Need to track down a particular card-based role-playing game or obscure liqueur in a hurry? Niche retail shops tend to survive these days by having a health e-commerce presence, given that the audience for their curated and deep product arrays extends well beyond their immediate neighborhoods. But even as retail flounders nationwide, San Francisco remains home to a handful of adorable and highly specific stores with devoted fanbases and excellent selections.
This store for left-handed merchandise — and gifts that celebrate left-handed pride — has been a mainstay at Pier 39 going back to the late 1970s, with a hiatus in between. Originally called Left Hand World, it was the first store of its kind in the US selling products for left-handers (and perhaps the inspiration for Ned Flanders' Leftorium on The Simpsons). The shop's bestselling items include can-openers and other cooking utensils for lefties, as well as a novelty sign that says, "I May Be Left-Handed But I'm Always Right."
Pier 39, Beach Street and Embarcadero
From Merino wool to llama to alpaca and angora, this is your ultimate neighborhood yarn shop that also hosts knitting classes and sells all kind of knitting equipment, patterns, and magazines. As knitting became en vogue (kind of like hats) among a new generation, the store took off after owner Allison Isaacs opened it in 2002, expanding into the next-door storefront as well. Now the place is chock-full of yarn, in every corner, and for inspiration, you may want to peruse their Instagram and Pinterest page.
3897 18th Street at Noe
Goorin Bros. Hat Shop
Say what you will about the hat trend among young men and women, hats work for some people, and this old-school haberdashery is just the place to get one properly fitted and suited to your head. And while the place may feel eons old, it was actually opened in 2006 in this flagship location, just as hats started trending again the brand goes back about 100 years and four generations, but was recently revived and revamped, with dozens of locations across the country. From pageboy caps to straw fedoras to "Heisenbergs," this place will fill all your head-covering needs.
1612 Stockton Street; 111 Geary Sreet; 1446 Haight Street at Ashbury
International Spy Shop
Whether you're a hobbyist who dorks out on gadgets you might find in Mission Impossible, or a legitimately paranoid person in need of a covert nanny cam or bug detector, this is your store. The place has been around for years and was featured on Storage Wars a few years back, and the inventory covers a broad range of stuff including pepper spray pens, infidelity detection kits, tiny microphones and long-range listening devices, and personal panic buttons. It's the ultimate supply shop for the neurotic!
555 Beach Street
Socks are typically an afterthought for most of us: a holiday gift, something you buy a bag of at Target, etc. But when you walk into The Sockshop you feel obligated to up your game, as you're suddenly confronted with the widest selection of novelty, fashionable, witty, and classic socks you've ever seen. Independently owned and operated, the Sockshop's owners got into the hosiery game 27 years ago with a tiny shop in Santa Cruz, and have since expanded into the Haight and Berkeley. Best of all, the staff is knowledgable, helpful, and pleasant (a rarity in the tourist-saturated Haight). — Eve Batey
1742 Haight Street between Cole and Schrader
Loved to Death
Since 2008, owner Audra Kunkle has run this Upper Haight emporium of jewelry, darkly themed Victoriana and general goth creepiness. The store was featured on the Science channel's show Oddities: San Francisco a few years back, and it remains a draw for a specific brand of black-clad tourist. And, it should be noted, while the store originally featured a fair amount of taxidermy, Kunkle stopped carrying most taxidermy items in 2017.
1681 Haight Street
Olive This Olive That
As co-owner Jannell describes it, Olive This Olive That is a "boutique retailer and tasting bar" devoted to extra virgin olive oils from California and elsewhere. If, like me, you thought olive oil is mainly the stuff you use to cook when you're feeling over-buttered, she's happy to re-educate you with a long and detailed conversation on the benefits of and many culinary uses for olive oil. They also carry kitchen goods, artisan pasta, locally made sauces, hand-harvested sea salts, and body lotions, but it's their many oils that are the real star. While you can come in and taste from their two walls of oils any time, the last Thursday of every month is where it's at that's when they host their regular "Bring Your Own Bread" tasting party (which is kind of a misnomer, as many snacks are provided). — Eve Batey
For a town as obsessed as San Francisco is with fancy cocktails, we are surprisingly light on fancy booze and barware emporiums. Sure you can get a lot of stuff at BevMo, and there are little neighborhood spots like Healthy Spirits, Bi-Rite, and Swirl. But for my money, if I've got some specific and hard-to-find spirit needs, I'm heading to Cask. They now have three locations, and in addition to outfitting your cocktail cart with the proper pitchers, strainers, and jiggers, you'll find a deep (if not always reasonably priced) selection of whiskeys, gins, tequilas, bitters, and you name it to impress all your cocktail-nerd friends. Need Batavia arack, or Cardamaro? You'll find that there, and plenty more stuff that they don't carry at BevMo.
17 Third Street, and 101 Spear Street
In the culinary capital of the US, we of course have to have a bookstore dedicated completely to food, and this Noe Valley shop does us proud. With a huge selection of new and used cookbooks including a fantastic collection of California vintage cookbooks priced according to their rarity Omnivore is a home cook's dream. There's also a constant stream of events at the shop featuring readings and book signings with famous food writers, cocktail mavens, and chefs.
3885a Cesar Chavez Street at Church
San Francisco Brewcraft
This Richmond District homebrewer's destination has been serving the needs of DIY beer lovers in the city since the mid-1990s. Original owner Griz passed away in 2013, but the always helpful staff here will teach you everything you need to know about wine and beer making, as well as making things like root beer and kombucha. Want a beer tailor-made for your tastes? They'll do that. Even the pros stop by for ingredients and replacement parts sometimes.
1555 Clement Street at 17th Avenue
Noe Valley has the niche food retail covered between Omnivore Books and Olive This Olive That, and the 'hood is home to this 25-year-old destination chocolate boutique as well. Owners Jack Epstein and Marilyn Sitkoff sell an astonishing 900 chocolate products in their shop, spanning 19 countries, and representing local chocolatiers as well. This is also the place to go for custom, hand-made chocolate gift boxes as well.
4069 24th Street near Castro Street
Schein & Schein Antique Maps & Prints
Currently featured in an upstairs hall space at the 2019 Decorator's Showcase house, Schein & Schein has been serving the city's antiquarian map needs for 16 years (since 2003). Owners Jimmie and Marti Schein specialize in Bay Area maps and wine country material from the 19th and 20th centuries, making their store a perfect stop for those redecorating a local home or looking for an SF-focused gift.
1435 Grant Avenue between Union and Green Streets, by appointment
Divisadero's game emporium, which also sells puzzles and gaming collectables, has been going strong since 1985, and is a direct descendent of the city's very first game store, which opened in 1973. If you love Settlers of Catan and want to know what board game nerds have been obsessed with in the 23 years since it came out, this is where to find out. The place also hosts weekly events including a Pokemon League night, and Dungeons & Dragons Encounters, a "drop-in, casual adventuring league."
333 Divisadero Street