High Bridge Arms, a gun shop in San Francisco, California, is located in a white stucco building on Mission Street, in the upscale neighborhood of Bernal Heights. There is a stunning park nearby, with massive red cliffs overlooking the city, and for the medically inclined, a marijuana dispensary down the street.
The store, which has operated quietly for decades, recently made the news when a city supervisor proposed a new set of requirements for firearms dealers in response to a series of violent crimes. The proposal mandates that city gun shops film all transactions and, on a weekly basis, send sales data to the San Francisco police. Blowback is not expected from the city’s firearms merchants. There is only one — High Bridge Arms — and it already follows many of these rules on its own.
“We already have 24/7 surveillance in and out of the building,” says Steve Alcairo, 41, the shop’s longtime general manager, referring to the proposals. He’s an easygoing man of Filipino descent, and he has no problem with regulations. “The ATF and the San Francisco Police Department can already walk in and ask for any information they want.”
The 1,200-square-foot shop has been in the same location since 1952. In 1987, it was purchased by a Japanese man named Andy Takahashi, who rechristened the store “High Bridge,” the English translation of his last name. Takahashi is approximately 5 feet tall, and in 1974 he was ranked the No. 2 powerlifter in Northern California. Now in his 70s, a picture hangs on the shop’s wall of him in his prime, deadlifting several hundred pounds. “He was pretty strong,” Alcairo says.
Not long after Takahashi bought the store, the city passed an ordinance preventing any new firearms dealers from taking residence in town. Like many other urban areas at the time, San Francisco was in the throes of a crack epidemic, and violent crime was rampant. In the following years, more laws were passed to crack down on gun violence. “The other stores got regulated out,” Alcairo explains. “They weren’t very diligent. Their guns were being recovered at crime scenes.”
One of the last shops to close was the San Francisco Gun Exchange, the largest dealer on the West Coast. When Alcairo recalls the place, he grows wistful. “It was the Waldorf of gun stores,” he says. “Very classy. They didn’t decorate the shop with camo netting.”
High Bridge gets along just fine with its neighbors in the paragon of liberalism that is San Francisco. The shop sells “a couple thousand” guns each year — semiautomatics and revolvers are the most popular — and, according to Alcairo, none of them has ever been tied to a crime. He supports progressive politics, and is proud of his city’s position as a leader in civil rights. He mentions a popular bar across the street called El Rio. “It’s a huge spot with the gay community,” he says. “We go there twice a month.”
In the decade Alcairo has worked as High Bridge’s general manager, he can recall only one negative experience. A woman from the neighborhood came in and made plain her feelings about the business. “She said, ‘I wish you would take your store back to Texas,’” Alcairo remembers. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m second generation in San Francisco.’” Now, a Texas state flag — a gift from a Texas sheriff — hangs in High Bridge Arms.
The sheriff was visiting the city on vacation and wanted to see San Francisco’s last gun shop. In fact, the store has become a lesser city landmark. Professional athletes, in town for a game, regularly walk through the front door. “But they don’t let us take their picture,” Alcairo says. “I can’t tell you his name, but one of the Yankees came in and bought one of our T-shirts. He said he was going to wear it during practice, so we gave him three.” The T-shirts say “High Bridge Arms” in Japanese characters, and then, underneath in English, it says, “San Francisco’s Last Gun Shop.”
A lot of the tourists who come by the store are from Europe. “We let them take pictures with rifles and handguns,” Alcairo says. “They always want to point them at each other, but we don’t let them.”
[Photo: High Bridge Arms]