded in 1936.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Beyond its age and Legacy status, what do you think makes Cliff’s Variety such a unique business?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: Cliff’s Variety is a one stop shop for everything you need and everything you didn’t know you needed. Cliff’s is a full-service hardware store, a housewares store, a toy store, a gift shop, a fabric store, and a drag queen haven. We are constantly changing our selection based on what our community needs and wants.

    Cliff’s Variety Circa 1940s
    Cliff’s Variety Photo

    San Francisco Bay Times: What led to you becoming the General Manager of Cliff’s?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: I was born into the business. As the fifth generation of Cliff’s Variety, I didn’t really know this is what I wanted to do until I was doing it. In the late 1990s, I was working at the store and getting ready to pursue a teaching credential, when my parents were offered a huge amount of money from Save-On to sell the business. At this time, Save-On was trying to get into all of the neighborhoods where Walgreen’s was located. 

    My parents took my sister and I out to dinner and asked us if either of us wanted to take over the store or if they should consider the offer. My sister said, “Terry will take it over and give me money.” I thought about it a little bit longer than that. What it came down to for me was the community. I couldn’t imagine the Castro without Cliff’s in it. Was I sure this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? No, but I was sure I would never be able to show my face in San Francisco if I let the store get sold. So, I made the commitment and here I am.  

    Ernie and Martha Asten with daughters
    Marian and Terry
    Cliff’s Variety Photo

    San Francisco Bay Times: It is hard to think of Cliff’s without thinking of the Castro. What do you most enjoy about your business’ location?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: The Castro is such a special place. It isn’t just a neighborhood, or a shopping district, or a tourist destination; it is a community. It is a place where people gather to celebrate, to mourn, to protest, and to be seen and heard. It is a place where your neighbors know your name and they look out for you. It is the place that I call home.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are some items that you are featuring now at Cliff’s?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: We are a retail store that sells everything from hammers and nails to boas and tiaras. We like to say, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

    Ernie DeBaca (right) with his grandson Ernie Asten (holding
    pup) behind the counter at Cliff’s Variety
    Photo Cliff’s Variety

    San Francisco Bay Times: Are most of your customers locals, from other parts of the Bay Area, tourists, or a mixture of all these? And are most of your customers repeat visitors?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: Our customers are a mixture of locals, businesses, tourists, and the wider Bay Area community. Our most regular customers are in several times a day.

    San Francisco Bay Times: You already hinted at this earlier with your mention of Cliff’s being a haven for drag queens, but how else does the business connect with the LGBTQ+ community?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: We depend on the community to stay afloat and it is our honor and responsibility to support our community in return. We are a safe place for people to be their authentic selves. We cater to the needs of the community by carrying the products they are looking for. We donate to a myriad of fundraisers that support the community. And I personally raise funds and donate a week of my time to volunteer as a Roadie on the AIDS Lifecycle to support the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and their work to end HIV/AIDS and the stigma surrounding it.

    On Sunday, April 14, 2019, Cliff’s Variety closed early for a community celebration of Ernie Asten’s life. Led, as he had requested, by a New Orleans style funeral band, the celebration included a large procession on Castro Street.
    Photo by JP Lor

    San Francisco Bay Times: Please give a shout out to any members of your staff, repeat customers, mentors, or anyone else whom you wish to thank for their support.

    Terry Asten-Bennett: We are so grateful to our amazing staff. They work so hard to bring to life our vision. And they stay forever! Paul Ellis is one of my longest serving employees; he has worked with us since I was a teenager. Together we have seen and experienced the constant changing fabric of the Castro. The highest highs and the lowest of lows. We have laughed, cried, and pulled our hair out together. Without staff members like him we wouldn’t be who we are.

    Family members of Ernie Asten spoke to the crowd gathered at Jane Warner
    Plaza following the procession on Sunday, April 14, 2019, in the Castro.
    Photo by JP Lor

    San Francisco Bay Times: Outside of Cliff’s, what other businesses, including restaurants, do you recommend?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: One of my newest favorite restaurants in the Castro is Tanglad. Not only am I lucky to have a great neighbor, but also their food smells amazing and is delicious. I am grateful to all of the businesses in the Castro. We know it has been tough, but every single storefront that keeps their doors open helps to keep the Castro vibrant and happening.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced, in terms of your work?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: Work/life balance is a constant challenge for me. I am a self-professed control freak and perfectionist. I always want to put my best foot forward and I am not satisfied if I don’t live up to the standards I have set for myself. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what I need to get and how I should re-merchandise a counter. I think it is fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic was especially challenging. I worked very hard to make sure I was taking care of my staff first and foremost, while also taking care of our customers and community. It was very important to me that the people who depended on me the most knew I was doing absolutely everything I could to take care of them.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are your plans and goals for Cliff’s this year?

    Terry Asten-Bennett: This year is really just about staying afloat. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now and that impacts how people shop. So, we will be conservative in our purchasing, while as fun and edgy as ever.

    Without our community, what’s the point? Shop local; it really does make a difference right here in your community.

    Cliff’s Variety
    479 Castro Street, San Francisco

    Supporting Small Businesses in the Castro & Beyond
    Published on February 8, 2024