The Art of Slow Business at The Urban Air Market

The Hayes St. Urban Air Market is within walking distance of the 22nd Street Caltrain stop, in the Dogpatch District of San Francisco. It’s quiet on Sunday, and it doesn’t seem like a part of the city–there’s a sleepy inertia to the neighborhood. Little coffee shops and restaurants with outdoor seating dot the tree-lined streets. A few cars roll slowly by, some people walk their dogs.

Photo by Stephen Woods

Photo by Stephen Woods

The neighborhood is built inside the industrial skeleton of its past, but today half of its buildings have been converted into loft apartments, coffee shops, restaurants and workspaces.

The Urban Air Market makes sense here. Many of the residents of the neighborhood are designers, artists, or artisans. Much of what is made here is sold here, and the quiet isolation of the neighborhood adds to the aura of self-containment.

I came to the Urban Air Market to find out what turns a hobby into a job. I wanted to interview some vendors on why they left their old job, or added a completely new line of work to their existing careers. I knew from my own expierence at The Rusted Key that most of these small business owners and makers are ordinary people who, for one reason or another, decided they were unfulfilled at a 9-5 desk job.   I wanted to get to know the people behind the stores–what did they do before, what they have learned, how it’s changed them.

The fair was two blocks long, bordering the sides of Espirit Park. “La Vie en Rose” floated on the Sunday air, two harmonizing voices and accompanied by classical guitar.

Max and Nicky

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After their set, I chatted with Max and Nicky Weinbach. Together their band name is (also) Max and Nicky. They are twins who perform a “series of musical and comedy variety show”. They take influence from vaudeville and jazz acts of the early half of the last century.

They had the look of two characters who’d stepped out of a backstage in the past. I didn’t talk long with them, but I did some research later and found out they’d gotten their start as children. Their father would, as a form of mild punishment, force them to learn the lyrics of old jazz standards.

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Here’s a video of Max and Nicky’s beautiful cover of “La Vie en Rose”:

Max and Nicky are releasing an EP this October, and their music and videos can be found on their website. Their other band, Little Person, is playing at Neck of the Woods in San Francisco on August 29th. Little Person plays 60’s and 70’s influenced pop rock.

Frankie & Myrrh

I smelled the next booth before I saw it. Eucalyptus, some sort of pine, lavender and a myriad of other smells I didn’t recognize emanated from the Frankie and Myrrh booth.

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At the booth I met Kim, the bubbly owner of the San Francisco based company. She was a little nervous about being interviewed, but agreed on the condition I don’t ask her any hard questions.

Frankie and Myrrh sells aromatherapy sprays made from essential oils. They tailor their sprays for specific emotions. They all have whimsical names like “Road Rage Reducer”, “Study Buddy”, and “Purple People Pleaser”.

I asked her to try a scent. She handed me one called “Serenity Now!!”, which she may have sensed I needed (I drank 3 cold brewed coffees before I came to the Market). She described it a “mediation spray”, made from spruce and frankincense. “It smells like meditating in a forest,” she says.I sniffed. It did indeed.

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I asked Kim what made her start the business. She said she was social worker in Oakland in Child Protective Services, which I imagine is probably one of the most stressful jobs in the country.The stress of her work led her to take a class in aromatherapy.

She found it worked wonders for her, and she told me, “I wanted to get more people to use this, to become this…I don’t know…evangelist for it. ” She’s still a social worker, but now she works in foster care and with children with developmental disabilities. This her weekend job, and she says it’s a lot more fun, a lot more work, and a tremendous creative outlet.

Frankie & Myrrh has an Etsy store here. They also have a brick and mortar store in San Francisco in the Crocker Galleria on 50 Post St.

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Rock+Pillar

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At the next boot I met Alma and Parvez, a couple who radiated effortless warmth and were only too eager to tell me about their business.

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Rock+Pillar sells handmade goods from rural artisans high in the mountains of Peru. They’re driven by the philosophy that a business relationship can be mutually beneficial to all parties involved. In addition, Parvez tells me, “the way things are going in fashion, it’s the same thing produced a million times. We wanted to produce something meaningful….As a consumer, you can connect with the producer.”

Their booth is impressive. The brightly colored wares are recognizable Peruvian style clothing, but close inspection reveals care and attention absent in most American wares.

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They call these “whole” products. What does that mean? “Organic products, made from alpaca wool and yarn… everything is hand-knit, hand spun, organically dyed, from a single producer,” Alma says. “We try to give them an economic incentive by telling them, ‘Your art and your heritage is worth something…you don’t have to abandon it to work in a mine, or sweeping city streets’, or anything that compromises their heritage.”

All their trade is driven by this abiding philosophy. “We believe in slow commerce,” said Parvez. “It’s an incredible thing to say, for example, ‘Isabella made this scarf’, and it has a story, and character that lasts forever. It has an energy to it.”

Rock+Pillar is based in Cusco, in the heart of the Incan empire. Alma initially worked in research, in very rural, hard to reach villages around Cusco. She was inspired after seeing the craftsmanship and heritage that went into the artisanal markets there.

Parvez tells me that he used to work in marketing for a start-up. He said he was miserable, cranky, and unfufilled. He was initially skeptical when Alma told him about her idea to start the company. He told me the first product they sold– the one that changed his mind– was a leather backpack, made by a man who had made these backpacks for 20 years. His hands, she said, were cracked and stained for two decades of his trade.

Rock+Pillar Trading Co. has an online store. You can follow Alma and Parvez’s Andenian Adventures on their blog.

 

 

 

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