Future of Historic Camera Shop Uncertain
Passersby notice the closure signs on Given Gifts, the most recent occupant
of the now-vacant 575 Castro St. (photo: Bill Sywak)
By Strange de Jim
One day, like many customers before him, movie director Gus Van Sant strolled into Given Gifts at 575 Castro St. and asked a lot of questions about Harvey Milk and the store, his former camera shop. Two months later, Focus Features called and negotiated for use of the store as the main set for “Milk.” Given closed for six weeks in 2008, and owner Nick Romero ended up with some interesting memorabilia.
Unfortunately for Nick, the declining economy forced his gift shop to close its doors on March 28. Now, as tourists pass the former location of Castro Camera, they see a “For Lease” sign and a note of gratitude from Given to its loyal customers. But the story behind the storefront goes beyond its facade.
Harvey Milk, a closeted gay Republican working on Wall Street, became friends with Tom O’Horgan, director of “Hair,” and turned into a hippie. Harvey and his lover Scott Smith moved to San Francisco in 1973 and opened Castro Camera at 575 Castro St. Harvey immediately visited all the other stores and impressed the owners by asking about them instead of trying to sell them cameras. Soon everyone from gay teens to little old ladies was coming into the store to talk about their problems with the gregarious Harvey, who quickly became the unofficial “Mayor of Castro Street.”
When he discovered the Eureka Valley Merchants Association wouldn’t accept gay members, Harvey joined with the folks at Cliff’s Variety to start the rival Casto Village Association, which held the first Castro Street Fair in 1974, attracting 5,000 visitors.
Allan Baird, the Teamster official in charge of the Coors boycott, asked Harvey for his help, and Harvey got Coors banned in almost all the gay bars in California. As a result, Harvey became the first openly gay candidate to be endorsed by the Teamsters, firefighters and construction worker unions. Castro Camera became full of burly union men working alongside drag queens as Harvey ran again for Supervisor in 1975 and for State Assemblyman in 1976, losing, but garnering an impressive number of votes.
In 1977 candidates ran in their own districts, rather than competing citywide, and Harvey swept the Castro to become the first openly gay male to win a major public office in the United States. During his tenure, he sponsored a Gay Civil Rights Bill, which Mayor George Moscone signed with a lavender pen, and helped defeat a bill that would have banned gay teachers in public schools.
After Harvey was assassinated in 1978, most of his ashes were scattered at sea, but a small portion were buried under a plaque in the sidewalk in front of 575 Castro. On July 1, 1998, Mayor Willie Brown dedicated a mural of Harvey Milk on the wall above his old shop.
Subsequently, a high-end gift store moved into 575 Castro St., and then The Skin Zone, selling lotions and potions of all sorts, took over for the next 20 years, with a clerk named Jessica Clark, one of the first transsexuals, who transitioned without support from family or health insurance. The Skin Zone eventually moved online to skinzone.com.
Finally came Nick, who opened Given Gifts there April 1, 2007. Nick had moved to San Francisco from Albuquerque in 1996, becoming a clerk in the gift shop at the old de Young Museum. When the de Young was torn down, he became manager of the gift store at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and also helped design the gift store for the new de Young.
Given Gifts featured the work of over 40 artists and hosted a number of parties, the first being Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, 2007, with Cleve Jones, Dan Nicoletta, Allan Baird and many other friends of Harvey in attendance. Next came a number of artists’ openings. In September 2007, Given dedicated a mural by artist John Baden of Harvey’s torso surrounded by psychedelic flowers and a gun shooting a trail of smoke at him, with Harvey’s words, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”