Two revered San Francisco antique shops close – ACN asks why

A pair of 17th-century Italian baroque columns with 19th and 20th century objects at Laurent Rebuffel's Habite in Los Angeles, 145 North La Brea Avenue, Unit D. Rebuffel is closing his San Francisco store and moving his entire operation to the Los Angeles venue. Image courtesy of Habite.

A pair of 17th-century Italian baroque columns with 19th and 20th century objects at Laurent Rebuffel’s Habite in Los Angeles, 145 North La Brea Avenue, Unit D. Rebuffel is closing his San Francisco store and moving his entire operation to the Los Angeles venue. Image courtesy of Habite.

SAN FRANCISCO (ACNI) – Recently I heard about two San Francisco shops going out of business, Swallowtail and Habité. Although the types of articles they sold were dissimilar, both were beloved by the design community and retail customers, and each will leave a hole in the fabric of San Francisco’s material culture. I spoke to the respective owners to find out what happened.


Sheri Sheridan started Swallowtail, on Polk Street in upscale Pacific Heights, about 14 years ago. She also had a shop on Haight Street, and for two years she ran both of them, eventually closing the original and focusing on the newer location. (From 2003-2007 she had a shop in Oakland as well, also called Swallowtail.) The Polk Street shop was a pretty space with soaring ceilings and a skylight. It even had a sort of tiny backyard where Sheridan would showcase garden statuary, birdcages – outdoor stuff.

Sheridan, who also has a design firm specializing in restaurants, has an astute eye. Shoppers fell in love with her mixture of good 18th- and 19th-century antiques, taxidermy, found art, mid-century pieces, and contemporary paintings.

The window display was always arresting. I remember a pair of traditional Louis IV-ish fauteuils upholstered in a bold Stephen Sprouse grafitti print that appeared right around the time of Sprouse’s death (in tribute to the fashion designer). Another time there was an enormous and superbly carved wood coat, that on closer inspection, turned out to be a cabinet whose doors opened like the front of the garment. Sometimes you’d see crusty religious artifacts or scientific equipment juxtaposed with, say, a smooth French modernist table and chairs. Always surprising, always fresh, sometimes very beautiful.

The store attracted a varied clientele, too – art students, neighborhood walkers, interior designers and the odd celebrity. My husband recalls an evening a few years back when the store was off limits to the public because Sharon Stone was having a look (during her short reign as San Francisco Chronicle publisher Phil Bronstein’s wife.) According to Sheridan, the author Danielle Steele once said in print that Swallowtail was her favorite shop.

So, what happened? Sheridan describes a confluence of factors that caused the store’s demise. “In 2005, I lost a substantial amount of money, about $80,000, to an employee who embezzled from me. I went into debt as a result. Still, the store was doing well, and I could probably have risen above this setback, but when the economy tanked last year, I couldn’t recoup. I let go the bookkeeper and all the employees, lowering my monthly expenses from about $30,000 to $20,000 but I just couldn’t keep accommodating the losses. One Sunday last month I was alone in the store and I got a discouraging phone call. As I hung up I had an epiphany: ‘I don’t have to do this any more, and today I am closing Swallowtail.’ And that was that. I think I was trying to keep the store going for my customers who loved it. And I loved it, too.”

“I started the shop when I was so young. Swallowtail gave me confidence,” Sheridan continued. “I’m a designer because of Swallowtail. I own a house, I’ve gotten great press, met great people. Over the years, so many amazing things happened in and around the store. I have heard from so many clients since word got around that I would be closing. Flowers and cards appeared on the doorstep. The response has been incredible. People really felt personally connected to Swallowtail.”

