Perched on a wooden bench built into the salvaged redwood walls of the back room of Viracocha, surrounded by the Ourshelves lending library she’s created in the nook, the soft-spoken Kristina Kearns reads “literary heroine.” For Pete’s sake, she’s making literature that you can’t find at the library available to the masses in the heart of the Mission.
But also this: Kearns once worked in a small bookshop on the island of Santorini, Greece. She lived in the store, in fact, tending it while the owner was away during the off season. “That was when Greece started to fall apart,” she says. Political unrest made her stay untenable, so she flew back to the United States -- with very little funds to nurture her bibliophilic nature.
Our heroine is a fan of hard-to-find European authors. She points me towards a slim volume by Hungarian author László Krasnahorkai entitled Animalinside and speaks reverently of Scottish poet W.S. Graham. “He’s not even in print here,” she tells me disbelievingly.
To go from literally living amongst her favorite tomes to not being able to afford to read them at all must have been fairly heartbreaking.
“It’s hard to find international books in the library,” says Kearns, who recently scratched a cornea and couldn’t see print for six days. During that time she “realized I don’t love reading. I need reading.” She invokes Vonnegut’s theory of reading as occidental meditation, saying “It makes me a happier person.”
Even sadder than Kearns’ empty wallet was the general sense of doom she discovered in the publishing world.
“It was difficult to come back to the States and hear from authors that publishing is dead. It’s not! The history of books is long. What if we just try? What if we don’t complain and just try? Jonathan let me try, and I think that’s awesome.”
She had this thought: “one of the things we can do is flex our idea of what a bookshop is. Why do people go to bookshops in the first place?” Many people, she thought, have to be led to a good book -- and to be led, people have to trust their curator.
“Jonathan” is Johnathan Siegel, owner of Viracocha. Siegel and Kearns met and wound up talking about her dream to create a space dedicated to books, one that wasn’t a library or commercial bookstore. Kearns says she didn’t think much of the conversation, but one month later Siegel called to offer her a room at the back of his antiques and art store that was at the time being used, Kearns says, “for haircuts and storage.”
She had been working five part-time jobs to assemble the library necessary for the space, and had been contacting publishing houses and authors, asking anyone who would listen if they would donate books towards her nascent lending library. The San Francisco Public Library now donates five copies each time there is a new volume being read in the city’s “One City, One Book” book club. Michael Chabon offered up his home library. “We just kind of roamed through and took what we wanted,” says Kearns.
But there was still the matter of the space itself.
“I was naïve in the beginning -- I thought I would magically start on June 1, like the shelves would magically appear,” Kearns says, remembering that it took three to four tries for her to properly install each shelf, made from wood and metal pipes. Others contributed elbow grease and artistic aptitudes and soon enough Kearns was hosting an opening party with a surprising crowd of 100 attendees.
Ourshelves as a physical space is somewhat transcendent. Kearns carefully arranges the books on the shelves, and the antique volumes of Alice and Wonderland and other classics on the table. There is a painted tree made of books that grows out from the bench seating in the back corner, and a whiskey bottle placed just so on an antique desk. She now has shelves “curated” by local authors, among them, Stephen Elliott, Tamin Ansary, and one-time editor of The Believer Andrew Leland. It's hush is perfect for running a hand across the spines of the new and used novels and poetry volumes -- and once one is selected it, reading it in view of its brothers and sisters.
Tucked away at the back of Viracocha, Kearns puts much truck in the experience of stumbling across Ourshelves. On the day I visited, a man had done just that and after speaking with Kearns for a comfortable spell, he donated money to the library without even checking out a book.
There are 62 members now, each paying $10 each month to check out as many books as they’d like. Their fees go towards rent, and towards the 20 to 40 titles a month that Kearns aims to bring in at members’ requests.
“Learn about the world, dammit!” Siegel interrupts a discussion Kearns and I are having about superlative fiction writers. He is, she tells me, going to be the space’s non-fiction curator.
“You can in fiction!” she retorts.
Certainly, Kearns has found a way to manifest her version of a better world through books with Ourshelves. The small room has become a place to honor the written world, a place where quiet conversations between strangers can start -- and a place to discover that perhaps publishing is not so dead, after all.
“For people who love books,” Kearns smiles. “Being surrounded by books is nice feeling.”