In 1967 an unexpected and, one might say, “out-of-place” shop opened on 9th Avenue and Irving Street in San Francisco’s Sunset District. At a time when Irving Street was flourishing with family-owned businesses and restaurants, a scene of new cultural cuisines quickly started to appear, including classic and diverse influences. But with a vastly changing neighborhood comes a fading past. One store in the midst of change refuses to succumb to gentrification and humbly awaits intrigued customers with open arms.
Nestled between a yoga center and a seafood restaurant is the Oriental Art Gallery, run by an adoring woman, Su Lee. With the overflow of new designer clothing brands, hipster coffee shops, restaurants, and knick-knack stores, the pit stop can’t be missed during your next food tour of the area.
After a meal, a step into this shop leaves you with a feeling of nostalgia and wonder. Every inch is covered in pins, vintage memorabilia baseball cards, skulls, classic action figures, and tiny glass ornaments. It will take a moment to look at everything but every trinket is truly one of a kind.
Lee credits her immense collection of pins to a variety of sources, including a close friend. “He travels and brings back pins for me,” she says. When customers ask for certain pins, she’ll also go out of her way to get them. “Avocado pins are really popular right now.”
Despite the abundance of pins online (like the avocado and summer fruit pins, taco hot sauce set, and coffee and sweets set featured above), certain styles and vintage options have become increasingly rare. “Pins are hard to find now because people who make them are retiring,” says Lee.
Certain pins can only be found at her shop and hold a rich history. One of her favorites is made by artist Josh Ellingson, featuring Lee herself behind the counter and extending a heart-shaped variety.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, before selling pins and other collectibles, Oriental Art Gallery mostly sold scrolls and calligraphy supplies. As Lee’s collections of pins began to grow, her shop underwent a slight makeover, but her business has remained true to its own idiosyncratic self for the past 50 years, and there seems to be no pressure in changing or moving now.
“My store has been here a long time compared to the other ones around here,” says Lee.
Irving Street is an underrated food scene, as well. The area has many gastronomic delights that blend old with new. Pasquale’s pizzeria, for example, has been on the corner of 8th Avenue and Irving since 1942, while trendy establishments like Lemonade have just opened their doors to a modern-seeking public.
And still, the Oriental Art Gallery has weathered the changes and not only survived, but thrived. It’s the hidden treasure of the area, whose history is preserved in its every nook and cranny, every friendly greeting, and every unique pin.
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Header image courtesy of Josh Ellingson.