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San Francisco Chronicle

Mark E. Sackett has an extraordinary collection of ordinary things in an old factory building on Howard Street in San Francisco. And he’ll be glad to sell some of it to you.

Sackett is the founder of The Box SF, which houses a curious collection of printed ephemera — material so ordinary that it was designed to serve a purpose and then be thrown away.

This was the stuff of everyday life: boxes, cigarette ads, bills and receipts. Labels from whiskey bottles, from fruit boxes, from soap boxes. Perfume labels, posters advertising circuses, patent medicines, 5-cent cigars, and all manner of things — even ear tags for goats.

The Box SF specializes in ephemera from another time, but ephemera is very much alive today — think of drink coasters from bars, daily restaurant menus, BART tickets, airline boarding passes, political ads, even today’s newspaper. It all reflects the present. By tomorrow, a lot of this stuff will be part of the past. Better save this column. It could be a collector’s item. You never know.

Sackett does know what he wants. “I aim for a museum-like experience with everything for sale,” he said. “You can touch it, feel it, take it home.”

His place at 1069 Howard used to be a printing plant in the days when San Francisco was the center of a large printing industry. Sackett bought the building 14 years ago and converted the ground floor into a replica of a 19th century general store, a kind of shrine to the art of printing.

New methods of printing and the internet have made the old styles pretty much obsolete, but Sackett admires the attention to detail that used to be standard. “Look at this,” he’ll say, holding up a bill or a receipt from a 19th century business. “Look at the engraving here, the fine lettering.”

Or he’ll open up a drawer to show a collection of labels from California fruit boxes — scenes of an idyllic West. Valleys filled with orchards, sailing ships, mountains, grand sunsets. Almost like travel posters.

“This is art,” Sackett said. “All these, even things like labels on cigar boxes, were hand-drawn by artists.” They were commercial artists, he said, but it was art nonetheless and should be valued.

And it is. Collectors like this material. Prices, of course, depend on the rarity of the item. He has a framed 19th century drawing lithographed on tin of “the largest factory in the world used exclusively for the manufacture of trousers.” For $2,800. It’s “the only one in existence,” he said.

Or perhaps one might like a chewing tobacco tin. Sackett held it up. “Beautiful,” he said. No rust.” The price is $300. If that’s too expensive, how about a never-opened box of Smith Brothers cough drops for $18? There are paper sacks intended for peanuts or popcorn, specially printed for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus. Only $3 a bag.

The lowest priced items are cardboard tops for milk bottles, used in the days when milk was delivered to your door and the bottle tops advertised the dairy. They are curiosities, but not rare. Sackett estimates he has 20,000 of these for sale, at 25 cents apiece.

Sackett is a big man, with lots of irons in the fire. He is a designer with a dozen other businesses. On the second and third floor of the Howard Street building are meeting spaces, favored, he said, by SoMa firms. “We had Twitter, Apple, people like that. Snoop Dogg had a meeting here the other day,” he said.

The centerpiece of one of his meeting rooms is a 335-year-old wooden table that once was part of a gate in China. But that’s another story.

His true love is collecting. He got started when he was a kid in Kansas City. While other boys were out playing baseball, he collected beer cans. There were a lot of different cans in those days, not to mention labels and ads, all collectible.

So Sackett got the bug, and when he grew up he went into the business. He got a faraway look in his eye. “I once paid $825 for a beer can,” he said.

The Box SF is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. The neighborhood on Howard near Seventh Street is still a bit sketchy, so the door is locked. To get in, call 415-602-9500. If the store is old-fashioned, Sackett is not. “I sell 80 percent of my material on Instagram,” he said.

—Carl Nolte