© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sights and Sounds of Central Market: Piper’s Jewelers

Al Choi manages Piper’s Jewelers on Market Street.
Photo courtesy of the SF Arts Commission
Al Choi manages Piper’s Jewelers on Market Street.

Over the past few months, we’ve been taking you back to San Francisco’s Mid-Market – all the way back to when this busy stretch of street was a hub of activity and entertainment. We started in the ‘20s at the Warfield Theater, and then turned back the clock on Hibernia Bank to the late nineteenth century. And now, we take you all the way to the 1960s when Piper’s Jewelers first opened between 6th and 7th Streets.

Today, the neighborhood is a tableaux of transition: People in residential hotels getting their lives on track, new businesses starting up, and artists decorating vacant storefronts. But at Piper’s Jewelers, time seems to stand still. Reporter R.J. Lozada has this story.

R.J. LOZADA: When you walk into Piper’s Jewelers, you’ll find clocks of all sizes and types. Huge faces that tick-tock and chime, but oddly enough, not in synchronicity.

AL CHOI: We have a range of time pieces, anything from a simple watch like a Seiko, up to luxury watches like Burberry, TAG Hauer, antique wristwatch, a Patek Philippe.

The walls are covered in surprisingly well kept red and gold wallpaper, which has been there since Ralph Piper opened the store in the ‘60s.

CHOI: We've actually known Piper's for a few decades. We met Mr. Piper, and then the ‘89 earthquake came.

That’s Al Choi. He’s been managing the shop since Mr. Piper retired. In addition to Al, Al’s mom (who I’ll call Mrs. Choi) resides in a nook at the rear of the store, looking over paperwork and sipping tea. Mr. Choi sits behind a small watch repair station near the cash register.

CHOI: My father had over 40 years of experience in doing the repairing of timepieces. He started when he was only 12 years old. And he followed a master and he just worked his way up. And If you throw any timepiece at him, he can repair it.

With a collection that dates back to the 1920s, looking at the watches in Piper’s is like looking at a set of curated timepieces in fashion history.

CHOI: You can kind of see the transition between like the people's taste and style from the sense of ‘20s all the way up to modern time. You notice some of the watches from the earlier days were smaller. And throughout history, our watches have gotten bigger and bigger. Some of the ladies' pieces back in the day were as small as this here. So, it's almost like a pea sized watch.

The store has jewelry and antique coins.

CHOI: This is an 1870 S American Gold Eagle $10 coin. It was minted here, right here in San Francisco. The mintage was only 8,000 and that’s a very small mintage. LOZADA: Wow, and how exactly did you come by this coin? I mean, you don’t pick that up off the street? CHOI: (laughs) Indeed, yes, this was one of Mr. Piper’s coins and he gifted it to me during my high school graduation. So, it's been staying in the shop ever since and anybody who wants to look at it you can come in and look at it... LOZADA: But you can't buy it. CHOI: But you can't buy it.

A store where you can’t buy items that are on display – it’s a funny quirk of Piper’s. But as Al says, “The value of an item is the eye of the beholder.” And to him, some items are just too valuable to sell.

But this archiving of items, be they coins from the nineteenth century or watch parts, makes the store invaluable.

CHOI: We carry an extensive stock of parts that are no longer made, no longer built from the factories because we've been in the business for so long.

In fact, Mr. Choi was brought in to repair the clock of the bell tower of Old St. Mary's Cathedral.

CHOI: The clock is over 150 years old. Axel was broken, bushing was broken. No parts for these clocks, no replacement parts. Everything done by hand, axels redone...

But to Mr. Choi, it was another day of work. Twiddling with the small gears at his repair station or refurbishing the clock in one of San Francisco’s designated landmarks.

CHOI: It’s easy for him because he’s been doing for over 50 years, handmade. And that's one of the magic of mechanical timepieces can always be restored and last for centuries. Now if something breaks, can’t replace it... LOZADA: What year was this again? CHOI: 1850s. LOZADA: And then the repairs, when was that? CHOI: God, I don't even remember what year it was. See, when you're in the shop months can pass away and it feels like weeks and days. It was a long time ago, but it just feels like yesterday.

It was a different yesterday too, as Al describes:

CHOI: We've been in here for so long. And we've seen the different transformation of Market Street, from a classy high-end place where people used to wear hats and women wore dresses, into a place where it's so casual now. Back in the days, Mr. Piper was also very active and very passionate about this area, keeping it clean. He was very involved with the city, with the police commission, the Mid-Market Association. Definitely, we'd like to see this place getting cleaned up again, so that it will look like a world-class area again.

Or would that just be traveling back in time?

Sights and Sounds of Central Market was produced by the San Francisco Arts Commission and is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. R.J. Lozada reported this story, with sound design by Stephanie Foo. Robynn Takayama was the executive producer. To learn more about The ARTery Project and the Sights and Sounds of Central Market, click here