Bell and Trunk Flowers, a Business Planted in Potrero Hill

in by

It’s been seven years since Vanessa Marlin took over Bell and Trunk Flowers, located on 18th Street. When asked to be interviewed by the View, Marlin accepted, with an invitation to dinner with her family. Her house, close to her business, is home to her teenage daughter, Elise Marlin, and Marlin’s fiancée, Krista Gaeta. Two very affable cats, Buddy and Fat Momma, complement the creatively designed and furnished loft. 

Over a meal prepared by Gaeta, Marlin relived the day she and Elise first saw Bell and Trunk Flowers, “I was unemployed at the time; I had just been laid off from the San Francisco Chronicle. I was trying to figure out my next move as a parent and in terms of employment. This was right before the recession and there weren’t that many writing jobs; people were getting laid off and I was trying to figure out what to do. Elise and I were exploring our new neighborhood and we walked past Bell and Trunk and there was this little sign in the window that said that the business was for sale.” 

Marlin smiled as she looked at her daughter, “We had always admired the shop and thought of it to be really cute. Elise, at nine years old, suggested I should buy the shop because, as she put it, it would be perfect for us. It gave me the flexibility that I really missed from working at the Chronicle and it allowed us to be immersed in our new neighborhood that we really love. I took her up on her suggestion and put in a bid for the shop, I bought it.” 

According to Malin, what attracted her to flowers was similar to her interest in journalism, “You really learn about people! With flowers, you almost have a reason to interview somebody. You have a reason to share stories. For the most part, people have a strong reason to buy flowers. There’s usually a very meaningful reason. I think I am very privileged to be involved in that reason.”

Since buying the shop Marlin has become ‘The First Lady of Potrero Hill,’ said Elise, though Gaeta and Marlin laughed at the mention of the nickname. “I was with Tracy, a friend of mine that used to live in the neighborhood,” recounted Marlin. “We were at Bloom’s for some drinks with Nigel, a fixture at that bar forever, as the bartender. There was this new guy who was getting to know the neighborhood. His first language is Italian so his English was a little rough at the time. Nigel introduced us, and the newcomer lighted up and said “Oh I’ve heard of you! You’re the fast lady of Potrero Hill!” Tracy and I were very confused. He was very adamant about it: “Yes! You’re the Fast Lady! The Fast Lady!” Nigel later told us that the newcomer meant to say ‘First,’ not ‘Fast’ and he was just mixing the two words up.”

Gaeta moved in with Marlin a couple of years ago.  She’s worked in social services for the past fifteen years, mostly at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, focusing on housing former homeless adults. Her work at the Clinic gained her recognition in The Huffington Post and the Chronicle. She left that position in May; last month she started her new job, as the director of programs for Homebridge, a Home Care Provider Gateway Program. 

“Our primary program is our in-home support services for elderly, frail and disabled adults,” said Gaeta. “These are folks who are still able to live in their homes with this additional support. Without this additional support, it would be hard for them to live independently and they would probably have to move into a higher-skill nursing facility. These nursing facilities are: one, really expensive and two, a lot of folks don’t want to do that, they want to stay in their homes with their communities, the people they know and feel a level of independence. It’s all really exciting; I am learning a lot.” 

Gaeta shifted to telling the story of how she and Marlin first met. “We were introduced!,” she recounted “I happened to have a longtime friend who married one of Vanessa’s friends. Vanessa had known that friend since their time in Mills College. Both my friend and her partner had been thinking for some time that we would be a good couple. The thing was that both of us were in relationships for a longtime until we were finally both single at the same time. They introduced us at a blind double date.”

“A double-blind date!” Marlin interjected, and the table fell into laughter. 

 “So we had a really great first date and I met Elise about a week later,” Gaeta continued. “Vanessa brought me over at the end of our date and Elise and a couple of her friends were here. What is funny is that one of her friends that lives very close to where I used to live, gave me a ride that day. We all became very close very fast. I think I came over the week after and I made butternut squash lasagna for all three of us…”

“I think I began warming up to you then, when you cooked,” Elise joked.

“That is when she fell in love!” her mom added.

Gaeta described the challenges she encountered in getting to know Elise, “I was a little puzzled at the time because I had never dated anyone with a kid before. I didn’t know what kids liked or did! So I brought over Easter egg stuff so we could dye some eggs. We made dinner, played charades and dyed some eggs. We kept getting along, and here we are. But then, we don’t, and then we do.” 

