Originally published in the San Antonio Current
Donning matching black T-shirts that read, “On Main Off Main, Adiós Amigos, 1983-2016,” Bill Davis and Oscar Camacho are laughing while reminiscing about some of the more colorful customer exchanges they have had over the past 33 years of owning the quirky and eclectic On Main Off Main gift shop in Monte Vista.
“We had a lady who used to come in to buy Pop Rocks candy,” Camacho recalled while he and his partner of 40 years sat side-by-side in the back room amid naughty greeting cards featuring near-naked men and scantily clad women — tame by today’s standards. “One time she said to me, ‘You know what you can do with these?’ I said, ‘No. What?’ She said, “You put them in your mouth while giving your husband a (well, you get the picture). It’s enhanced our sex life.’”
Davis recounted the time during the early ’80s, when they had to keep the sexually provocative cards out of public display.
“The nude cards of men and women were kept in a binder behind the counter,” he said. “If you came in and wanted one of those cards, you would tell us the number of the card, and we would go to the filing cabinet and pull out the card you wanted.”
The two partners/business partners could go on and on about some of the amusing incidents and wonderful memories they have experienced since opening the doors of On Main in October 1983. But now, Davis, 74, and Camacho, 63, have decided it’s time to say “adiós amigos” and plan to close their gift shop at the end of January.
It’s not just that the couple desires to retire after working six days a week for more than three decades, but their decision to do so is in large part because of lagging sales since consumers have discovered the convenience of online shopping right at their fingertips.
Davis explained that the once-thriving gift and card shop first suffered a financial setback in 2008, when the recession hit. Their business dropped 40 percent and, for several months, he and Camacho weathered the storm.
“Just as business was beginning to come back, we kept hearing something creeping up behind us,” he said. “It was the internet. Online shopping has destroyed small businesses like ours. For instance, a customer can come in and see a book they want, take a picture of it with their phone, then go out to their car and order it. They’ll have it in three days at a cheaper price.”
Both admit, however, that despite their reluctant decision to hand in their keys, On Main Off Main has had a good run, probably more so than the two could have imagined.
Before the two ever met, Davis was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and working at the Driscoll Hotel during the 1960s. His boss was the head of housekeeping. Lady Bird Johnson, who ate there often with her daughters, was in need of a housekeeper at the White House. The first lady hired Davis’ boss, with whom she had struck up a friendship, and told her that she could bring an employee with her.
“I worked at the White House for five years,” said Davis, who was chief purchasing agent for food, wine and beverage. “My office was right across the hall from the kitchen. Everything had to be brought in by Secret Service. The first family couldn’t go out and shop. I was one of the couriers and shopped for them. I would go and get Howard Johnson’s ice cream for Linda Bird.”
After the Johnson administration ended, Davis moved to San Antonio to be near friends and relatives. Meanwhile, Camacho was a Burbank High School graduate who had earned a degree in business administration from St. Mary’s University. He had acquired experience in the retail industry selling clothes and shoes for Penner’s and Todd’s men’s stores while in college.
“I credit both of those stores for teaching me what I needed to know about retail,” Camacho said. “It gave me confidence about running a business when Bill and I opened On Main.”
Camacho was working for an insurance agency as an underwriter for national businesses when he met Davis at a Christmas party. (Yes, it was love at first sight, they say.) Later in their relationship, they began renting duplexes and fourplexes they had purchased. After five years, however, they realized that being landlords wasn’t for them. So they sold their properties and opened On Main at 2514 North Main Avenue.
“We copied it after a card shop in Dallas,” Davis said. “It was very high-tech with lots of steel and grid products, but San Antonio wasn’t ready for something like this at the time. After three years, we were starving.”
With lackluster sales, the shop owners knew they had to change their business plan and offer merchandise that no one else was selling. They began asking customers what they wanted to see sold in their store. They sold frozen yogurt, gift baskets, coffee and chocolates, which proved to be profitable.
However, it was a massive infestation of cockroaches — rubber cockroaches, that is — that proved to be a big hit with customers. “We couldn’t keep enough of them stocked,” Camacho said. “They were glued on to fly-swatters, chanclas and anywhere else people could put them.”
During Valentine’s Day one year, Davis purchased dozens of long-stemmed roses from a local wholesaler, plucked the flowers off, glued rubber roaches in their place and sprayed them with red glitter. “People kept coming in to ask for them,” he said.
They also started selling chocolate-covered strawberries years ago, which became an annual tradition until 2005. “The last year we sold them, I dipped 6,000 of them. I would start at 1 a.m. and finish around 6 p.m. We would sell them in a corsage box. People will come in until the very last minute asking if there were any left.”
At the height of its business success, customers from across the city poured in to purchase calendars, day planners, sexy lingerie, risqué cards for the clientele who demanded them, Christmas CDs, candy of all kinds, pasties, toys that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s, and, of course, the erotic birthday, holiday and anniversary cards that would have made Hallmark blush. “Bill and I wanted to put humor and our personality into the store,” Camacho said. We just wanted to have fun, but we always knew where to draw the line.”
In 1992, Abilene native Julie Bryan and her husband had just moved into Monte Vista and were eager to get to know their neighbors. She recalls hearing about On Main Off Main and meeting Davis and Camacho at one of the neighborhood Third Thursdays (or “Nosy Neighbor Night” as she jokingly calls it), in which residents and businesses invite people over for wine and food and get to know one another. She has been a faithful customer ever since.
“I buy things there that you can’t find anywhere else,” the 58-year-old real estate agent said. “They have awesome holiday accessories like really cool Halloween costumes. This year, I got a headband with a giant red spider on top. One year for Christmas, I bought a hat with a large present attached to the top.”
