Stephanie Ernst Scott would be the first to admit that she has never fished a day in her life — a unique position to be in as the owner of a 62-year-old tackle shop.
After 45 years at Gus’ Discount Tackle, a fishing supply store in the Outer Richmond, Ernst Scott said that her one free day a week is better spent playing with her grandchildren. Besides, Ernst Scott admitted that she hardly has the patience for fishing anyway.
“I could never sit there,” Ernst Scott said, “you have to have the ability to sit, not my forte.”
Framed by over a thousand photos of customers and their fish, Ernst Scott sat smiling behind the counter of her tackle shop, restlessly waiting for her next customer to come in. It was a slow, cold morning in a city where the thickness of the fog often dictates the retail habits of the general public.
The photos that adorn the walls and ceiling, some new, some faded and curled from years in the sun, chart generations of San Francisco’s anglers. The smiling customers posing with their fish in these snapshots are doctors, teachers, hairdressers and lawyers. Ernst Scott pointed out not one, but two photos of customers in full wedding regalia at the store. One was recent – both the husband and wife wore masks.
The shop, a mecca for San Francisco fishermen, exists as a space that Ernst Scott said customers are free to talk about anything — from fishing to family. And while Ernst Scott may not have an affinity for the sport itself, she stays because of the fulfillment that she said she gets from the job.
“Merchandise is merchandise but this is just a great place that has a very emotional attachment to a lot of our customers,” Ernst Scott said.
General store turned tackle shop
Ernst Scott inherited the shop from her father, Gus Ernst, an Austrian Jew whom she said escaped from the Nazis via ski during the Holocaust before settling in San Francisco.
“He skied over the alps with the Gestapo shooting at him,” Ernst Scott said. “Saved his life, he knew how to ski.”
Like father like daughter, Ernst also didn’t fish. The shop first popped up as a general store in 1959 on Clement Street before moving to its current location — a former upholstery factory — on Balboa Street in 1961. Ask Ernst Scott, and she will point out the pipes running across one of the walls and the spot in the back that she figures must have once housed a boiler.
“This store sold everything but hot stoves and pets,” she said of the early days of her father’s store.
It was not until Ernst began to get more requests from his regulars for more fishing equipment that the store became more specialized. It started slowly, Scott said. Ernst would get asked to bring in more rods one day. The next it would be lines or hooks. To satisfy his customers’ demands, Ernst’s general store ended up becoming Gus’ Discount Tackle.
Felons to attorneys
Ernst Scott never envisioned herself running her father’s fishing shop.
Out of work in 1974 with a master’s degree in Communication Studies from SF State that she said was starting to feel increasingly useless, Ernst Scott felt stuck. Her father took her on as an employee out of the kindness of his heart, she said.
“Really useful in this world,” Ernst Scott said sarcastically of her degree, gesturing around the shop. “Teaching is the only application, there were no jobs.”
Forty-five years later, she said she couldn’t see herself doing anything else.
While waiting for her first customers of the day, she joked that normally, the people that come through the shop are much more interesting.
“I’m sorry that there can’t be more wackos for your story,” she said. “I have the best customers, 10 hours a day I’m dealing with the loveliest, soup-to-nuts customers in the world. They share their lives with you, come in for coffee, it’s like the old time general store.”
Ernst Scott sums up her customer base simply: she gets everyone from felons to the attorneys that represent them. She said that in the decades that she has worked there, she has seen generations of customers come in for their discount tackle needs.
One such customer is Chris Leong, a hairstylist whose father first brought her to the store around 30 years ago. She had stopped by Gus’ to drop off a gift certificate from her salon for Ernst Scott’s daughter (both her and her daughter get their hair cut by Leong) and they were in the process of showing each other family photos. Leong, along with her friend, Karen Fong, were back in the shop for the first time since the pandemic.
Leong said that since she was a kid, she has not seen much change in Gus’.
“She’s kept it like this where you get to dig out of boxes,” she said.
“Is Chris telling you I’m a bitch?” Ernst Scott said, interrupting from across the room.
Both women laughed before Ernst Scott took her on an impromptu tour around the store, showing her the old signage that was tucked neatly away in the rafters. Leong said that Ernst Scott was one of the main reasons she has kept coming back after all these years.
“It’s a family-owned business. It’s not a franchise, it’s not a chain — it’s personable,” Leong said.
“For her personality too,” said Fong, a non-fisherman who said she likes to accompany Leong when she visits the shop.
At the other end of the store, Chris Titus and his son Gage were poking through the store’s wares. Both in town for the day from Sacramento, the two were drawn in by the giant mural that covers the storefront depicting a fisherman casting his line over the doorway. Titus and his son, both fishermen, figured they had stumbled upon some like-minded people.
“I like these little mom and pop tackle shops,” Titus said. “I’d rather go somewhere like here than a big store like Bass Pro Shops.”
1,500 photos and counting
In the 10 years leading up to his death, Ernst Scott worked alongside her husband, Bill Scott, in Gus’ Discount Tackle, mainly running all the books, handling advertising and managing the store’s website.
He and Ernst Scott met at SF State while completing their undergrad and similarly to Ernst Scott, had trouble finding work upon completing his master’s in English.
Before helping Ernst Scott around the tackle shop, he had worked as the management information systems director at See’s Candy Company, as well as as a skylight designer.
One of his most important jobs, according to Ernst Scott, was a simple one – printing out and putting the customer photos on the wall. Before his death, Gus’ patrons could email their photos directly to the store to have them printed out and put up on the wall or ceiling, oftentimes as soon as the next day.
Nowadays, customers can still have their picture hung up, they just have to bring the photo in themselves. Ernst Scott, in contrast to her late-husband, is admittedly not technologically savvy. As of right now, there is not even a computer in the shop.
“I miss my husband for many reasons,” she said gesturing at the wall of photos, “just all the stuff he did in here.”
When businesses around the world began to close at the beginning of the pandemic, things began to look uncertain for the 62-year-old fishing institution. However, they were designated as an essential business and were permitted to remain open. Reflecting back to the beginning of lockdown, Ernst Scott said she does not know what she would have done if she had to close down.
“My husband died a month before Covid began, this and my family saved me mentally,” she said. “I would have gone mad as a hatter, we were together 50 years, so you don’t get over that anytime soon.”
A changing neighborhood
Kevin Lorne, a 65-year-old construction manager from West Marin said that he has been coming to Gus’ on and off for the past 20 years, making the point to stop in for tackle anytime he is in San Francisco for work. Over the past two decades, he said he noticed the neighborhood get fancier, but to him, Gus’ has not changed one bit.
“It’s small and has excellent service all the time,” said Lorne, gesturing to Ernst Scott, “and the prices are good.”
With COVID-19, Ernst Scott said that plenty of businesses in her beloved Richmond District closed down. Despite the changing neighborhood, she said she will always call the Outer Richmond her home.
“I love living here,” said Ernst Scott, “they’re gonna [have to] carry me out feet first.”
As far as retirement goes, she said that she has no intention of stopping anytime soon. Her daughter is a teacher, her son a chef, leaving only her young grandchildren, or the “geniuses” as she likes to call them, to take over the family business.
“I’m gonna stay here as long as I choose to,” said Ernst Scott. “I love it.”