Story, Photos and Video by Emma Marie Chiang
Ring the hanging bell outside the metal gate and a petite El Salvadorian man behind a desk with a mountain of watches will buzz you to his tiny shop on the corner of Geneva Avenue and Mission Street.
Nelson, 55, and Maria Diaz, 60, have owned the crammed tiny store for 23 years repairing watches and jewelry, selling porcelain dolls, brooches, dish-ware, figurines, paper money, coins and other memorabilia. The store is a neighborhood hangout for a diverse mix of people young and old. Customers come in with a variety of requests from watch battery replacements to fixing a metal link on a handbag.
“We try our best to fix almost anything,” Mr. Diaz said. “No matter whether it is jewelry, leather, metals, any kind of thing, even glasses.”
The Diaz’s are constantly working, 6 days a week 8 hours a day at the store and on Sundays Mr. Diaz sells and purchases items at the Alemany Flea Market.
Mr. Diaz said on an average day, 40-50 customer’s walk in either to say a quick hello, exchange collectable items or get a battery replaced.
The store’s central location next to public transit, a hardware store and Walgreens, brings a steady flow of foot traffic.
Most afternoons the store is packed wall to wall with customers; sometimes five to ten people are waiting to be helped by Mrs. Diaz at the front counter.
Each day Mrs. Diaz manages the repair orders and pick-ups often engaging in lengthy personal conversations with the customer during their pick up of fixed and polished jewelry.
“I enjoy talking to the people that walk in. Sometimes crazy people walk in but I try to deal with them.” Mrs. Diaz said.
The Diaz family is the second owner of store, succeeding the original owner Antonio Tamayo who opened the business in 1971 and also owned a laundry mat in the Excelsior. The building was built in the 1920’s according to the San Francisco property information map from the Planning Department.
“They fix everything, especially in a timely manner,” said a loyal customer Connie Carrington. “I need to come more often than I do. They have quality jewelry.” Carrington visits Mr. and Mrs. Diaz who she calls Papa and Mama at least once a month, every time walking out with a new sparkling accessory to wear.
Mr. Diaz makes his annual trips to customers’ homes to replace batteries in large grandfather clocks or mechanically wind others. “This is a helpful service to the old timers, I go six or seven times a year,” said Mr. Diaz.
Work side by side each day, Mrs. Diaz deals with customers and Mr. Diaz deals with the repairs. Mr. Diaz prefers to sit at his desk and replace batteries all day and recycle the stone, silver and gold from old jewelry pieces.
“I am quite comfortable with her,” Mr. Diaz said. “She explains to me what I need to get done, the sooner we get it done we call the client, and it’s money in our pockets.”
Mr. and Mrs. Diaz met in 1984 vacationing separately in Reno, California one year after they immigrated to the U.S. from different countries. Mr. Diaz immigrated from El Salvador in 1983 after traveling throughout Central America. He settled in San Francisco because his sister lived in the city. That same year Mrs. Diaz immigrated to San Francisco from Honduras and moved to the city because of relatives. Together they enrolled in English as a second language classes at Mission High school and opened the store in 1992.
Mr. Diaz jumped at the opportunity to own the store after having worked 19 stressful years as a head bus boy at the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Francisco. He quit his job and began cleaning houses where he accumulated items people no longer wanted. The small store was the perfect place to sell his collectables.
“Since I was born, I have liked business,” said Mr. Diaz. His mother who owned a small shop in El Salvador selling chickens and household items modeled shop keeping to him. He learned to fix watches and jewelry from his uncle.
In recent years business has been challenging due to the cost increase of rent and supplies.
“The neighborhood has not changed much,” says Mr. Diaz. “Asian businesses are moving in but the amount of foot traffic has stayed constant.”
Many customers tell Mr. Diaz he should purchase a larger store space, but Mr. Diaz does not mind the tight quarters. “Sometimes it’s hard working in a small space, but it helps to keep our cost down, because we would have to increase the cost for our services.”
An average battery replacement cost about $6 compared to $12-$15 at other repair shops.
To help with the store’s income Mr. Diaz attends flea markets. Every Sunday Mr. Diaz sets up a booth at the Alemany Flea Market at 5 a.m. He says he does not make much money at the flea market, but it gives him a chance to purchase items.
Mr. Diaz stopped traveling to the Santa Cruz Flea Market a few years ago because of the long hours and commute away from his wife, three kids, and five grandchildren on Sundays.
From time to time Mr. Diaz donates items he purchases in bulk from state sales such as silverware, cups, clothes, to a care home for abused women and their child in the city.
They previously owned a second watch and jewelry repair store called Attic Treasures in San Bruno but closed it after 15 months due to a lack of revenue.
About 16 years ago the business suffered greatly after a burglary and the devastating loss of money and gold stolen when Mr. Diaz was held up gunpoint.
“The first thing I was thinking about was my wife and the kids,” Mr. Diaz said. “I’d rather lose something than a life.” It took Mr. and Mrs. Diaz a while to rebuild the business.
For nearly half a century the watch and jewelry repair store has remained family owned. Ever since she can remember, Elizabeth Diaz, 25, the youngest daughter, was always at the store helping her parents.
“If I was not in school I was here,” she said. “It’s a family businesses I have to be here.” Elizabeth attends junior college at City College of San Francisco in hopes to transfer to become a licensed nurse. She comes to the store between classes to help her parents with tasks they cannot do such as dusting tops of shelves.
She says her dad is aging and her mother suffers from arthritis in her legs. “But my dad will not retire,” she said. “He’s always working; he does not know how to relax. He will not stop until he is forced to.”
The Diaz siblings plan to take over the business when their parents retire, because they would be sad to see it close with three generations of family members coming for watch repairs.
“We cannot go any where in the neighborhood without being stopped by customers in the streets saying hello or starting a conversation,” Elizabeth said. “My parents are famous.”
Many loyal customers rely on them for repairs, friendship, and an amiable face to visit in the neighborhood.