Laurent Rebuffel’s Habité

Laurent Rebuffel has been in the antiques business his whole life. He worked for his family antiques shop in Lyons, France, before moving to San Francisco in 1994 and starting his own company in 1996. Habité, his flagship store on Harrison Street south of Market, specialized in high-quality French country and Continental furniture from the 17th to 19th centuries that Laurent imports himself. The rustic warehouse-like space was filled with beautiful cabinets, bergères, screens, fireplace surrounds and other architectural details, tables, tapestries and chandeliers. For a few years, Rebuffel, with his former wife Carolyn, had an elegant shop in Jackson Square in addition to Habité. It closed in 2004.

In a city filled with fine antiques businesses, the Rebuffels’ shops stood out. The presentation was lovely, the furniture and objects were of fine quality, and the selection sometimes vast. But I remember being impressed by the casual and friendly atmosphere created by Rebuffel and his right hand – ‘the other Laurent’ – Laurent Martini. Rebuffel has a low-key warmth that makes you feel no question is stupid, and that there’s plenty of time for the answers. He’s accommodating of clients’ needs, generous with information. The same is true of Martini.

When I heard the store was closing, my heart sank. Another beautiful resource lost to San Francisco. I had been meaning to stop in for weeks, to say hello and see what was new, but had not found the time.

“I’m not going out of business, just relocating to Los Angeles, where we’ve had a space for about a year and a half,” said Rebuffel. The shop (with about 3,500 square feet of floor space) on La Brea at Beverly is also called Habité.

“It came down to a choice between two cities, each with its own pros and cons. In the end, personal reasons tipped the balance,” said Rebuffel, who finds Los Angeles to be reminiscent of his native South of France. But there were other factors at work.

“San Francisco has a strong design community and we have a loyal clientele here,” he said, “but in some ways the business climate never fully recovered from the dot-com bust at the beginning of the century.”

That local trend, along with the rise of the Euro, created a tough environment for the high-end antiques market, according to Rebuffel. “People did not realize how difficult it was to keep importing antiques from Europe while trying to keep prices from rising,” he said.

Laurent also cites the increasing difficulty of finding good material to sell. “It’s a diminishing resource. There’s a limited supply,” he said, “so keeping two stores well stocked became more and more difficult. Then, in the fall of 2008 we saw a big drop-off in sales. This move has been years in the making.”

Rebuffel feels the market in Los Angeles is large and growing, and the entertainment industry, though not immune to the vagaries of the recent global economic crisis, is relatively strong. Asked if he feels it’s a buying populace more willing and able to pay higher prices, he responds, “No, it’s simply a question of volume. It’s a bigger market, not necessarily a more affluent one.”

There’s another component to Rebuffel’s decision to move. “I think I had painted myself into a corner a bit, in terms of what I presented in the shop,” he said. “Somehow I feel I can reinvent myself creatively in a way with this move. I’ll be selling a fuller spectrum of objects, now including 20th-century periods, which have always been within my interests but which, for whatever reason, I didn’t feel as free to include in San Francisco.”

Rebuffel mentioned several San Francisco shops he admires, which locals may want to investigate: Coup D’Etat, and March, and more traditional shops like Dan Stein and Foster Gwin.

In Conclusion

Laurent Rebuffel sounds rueful when for advice to a young person entering this field now. “The best dealers have a passion that drives them…they never stop asking questions, never stop studying and learning. That’s what makes them able to discern ‘the real thing’ when they see it, and that can be anything from a $100 object to a million dollar painting. This business will not make you rich, it’s something you have to have a passion for.”

As for Sheri Sheridan, she has a sense of optimism about future creative endeavors, even as she prepares to formally mourn the passing of her shop (“I’m having a funeral for the business, I’ll invite you!”). Her design company, also called Swallowtail, has projects in the works, including restaurants Brown Sugar Kitchen and Roux 66.

I believe that retail shops like Swallowtail and Habité bring something important to a city, in the same way that the ballet, the symphony and museums do. But most of us don’t think in terms of supporting them as we do those institutions. “People would always tell me ‘I can’t afford to shop in your store, but I get so much inspiration from coming in here,’ ” said Sheridan. “I truly loved hearing that, but it didn’t pay the bills, you know?”

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