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Need Some Fake Eyelashes Along With Your Light Bulbs? This San Francisco Store Has Been Stocking It All for 83 Years

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Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

When Ernie Asten died in March, a piece of San Francisco history went with him.

Asten was the fourth-generation owner of Cliff's Variety, an-all-things-for-all-people retail institution that for 83 years has embodied the Castro neighborhood's joyful, anarchic spirit. It was Ernie who, in the mid-1970s, worked with Harvey Milk--California's first openly gay elected official--to unite an upstart group of gay business owners with the local merchant association that had initially rebuffed their membership.

Asten's wife Martha, who has kept the books at Cliff's for more than 50 years, recalls sitting in on an early meeting of the gay merchants' group at the invitation of the owner of The Gilded Age, a local antiques store. She insisted Ernie attend the next one. "He thought the separation was ridiculous," she says. "He said, 'Why? We're all working toward the same things.'"

Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, a year after his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was a founder of the new group. After Ernie was elected president of the older association, they partnered to merge the two. Milk's camera store was a block from Cliff's. To this day Cliff's, along with other neighborhood merchants, creates window displays honoring Milk on his birthday.

On other days, the store's windows have reflected its more whimsical character. For years a soap opera unfolded behind the glass starring two drag queen mannequins: Anita More and Wanda Rollover. Cliff's' Halloween displays--featuring animatronic elements built by Asten and, earlier, by his grandfather Ernie DeBaca--are locally famous, if occasionally controversial. "One year we did The Exorcist with the girl in the bed and her head spinning around," Martha says. "We upset people because we had a cross on the wall. We got some Christian groups protesting."

But Cliff's Variety isn't in business to change the world, or even to entertain........

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