It’s true. Where else can you find Abraham Lincoln Christmas sweaters, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles Yellow Submarine lunch boxes, Wonder Woman wall clocks, floating prank poop, willy warmers, cat butt magnets, Psycho shower curtains, plastic squirrel garden solar lights, toilet-shaped coffee mugs, plastic Gumby and Pokey figures, Frida Kahlo scarves, scented soap, funky socks and their very own Oscar’s Choice coffee beans, which they are happy to grind for you.
It wasn’t always just the gag gifts or funky cards that drew Bryan to the store, she said. It was to go see “Bill and Oscar.”
“[On Main Off Main] is like the Cheers of the neighborhood,” she said. “They always have a wonderful Fiesta party and I’ve been to many of their Margarita Saturdays. They were also one of the first businesses to welcome dogs. My dogs would come with me and just lay on the carpet. If I had time on my hands, I would go in just to hang out for a while, and I’m not going to have that anymore.”
As for Davis and Camacho, Bryan declares that the two “are a Monte Vista institution. They are very much the fabric of the neighborhood. They will be terribly missed, but I do understand they want to have more time to themselves. Maybe I’ll see them out walking their dogs.”
Cathy Cummins, a Monte Vista resident for 43 years, was with her two young children, Michele and Thomas, when she drove by the store on Oct. 3, 1983, when the shop officially opened. She was their very first customer, who entered the front door that day. On Black Friday, she and her kids, now ages 43 and 41 respectively, stopped by On Main to do some Christmas shopping.
“Michele is taking it very hard. Oscar and Bill are like uncles to her,” said Cummins, director of the Reading Institute and the Enrichment Department at nearby San Antonio Academy. “They have been part of our family. They have even come to see Thomas’ art shows at Blue Star.”
Cummins said she has been buying holiday and birthday cards and gifts at On Main for years. On Black Friday, she bought $400 worth of gifts, including ornaments from Thailand, Frida Kahlo items and angel boxes from Poland, which she says she knows she can’t find anywhere else.
“I like the gag gifts, magic tricks and goofy hats, too,” she said. “Mr. [John] Webster (San Antonio Academy headmaster) used to get all of our gummy bears from them which he would pass out to about 340 boys every Friday. It’s really tragic to see them close, but they deserve time to themselves.”
On Main has also been a favorite of local celebs, such as Tommy Lee Jones and former Spurs stars David Robinson and Sean Elliott. “They have been some of our best customers,” Camacho said. “We used to do a lot of gift baskets for the Robinsons.”
The boys can boast that a Hollywood star wears their “Winter in Texas” sweatshirt, too. “Carol Burnett’s sister is a friend of ours,” Camacho said. “When Carol was in town for her show, we went to dinner with Carol and her sister. We gave Carol one of our sweatshirts. Her sister told us Carol still wears it.”
As the news of the store’s impending closure has slowly began trickling throughout the neighborhood, the phone at On Main has been constantly ringing from longtime customers who can’t believe it’s true.
“A lot of people are begging us not to close,” Camacho said. “Some have suggested that we run an online store. We’ve heard everything from ‘I never thought you would close during my lifetime’ to ‘You can’t close. It would be like the Alamo leaving San Antonio.’ Another one said, ‘Oh no. This is the passing of my youth.’”
When they’re out and about or at a restaurant, for instance, an unfamiliar face or two will often walk up to the owners and ask, “Do you remember me?”
“Sometimes I don’t,” Camacho said. “But I know it’s probably someone who went to Keystone or San Antonio Academy since a lot of those students used to come in here. Bill and I have seen four generations of kids from the neighborhood grow up. Sometimes parents with kids will say, ‘These are the owners of that shop I told you about’ or ‘He’s the candy man who I used to buy chocolates from.’”
These and so much more are the memories and experiences that Camacho, who was often the friendly face that greeted customers behind the counter, and Davis, who was more of the behind-the-scenes other half of the two and who took care of ordering products and paying the bills, will take with them.
The only time they faced a major crisis was in 2004, when their lease was up for renewal. Instead of caving in to the rent increase, the two owners decided to close shop. When Cecilia Garcia, who owns the building off Main Avenue at 120 West Mistletoe where the shop is currently located, caught wind of their plans, she came over to offer them space.
“We call Cecilia our guardian angel,” Davis said. “She saved On Main from closing.”
Dolly Holmes, a longtime customer and president-elect of the Monte Vista Historical Association, said Davis and Camacho will be missed. “They have been amazing business neighbors and friends,” she said. “They have also been great supporters of everything the association has done. We wish them the best in their retirement.”
Although it’s a bittersweet moment for the two, they have a bucket list they intend to check off: a vacation to Colorado, a trip to Niagara Falls and a train ride through Canada, among others.
“Having worked together for all these years has been a challenge,” Camacho said. “You have to be patient and compromising. But we’re looking forward to getting re-acquainted with one another.”
They owe a ton of gratitude, they say, to their past and present employees, who have helped them stay afloat all these years, specifically Tony Garcia, 41, who has been with them for 10 years. Garcia walked into the store to apply one day after seeing a “Help Wanted” sign in the window.
“I’m going to miss seeing our regular customers and people I have gotten to know through the years,” Garcia said on a late November morning after climbing down a ladder from hanging Christmas tree lights along the store front with the bright green “Merry Texmas” painted on the large glass windows.
On December 8, On Main hosted its last holiday open house, complete with music, margaritas and Frito pie. Come January, Davis and Camacho will hold a liquidation sale, where, as they say in the business, everything must go.
“If anyone wants a piece of On Main, come and get it,” Camacho said.