San Francisco’s 44-year-old progressive bookseller, Modern Times is in trouble. Again. After three moves, one displacement, many attempts to bolster the business, and 44 years of service to the progressive community, the store has reached a crossroads. As its longest standing member and primary stakeholder, Ruth Mahaney, prepares for retirement, the store’s legacy as a left wing arts and cultural institution hangs in the balance. Unless, that is, it can successfully reorganize.
“Our original fantasy of the store was to be an arm of the progressive movement,” says Mahaney from behind the counter of what in essence, after years of sweat equity invested, is her bookstore. “But we are non-sectarian. I think what we’re most proud of is that we’ve stayed on good terms with just about every group out there.” Mahaney is the face of Modern Times; an educator, an activist, and a bookseller, there will be no replacing what she’s delivered to her communities. Though what concerns the workers, the store’s membership, and regular customers is what the future of Modern Times will look like, without Ruth, when and if the store changes hands. Ideally, it will continue to serve as a beacon in the necessary present day struggles for civil rights, equality and justice. The staff would like to become owners and rebuild a cooperative; it’s presently seeking resources through a micro-loan. Though pending the next lease negotiation, a rent hike would force the doors of Modern Times to close, leaving San Francisco with one less specialty bookstore. That is why it seeks you.
You are a person who wants to watch the store grow, who is not content to let a cultural institution die. You are someone who knows communities need bookstores and in particular, San Francisco’s progressive community needs a center, a gathering place, a resource to educate its next generation of change-making idealists. You know there is another James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Randy Shilts, Junot Díaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Alison Bechdel out there, awaiting discovery, relying on their bookstore. They are reading and writing right now, preparing to become a writer, a journalist, a cartoonist, a playwright, and intend to do good with their work. You also believe in free thought and expression and aspire to create or foster it yourself. Your expression could be a bookstore, a community business, a way of giving back and offering to others what was so freely given to you. You are in essence, a savior. To the remaining employees, you could be our visionary leader (though we promise to accept you as an equal) and a partner.
Some of you remember the standing-room only events and lines out the door at the Valencia Street store, the times Amy Goodman, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky celebrated new books with signings and talks. Others know well the 24th Street location where Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Avotcja and Genny Lim return again and again to read and perform, or as home to the beloved monthly Queer Open Mic night. I will never forget the panel discussions on displacement and the arts we had, like the night Japanese internment camp survivor and poet Janice Mirikitani led a discussion on homelessness: She and her husband, the Rev. Cecil Williams, left with a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And then there was the night folk singer Jim Page spontaneously composed a song about the place: “Now in these modern times…you need some place to go… a community bookstore.”
Modern Times opened in 1971 in a storefront located at Sanchez and 17th Streets, technically the Castro on the Mission border. In 1980 it moved to the Mission proper, and in 1991 expanded to Valencia, the location people seem to remember most. For 20 years while the street slowly grew into what it is now, Modern Times grew too, until it could no longer withstand the rent commanded there. In 2011, the store moved to its present location at 2919 24th Street/Calle 24, above Bryant and below Harrison, on the lower end of the historic Latino Cultural District, where it joins Mission strongholds like the Brava Theatre, Galería de la Raza, La Palma Mexicatessan, St. Francis Creamery, and La Victoria Bakery (historic Roosevelt’s Tamale Parlor has since closed). History tells us the building that houses the bookstore was once China Books, distributor of Maoist literature, and the exact location where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale bought their stock of Little Red Books to sell at Sather Gate for the purpose of funding a then-new Black Panther Party. The building is painted with “A Bountiful Harvest,” the first-ever commissioned mural on the street, commemorating cultural exchange between China and the US in the ’70s. These days the store sells boxes of A is for Activist, Between The World and Me, and Decolonize Your Diet, among other lesser-known titles, like Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg.
Certainly peace activists, racial justice, and gender equality leaders, anti-police terrorism demonstrators, prison abolitionists, environmentalists, tenant’s and immigration rights advocates and labor organizers cannot fathom a world without a resource like Modern Times. There are a number of people holding public office right now in the City of San Francisco and the State of California who owe a part of their political education to the store and the books it holds. And while city agencies have offered business consultations, the store’s present model is unsustainable, though Modern Times didn’t need a business evaluation to reveal that analysis. A store with the community mission and values of Modern Times does not exist for profit and cannot compete in an environment that is hostile for small arts, cultural, and community serving businesses, the kind that serves everyday as well as not-so-ordinary people.
“We’ll carry everybody’s out-there stuff,” laughs Mahaney. “Except Rush Limbaugh. We don’t censor, we just don’t carry him.” In other words, no hating. And yet, this bookstore, an entirely secular entity that prides itself on not belonging or endorsing any religious or political ideology stands strong in one core belief: We are all equal under the sun. It is here that I perhaps awkwardly point out the mission of Modern Times is very closely aligned with that of the saint after whom our city was named — the one who cares for all creatures great and small. But while caring is no longer a common practice in town except by a small group of believers within faith communities and by those who work in non-profit and activist organizations, Modern Times despite being a business, does its best to celebrate and support the bottom one percent, to keep ideas like equality and justice for all, alive. For decades, it wasn’t such an unusual stance here, though today, the idea that San Francisco should serve as a sanctuary for outsiders has gone as stale as yesterday’s batch of artisanal donuts.
Please do not mistake this plea as an argument against artisanal donuts, technology, or progress: Anything that enhances the lives of all the people is ok by Modern Times. Sure ebooks and online sales have forever changed publishing, though in general, small independent bookstores are thriving (the American Bookseller Association continues to report a steady uptick in sales among indies). But small business in San Francisco suffers under a different weight, one of crushing rents and a lack of commercial controls for community-serving institutions. It is why we organized the United Booksellers with Alley Cat, Dog Eared and Adobe Books, with more stores soon joining us in the effort to preserve our literary and cultural history (along with…erm…literacy). Buying books from your favorite local retailer is only a part of the solution. Modern Times and bookstores like it need public and private support. Modern Times wishes to reorganize its cooperative structure and it needs operating funds while it reorganizes. It ultimately should acquire a building or permanent home where its rent is stable and its community services, including bookselling, can be conducted without the daily stress of meeting its basic overhead needs. If it sounds like a Utopian dream, it just might be, but then we are the people of Modern Times. We hope you are too.