Disagreements tend to be resolved directly. “We’re very blunt about it,” Gaeta started. “Sometimes Elise wants to punch me and other times, I want to punch her. We tell each other exactly how we feel. It’s how we love each other.” 

“Yes ‘you’re making me mad right now’ is how it goes,” Elise nodded. “Then she says, ‘You’re making me mad too.’ Then we walk away and forget it. We manage a lot together.”

Now seventeen, Elise starts her senior year at San Francisco University High School this fall. She loves to sing. “I remember I used to waddle around in diapers, attempting to sing,” Elise said. “I’ve done a lot with it, knowing it’s something I want to continue to pursue for the rest of my life. Whenever I’m really stressed out, it relaxes me. A big influence and inspiration on me has been my grandfather, as he is extremely musical. My first performance was with his band in the Rhythm House, a music venue in Pennsylvania, when I was nine years old.” 

Elise has performed with a number of local singers, such as Joe Rosato and King Sol. Her school band has performed at the Great American Music Hall.  This summer she’s interning with the Oakland-based Parish Entertainment Group, which owns several Bay Area concert venues. She also plans and directs “street crews” that advertise upcoming concerts throughout the Bay. “I want to study the music business in college, and plan to audition for American Idol next year.” At her school, Elise excels at writing, both analytical and creative, and is known for her kindness and warmth.

Elise noticed that as she’s changed and grown from when she advised her mother to buy the shop, the neighborhood has stayed the same. “The shop has changed with us a bit. Even though my mom didn’t have much business experience before she took over the shop, she grew in figuring out what appealed more to the neighborhood. She wanted to maintain much of what the store was but at the same time altering other aspects. The shop has moved from where it was just flowers and small gifts to a network of big events.”

“Her business has expanded a lot, especially the events related side in the last year,” Gaeta nodded in agreement. “She has about thirty weddings in the books right now. She now does corporate events and parties for Google and other large tech companies. She’s taken into the level of art, beyond just a bouquet.” 

Marlin assists in fashion show productions throughout California, and is constantly attending to clients throughout the Bay Area. She supports artists by inviting them to help her design large-scale installations. She recently had Paul Olson, a local artist, rethink and redesign Bell and Trunk’s interior.

“Even though some of the neighborhood stores have changed, different merchants come and go; the vibe has stayed the same,” said Elise. “The crowd of residents has stayed consistent. Bell and Trunk still is very much the same too. When we first walked in, we noticed super strange and exotic flowers everywhere. She’s really stuck to that even though she’s had to be more involved in events outside the shop. The shop has stayed close to its roots, which is the spirit of neighborhood. By just keeping the name, the store has maintained its history and reputation.” 

“People who live in Potrero Hill are really dedicated to shopping locally and that is what makes the difference as a business owner,” said Marlin. 

The shop’s Yelp reviews are perennially positive, complimenting Marlin’s personality. Many of her customers describe dropping in just to say “hi.” Her wedding flower service is one of the most popular.  Soon she’ll begin planning for another very important wedding:  her own. 

“Planning for a wedding is stressful, but getting married to Vanessa is exciting,” said Gaeta.

“It’s just another way we’re going to reaffirm our love to each other,” Marlin beamed. “It’s a big symbol, in the form of a party of our love and commitment to each other.” 

“Our dynamic is not going to change,” said Elise. “I don’t think the wedding symbolizes this big bond we didn’t have before. However, there’s plenty of changes that will be coming along with the wedding: moving, starting new jobs, etc.” 

The three are planning to move to Oakland in the coming months, chased out of San Francisco by rising rents.  “We’d love to stay, but we’re leaving Potrero Hill because it’s too expensive,” said Gaeta. “That’s a sad fact for many people in this City. If you don’t make a tremendous amount of money, you can’t buy a house. The rent prices in this neighborhood have changed so much in such little time. Another sad thing about this is that Vanessa will just be at the shop less.”

“I owe much to Larisa Minerva, who is a designer at the shop,” said Marlin. “She holds down the shop most days. She’s made a huge difference for me, allowing me to do the bigger events, the fashion shows and other occasions. She’s now the one at the shop and she is talented and great with people.”

“Something I also think about is that we moved to the neighborhood out of necessity; we needed a place to live and we found it here,” said Elise. “Bell and Trunk gave us a place to be part of the neighborhood. The shop was the start of a whole network of neighborhood connections that will still exist even though we live across the Bay Bridge.”