Modern Times Bookstore
by Michaela Elias
Modern Times Bookstore, which refers to itself as “a progressive resource for the Bay Area—a neighborhood bookstore for theMission,” is as exceptional as the area in which it finds itself.
The Mission district, located inSan Francisco,California, is a working class neighborhood bordering U.S. Route 101 and part of supervisorial districts 5, 9, and 10. But the Spartan perspective of map measurements cannot possibly convey the capacity of the culture that is packed into The Mission.
Thrift stores, whimsical art galleries, quirky bookstores, street vendors, and cafes line every block. The Mission is a center for contemporary music and art and, as Ruth from Modern Times Bookstore refers to it, “a wonderful mix of cutting-edge culture and activity.”
The signs in The Mission are in Spanish and English, since many of its residents are immigrants. The Mission has a tendency to be sunnier and warmer than the rest of the city, so people are always outside strolling, biking, and walking small dogs.
But The Mission also serves as the bedrock for many progressive political causes such as anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, pro-peace, anti-war, anti-discrimination, and equality movements. But for these movements to thrive, they require a hub, a resource for the information needed to power them, and for this job Modern Times Bookstore fits like a glove. The bookstore epitomizes both the political and cultural aspects of the Mission District.
Says Ruth, “We see ourselves as part of a progressive political community, and we serve the community so that we function as a kind of community center as well as a bookstore.”
Modern Times Bookstore was founded for the purpose of supporting and providing resources for the flourishing progressive movement in theMissionand Bay Area. The store also carries many books regarding world fiction, labor history, and the labor movement.
As for owner/manager Ruth’s favorite part of running a bookstore, she says it is the customers who are both shoppers in and supporters of the store. “We have wonderful, wonderful people who have been with the store for years and years and who are very loyal and do wonderful work in the world so the bookstore is an aid for them in whatever they want to do in the progressive projects they want to work on, and we try to help them find the books they need to do that.”
In the past the Mission District has been a less expensive community in relation to its surrounding areas, causing newcomers to San Francisco and America to populate the Mission and also creating an affordable location for community groups and nonprofits. Recently, many hipsters, students, artists, and political activists have moved in, further stimulating the vibrant and nonconformist nature of the Mission, but this new influx of inhabitants has also driven up property prices to an immense degree.
People from all over the Bay Area are flocking to the Mission District because it is seen as a really trendy neighborhood to hang out in. New restaurants and expensive apartments that are materializing as a result of this fascination with the Mission are causing its originators, and the people who brought all the culture to the Mission, to have no other choice but to leave.
As Ruth points out, San Francisco’s rent control laws apply only to individuals, with no protection provided for small businesses, which has caused a number of problems for Modern Times and other organizations of its kind. In fact, after forty years of existence and thirty years of residence in the Mission, Modern Times has recently had to vacate its very commodious space and relocate to the back of a gallery, Galeria Paloma, on 24th Street; rent troubles were at the root of the decision.
Galeria Paloma, owned and operated by paper-making artist and painter Shawn McFarland, showcases a unique collection of works. The paintings, clothing, stationery, and decorative objects which fill the close-knit space come from a variety of people, some local, some from friends and family of locals, some from creative people inMexico.
The space-sharing came about during a meeting of neighborhood business owners, when the management of Modern Times announced that they had to move. McFarland mentioned the back area of the storefront housing her gallery, and the bookstore relocated its inventory and operations within a couple of months.
At first glance the aesthetic style and feel of both places seems different. With its elegantly crafted collages and colorful doves, Galeria Paloma appears a gentle oasis, while Modern Times Books sports the hammer and sickle and Che Guevara quotes and seeks to provide a space to lay the intellectual framework for powerful social revolutions.
Yet the management of both places says coexistence is working so far. McFarland appreciates the bookstore’s customers’ passing through her exhibits on the way to Modern Times, and the co-op bookstore’s team of managers likes the chance to share space with a local independent business that features the works of some indigenous artists.
McFarland self-promotes Galeria Paloma through word of mouth, as she enjoys greeting guests who drop by and tends to have stories to share about the featured artists. And the neighborhood organizes street fairs and exhibitions to draw people downtown, and it attempts to assert and maintain a local culture despite the divisive effects of gentrification and the bleeding economy.
Modern Times also works not to let the downsized space diminish its character. The bookstore regularly holds events such as open mike readings, book readings by new authors, and a book club completely in Spanish. They have had to curtail these functions and make decisions as to which books to continue to carry with the decreased stocking capacity, but Modern Times is determined to develop and evolve to meet the changing environment and needs of the community.
Ruth asserts, “We are hoping we can keep going with the tangible bricks-and-mortar bookstore instead of having everything just virtual and online. We are trying to figure out how to survive in a new book economy, whatever that means; we are trying to figure that out. We hope to still serve progressive, curious readers.”
In all probability, with Modern Times’ devout mission and devotion to serving their community, they will manage to progress with the changes and stay afloat.
Still, though, McFarland and others in the area admit that the Mission District is changing, in large part because of the economy. Some customers of Galeria Paloma are moving out of their longtime Mission residences intoDaly City,San Bruno, and other cheaper locales south of San Francisco.
McFarland and others speculate that the next generation of new, visionary art and other forms of cultural creativity will be based in a place with lower rent for small businesses as well as residents, perhaps Alameda or another city across the bay with a well-traveled downtown but a lower cost of living.
Michaela Elias, a journalist and human rights activist from Teaneck, New Jersey, may be reached at email@example.com
You may visit the Galeria Paloma online at http://galeria-paloma.com/ – the current exhibition showcases McFarland’s bird images on handmade paper.
Modern Times Books also has a website, www.moderntimesbookstore.com – visit for a schedule of events, workshops, classes, group meetings, shows, and book signings!