Hilario DeBaca, a former merchant and schoolteacher from New Mexico, came out of retirement to open the business at 545 Castro Street. The shop was mostly a one-man operation with Hilario's granddaughter, Lorraine, helping out after school. Hilario named the store after his youngest son, Clifford. The store sold a variety of goods including magazines, cigars, sewing notions, greeting cards, toys, and candy.
Besides his son Cliff, Hilario and his wife Lena had four other children: Irene, Ernie, Eloy, and Estelle. It would be his oldest son Ernie, not the store's namesake Cliff, who would join in the business with his father. Ernie was born in 1903. From his earliest days Ernie was an entrepreneur. At the age of 14 he operated a horse-drawn popcorn wagon at baseball games in Arizona. At the age of 15 he entered an apprenticeship on the Santa Fe Railroad to be a boilermaker. In the early 1920's he worked on steam locomotives at the Santa Fe yard in Richmond, California. Ernie DeBaca went on to start a taxi service in San Rafael with four limousines. In 1921 he married Alice and later they moved to San Francisco, where he bell-hopped at the Wiltshire Hotel (now the Drake near Union Square). At this time he also formed a dance band called the Spanish Don's with his brother Cliff on tenor saxophone. Ernie played banjo in the five-piece band.
In the 1930's Ernie DeBaca operated Ernie's Repair Shop in San Francisco's Tenderloin. His business offered radio sales and service, lock repair, electrical and plumbing repair, welding, sheet metal work, and mechanical repairs. In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, Ernie and Alice bought a used Studebaker President, which they converted into a motor home. They closed the repair shop and with their daughter Lorraine they headed for The Chicago World's Fair. Ernie loaded the caravan with radio parts and in every town they stopped in along the way he would ask if anyone needed a radio fixed. In some of the small towns people brought him radios that hadn't worked in years.
After seeing the fair and a good slice of the country Ernie and his family landed in Los Angeles and without missing a beat he started up a small candy factory. A little while later they returned to San Francisco to open another repair shop. This was about the same time Ernie's father was opening Cliff's.