Gaslight & Shadows owner Phyllis Nabhan may be an expert when it comes to selling antiques, but she also knows a thing or two about generosity.
Since opening her store in the mid-'70s, she's learned a thing or two about countless categories of vintage valuables, and she's happy to share her deep well of knowledge with anyone who's interested. However, one of the greatest stories she has is her own, and how her business came to be.
A true San Franciscan, Nabhan was born at Children's Hospital in 1947, and attended San Francisco public schools every step of the way, from Parkside Elementary all the way up through San Francisco State College, from which she graduated in 1969.
Just after college, Nabhan went traveling through Europe with a friend, a trip that served as her gateway to the importing business.
An art major in college, Nabhan decided that while she was traveling, she'd design a dress made from fabric she'd found. That ultimately led to a clothing line, named "Phyllis Nabhan," that was eventually carried by Macy's and other department stores downtown. At just 21 years old, Nabhan had successfully entered into international trade, but that was just the beginning.
In addition to her clothing line, Nabhan was also importing hundreds of sheepskin coats that she and her friends had made in Afghanistan. As a result, she regularly visited Kabul from 1970 to 1973, where she began buying antiques from the city's countless thriving markets and shipping them back to the US. Nabhan would meet the shipments as they came into port in San Francisco, turning around and selling them to the antique stores in the city.
In 1973, a coup occurred in Afghanistan, and Nabhan and her associates became stuck in San Francisco, their supply chain cut short. Unable to get new shipments, Nabhan began buying and selling to and from various antique stores in the city. Her years doing business on the ground in the Middle East had given her a unique eye for valuable items, and she would broker deals between shops for items they were looking for.
This work, along with selling at local flea markets, eventually prepared her to open her own shop, which she did in 1976. She initially stocked her entire inventory with the contents of an old house, which had recently been purchased by a close friend.
The first location of Gaslight & Shadows was actually at 17th and Clement, but after a few years of success, Nabhan said her landlord stepped in, raising the rent from $350 a month to $1,000, and then to $2,000, all in a relatively short period of time. Luckily, her current storefront at 25th & Clement became available in 1980, and she's been there ever since.
Nabhan's altruistic tendencies extend beyond her retail purview: She's volunteered as a fitness instructor for the YMCA for decades, and is on the board of the Pamakid Runners, a running club that donates thousands of dollars to various charities each year. She also coordinates volunteers for The Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon and the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge.
"I do anything and everything to help other people, because it makes me feel so much better than taking from somebody," she said.
At Gaslight & Shadows, she's probably most well-known for her collection of vintage Bakelite jewelry. "I've always loved it, since I was a little girl. My aunt used to wear these colorful bracelets," she told us. "I've always loved Bakelite jewelry—it's amazingly fun jewelry, and people actually come from all over the world to by Bakelite."
Nabhan said that she's able to source the store's wide variety of other items from collectors, who approach her with their items or ask for them to be placed on consignment. Decades of experience have given her a keen eye for authenticity, and people in the antique community know she's the real McCoy. "I've been here for 40 years—I don't have to go anywhere anymore," she told us. "In fact, I also get paid to work for a liquidator, putting price tags on antiques and jewelry."
After all this time, Nabhan told us that the most valuable lesson she's learned in her career is to have to have a passion for what you do. "I have a passion for this. I love coming here, I love talking to people, I love the merchandise, I love displaying it, I love everything about this store—except the income tax."
Never miss a story.
Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.