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The exterior of a Bernal Heights cottage has a heart-shaped vertical planter near the front door.
The green living starts at the front door of Ken and Amy Shelf's Bernal Heights home.
Patricia Chang

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Shelf Life: a Succulent Existence in Bernal Heights

A couple changes their life, and their house transforms with them

Back in 2007, Ken Shelf was an accountant and a musician looking for more. His wife, Amy Shelf, inadvertently found his calling on online. "At the time, I had a serious Craigslist habit. I was always checking to see what was for sale in the neighborhood," she says. "One day, I found a post about the local video store, Four Star Video, being for sale. When I emailed it to Ken, I thought I was sharing a piece of community gossip, he took it another way."

The Shelf family had been friendly with the owner of the video store before he died. David Ayoob was often in front of his business, sweeping up and greeting the neighbors. "He was a community character. When I read that the business and building were up for sale, I thought 'I could be that guy,'" says Ken.

Borrowing every penny ("Back then, you could do that," notes Amy), the couple purchased the building at 420 Cortland Avenue. The days of video rentals at a brick and mortar store were waning, and from the beginning they were planning the next phase. When Darcy Lee, the owner of Heartfelt down the street, suggested they start selling succulent plants out back, a new business was born.

Amy came up with the name Succulence to honor the richness of life, and for this couple, it's an idea they take home with them after the store closes. The store, the neighborhood, and their family are inextricably woven into the into the nearby Victorian cottage they own on a short street that's quintessentially Bernal Heights; in other words, it's on a narrow, hilly passage where each crest hosts a scenic city view.

As a law student, Amy lived on Bernal Heights and fell in love with the neighborhood. "It felt like home to me, it was where I wanted to be," she says. When she and Ken moved here from Santa Cruz, he took one look at the view from the top of Bernal Hill and felt the same way. After bouncing around the city for a bit and starting a family (son Huck and daughter Trudy), they purchased the Victorian they currently call home. "I wanted it from the moment I stepped out on the back deck," says Ken. "I knew it was the one. Amy was down in the yard talking to the real estate agent, and I was up above desperately trying to signal her and let her know I loved it without tipping the agent off."

The first thing the couple did is add a mud room and a washer and dryer in the front entry. "We are from the East Coast, and that is relatively common in old houses," Amy says. "And with two kids, it made sense."

A wall separating the dining room and a family room came down, making a large open space. "Color meant a lot to Amy, so I let her choose all the colors in the house, at that time" says Ken.

At first, the parents slept upstairs and the kids shared a room downstairs. As the kids got older, they swapped places, with the kids taking rooms at each end of the upper level and the parents taking the room on the lower level. The original kitchen, which Ken describes as "funky" was remodeled with modern cabinets, stainless steel countertops, and a professional range. "Cooking and entertaining are very important to us, and having a good kitchen is key for that," says Ken.LTAt this time, they repainted, and it was Ken's turn to take the color palette lead. "I wanted to do dark, rich colors," he says, indicting the cobalt blue walls in the family room and an amethyst-hued hallway.Later, they redid the kitchen. The original cooking space was described as "funky" and they replaced it with light-colored cabinets, stainless steel countertops, and a professional-grade range. "Cooking and entertaining are important to us, and these things made it a lot more possible," says Ken.They painted again, and this time Ken got to pick the colors. He went bold, selecting a deep cobalt blue, a dark amethyst, and a bright yellow.

The richly colored walls set off the couple's artwork. "Our guidelines for art are the same as our guidelines for buying accessories for the store," says Ken. "We buy pieces that we can't stop thinking about and we can't live without." The artwork includes everything from a large oil painting of a tiger lady standing on two legs to a quiet watercolor showing the Italian countryside.

The other art is of the living variety. Plant assemblages start with a vertical garden in the shape of a heart hanging near the front door and continue all the way to the backyard, where a fence acts as a vertical planting bed. The Shelves say succulent gardening has been a part of their lives since they joined forces, and their home is something of a laboratory for the store. Ken's job title at the store is lead cultivator, and he writes that he has planted everything from teapots to bicycle rims. In the house, mini gardens live in pots, jars, and even a wine glass.

When asked if they plan to stay in the house and in the neighborhood for the long term, the answer is an unequivocal yes. "The first day I walked to the top of Bernal Hill in 1996, my heart was filled with joy," says Ken. "To this day, I still feel that."

And has he become the neighborhood merchant and character he wanted to be? "I'm a version of that," he says laughing. "My kids are often frustrated because it takes me a long time to leave the store and get home. I have to stop and talk to everybody."

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