New Castro welcome center opens amid fanfare

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday April 25, 2023
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Robert Emmons of Welcome Castro explains the significance of an aerial map of upper Market Street. Welcome Castro is having a grand opening celebration April 27. Photo: John Ferrannini
Robert Emmons of Welcome Castro explains the significance of an aerial map of upper Market Street. Welcome Castro is having a grand opening celebration April 27. Photo: John Ferrannini

A gift shop and welcome center pop-up has opened in the Castro — a bright spot in the San Francisco LGBTQ neighborhood hurt by a spate of business closures.

Welcome Castro had a soft opening in the former Levi's space at 525 Castro Street — which shuttered last year — on April 15. There will be a grand opening celebration featuring a ribbon-cutting April 27, from 4 to 7 p.m., according to a news release from the Castro Merchants Association.

"There will be refreshments, drag queens, and a few surprise guests," Robert Emmons, the store's proprietor, told the Bay Area Reporter. "I believe the mayor is coming. I haven't actually confirmed though."

The office of Mayor London Breed confirmed to the B.A.R. Monday that she'll be attending.

Terry Beswick, a gay man on the board of the merchants' association who fought for city funding to the association and for Welcome Castro at the group's membership meeting, stated that among the guests will be DJ Nico and drag queens Persia, Christina Ashton, and Olivia Hart will be on hand.

"It's been a trip working on this project, from applying for the city grant to opening the first shop," Beswick stated to the B.A.R. "I'm excited to see what other shops we can help open, but for now the reward is in seeing the delighted customers coming into the very LGBTQ Welcome Castro. We're helping to keep the Castro queer, and I think that's good for everyone."

Emmons, a gay man, is the owner of SF Mercantile in the Haight. Welcome Castro was kick-started by a $50,000 grant from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development to Castro Merchants, which has not responded to a request for comment as of press time.

Emmons had pledged up to 50% of his net proceeds to the merchants association for 10 months so that money can be used for "multiple additional pop-ups," according to Beswick, It is hoped those ventures could become viable businesses in the neighborhood.

The total grant from the city was for $100,000 and the other half is going to related costs such as marketing and administration, Beswick added.

Applications will be released at the event and "grants between $5,000 and $25,000 are expected to be awarded in the coming months," according to the release.

When asked where this money will come from, Warner Johnston, who does communications for the merchant association, told the B.A.R. that "We're giving $50K to Welcome Castro and spending the rest on related programming, marketing, and admin costs. Welcome Castro is granting back to Castro Merchants $5K/mo. over 10 months for a total of $50K. Castro Merchants will issue $50K in additional grants to small businesses and entrepreneurs to activate vacant storefronts."

When asked if the grants opening up Thursday will be coming from Emmons' proceeds or the other $50,000, Johnston replied "It's all in the same pot. It's coming from Castro Merchants."

Terrance Alan, president of the merchants' group, heralded the opening of Welcome Castro as a win for neighborhood businesses.

"Filling vacant storefronts and supporting all of our member businesses have always been the top priorities for the Castro Merchants," Alan stated to the B.A.R. "Our partnership with Welcome Castro helps with both. Leveraging city funding, we were able to attract a business to fill a prime vacancy with a queer-focused retail experience that will also serve as a visitor center, directing tourists to other businesses and landmarks. And we're giving out more grants to activate more vacant storefronts. I hope this serves as a model for other neighborhoods."

Not everyone was so sanguine when the proposal for grant money for Welcome Castro was first awarded.

As the B.A.R. reported in February, Jenn Meyer, a straight ally who is the owner of Local Take on 18th Street and president of the Castro Street Fair board of directors, said she was "fully supportive of the idea of a welcome center" but that Emmons' Welcome Haight location didn't seem like a welcome center.

"It looks like a gift store. How do we make it not just a place to buy gifts? I think with $100,000 we have a big opportunity to reactivate vacant storefronts for more than one businessperson," she continued. (At the time the entire grant was proposed to go to Emmons.)

The proposal to provide the grant funds to Emmons' project came in the context of the closure of Harvey's bar and restaurant just across the street after decades in business, a closure that — along with the ongoing controversy over the Castro Theatre, and the silence from powerful landlord Les Natali over the future of the Badlands space, among his other properties — fueled anxiety over the queerville's future.

Meyer wanted to serve on an ad hoc committee to decide the fate of the grant, but the merchants' leadership announced a resolution to her concern the following day, though Meyer said she was not consulted first, as the B.A.R. reported.

Meyer did not respond to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

Tom of Finland shirts, right, and a "micro penis mug" are among those products being sold at Welcome Castro. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Sneak peek
During an advance tour, Emmons told the B.A.R. last week that there will be features in the store to differentiate it from a gift shop, including the presence of community ambassadors from the Castro Community Benefit District, a project that the CBD recently relaunched.

"The Castro CBD is relaunching our popular Castro Ambassador program after it was put on hold during the pandemic. We've been working with Welcome Castro and the Castro Merchants on this project," Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the CBD, told the B.A.R. "The Castro Ambassadors will be working out of Welcome Castro. Castro Ambassadors are volunteers who welcome visitors to the neighborhood, providing them with walking maps and information about the Castro."

The volunteer ambassadors commit to four hours a month, and people who want to learn more or become an ambassador can apply on the CBD's website.

"I am an ambassador because I truly enjoy being of service, and I love to meet new people," Misha Langley, a gay man on the CBD board who is also an ambassador, stated to the B.A.R. "It gives me a great reason to bask in the beauty that is our world famous 'gay mecca,' the Castro. But even better — I get to help people who may be coming from places intolerant of any kind of 'otherness' find their way, or simply to enjoy themselves in this fantastic City by the Bay."

Emmons also told the B.A.R. that a table at the entrance to Welcome Castro will have copies of a forthcoming up-to-date guide to neighboring businesses. It currently has copies of a guide printed by the CBD.

Emmons' plan was to set up shop this month and he kept to that schedule despite an emergency hip replacement after a hit-and-run that followed a road rage incident.

"It was crazy," Emmons said about setting up in the aftermath of his surgery. "But within two days I was ready to work."

Emmons thanked his employees — over 20, also including his Haight location — for their dedication.

"In one form or another, everyone on staff has helped make the store happen," Emmons said.

Amirah Taouil is a lesbian who's the manager of the Castro store.

"We really wanted to create a retail space that could be welcoming for all people in the community," Taouil stated to the B.A.R. "Seeing locals of all backgrounds and identities coming in, enjoying it, finding themselves interacting with the products, and laughing has been incredibly rewarding. It's retail entertainment! It has meant so much to me as a queer woman not only to help support this community but to finally be a part of it in a way I never imagined before."

Emmons said he didn't "want to overlap with what [Meyer] is doing" at Local Take, which is on 18th Street between Castro and Collingwood streets, and so he was "careful not to carry who she's carrying" in terms of local and queer artisans and designers.

Nonetheless, over 50 LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs are represented at the site, Emmons said. Many have a "Meet the Maker" explainer adjacent to their work.

One of those is Dimas Jose Arellano, a gay man who is the creator of Castro Boy, who was recently profiled by the B.A.R..

"Thank you Welcome Castro for giving me my biggest break as an artist," Arellano told the B.A.R. "Nothing can stop Castro Boy now!"

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