A Modern tragedy

Important progressive bookstore and gathering place facing closure

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SF Examiner photo by Cindy Chew

news@sfbg.com

After more than 40 years in San Francisco, the progressive independent bookstore Modern Times may have to close its doors in the near future, but not before issuing one final appeal for help from the community.

In the 1990s, Modern Times managed to survive chain retailers' predatory business strategies and cheap prices. More recently, it was able to withstand changes in the industry due to the increasing popularity of e-books and online retailers. More than half of the independent bookstores in the country shut down between 1990 and 2011.

This time, the threat is local: the gentrification and eviction crises that are on so many San Franciscans' minds these days.

"Our rents on Valencia Street, where we were for 20-some years, kept going up," explains Ruth Mahaney, the senior member of the collective that runs Modern Times. "When our most recent lease was up in 2011, the landlord wanted to raise it by over $1,000 a month, probably $2,000."

The bookstore had already been functioning at a loss for years because of its continually rising rent and other factors. There was no way it could afford such a massive rent increase, so Mahaney and her associates moved deeper into the Mission to their current location on 24th and Alabama streets.

"It's been lovely," Mahaney says of the new location. "People in the neighborhood have been really welcoming. We have much better rent and a great landlord. We're getting new customers and younger people. So we're really happy there."

Unfortunately, the bookstore has continued to function at a loss, albeit a much smaller one.

"Since we've moved, I think a lot of people haven't found us again, so we're not as much a center of activity as we used to be," Mahaney speculates. "I think a lot of our old customers thought we closed."

Progressive hub

Modern Times first moved to the Mission District in 1980, nine years after the bookstore opened as an all-volunteer collective project responding to "the hopes and passions" of the '60s. In the '70s, it was a resource for political activists striving to make progressive changes for social justice in the US. But by the '80s, the nation's political and economic climate had changed. If it wanted to survive, Modern Times would have to change as well.

The bookstore broadened its focus to meet the literary needs and interests of progressive people and the Latino community. It developed the city's first broad selection of Spanish-language literature and non-fiction. It was among the first bookstores in San Francisco to feature feminist and queer sections. From poetry readings to its Fall Zine Expo showcasing local artists, the variety of events it has hosted over the years made Modern Times a gathering place.

Mahaney and her associates have many ideas for how to make Modern Times a vibrant community space again, from new books to expanded lighting and more comfortable reading chairs.

"We want to make it more of a place for people to hang out and have meetings and events," she explains. "We want to have all sorts of new events, not just readings. We've been remodeling and we have a wonderful space in the back now that works really well for small things. We just need people to find us again."

Before this new vision of Modern Times can be realized, it will have to find some way to get rid of the debt it incurred trying to pay the rents on Valencia Street.

"We're hoping to raise $60,000 by the end of January," Mahaney states. "We need more than that ultimately, but $60,000 will take care of a lot of the back debt and get us going so that we're on more stable footing. If we can raise that, I think we have a chance. We can make it on the kind of business we have at this point and earn the rest of what we need more gradually, but we need this push first."

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