Modern Times Books in Crisis

Photo by Pete Boyd

Photo by Pete Boyd

En Español

The 39-year-old Modern Times Bookstore on Valencia Street urgently needs an “influx of cash” to pay its bills, the store’s owners told customers in a recent letter.

“Modern Times is facing a financial crisis and urgently needs an influx of cash if we are going to be able to pay our bills through the summer,” the letter reads. “The cold, hard economic facts are these: We need to sell a certain amount everyday in order to break even on costs — taxes, rent, payroll, utilities, insurance, and new books — and right now we are not doing this.”

Over the last decade, the Mission’s independent bookstores, many of which have been here for decades, have struggled against one new competitor after another, including mega-bookstores, online sales and now e-books.

Abandoned Planet, formerly on Valencia, closed in January when its landlord asked it to leave, and Adobe Books on 16th Street is barely making it. Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Books and the Borderlands Café next door, told Mission Loc@l in January that he opened the café because he doesn’t see bookstores alone as viable businesses.

One of the worker-owners of the Modern Times collective, which first opened in 1971 on 17th Street at Sanchez, said they’re not yet ready to talk to the press.

But the letter states that the owners believe the bookstore remains viable if they can raise enough money to make it through to the more “lucrative months” in the fall and holiday season. If every resident donated $10, the letter states, they would have enough to continue operating for three months. “Donations of between $30 to $100 would be enough for us to keep our doors open, hopefully for good.”

The 39-year-old bookstore, which moved to its current location in 1991, nearly closed in 2005, an experience referred to in the letter. It survived after partnering with New College to become the college’s bookstore.

During the last decade many independent bookstores have added online sales, but this does not appear to be the case with Mission bookstores; of the three on Valencia and the two on 16th, only Borderlands appears to be selling books from its website.

If they were to do so, new opportunities are opening up, according to the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, Hut Landon.

Google will launch an e-book store this fall, and plans to allow other bookstores to sell its e-books through their websites.

“There are still lots of customers,” Landon said. “If they have a choice, they will choose the independent.”

Landon added that going online would only boost business, because people still like to go to bookstores and draw on employees’ knowledge and experience.

Despite the slowdown in sales, the association’s membership has remained steady for the past three years, Landon said. Bookstores in corridors like Valencia have a better chance of survival, he added.

“The retail spaces are in sync with each other — they depend on each other.”

In the long run, the survival of bookstores is really up to the community, Landon said.

“If you don’t support them they are going to go away. If you care about your neighborhood, you have to support the shopping environment that makes it appealing.”

Modern Times makes the same plea to the community.

“In these challenging times, we stand with many other community-based businesses and organizations that are surviving capitalism through the strength of their communities,” the owners’ letter reads. ”Please be a part of helping us thrive.”

To find out more about how to support Modern Times, click here.

14 Comments

  1. Lynae

    For the record, Abandoned Planet did NOT close because of slow sales. They closed because they were evicted by their crazy landlords, who claimed they wanted to turn the space into some kind of communist community center. And have kept the space vacant ever since.

  2. Marshall

    If this store can’t keep it’s doors open by selling a product that customers actually want to buy, then it shouldn’t exist.

    Borderlands books down the street understands that if they are to survive they must serve their customers needs. By selling their books online and also having a coffee shop, they have adapted to the demands of a modern market economy.

    I know San Francisco is full of blatant anti-capitalist types, but a store going under because it serves nobody’s needs is a very good thing. Chances are the space will be rented out by a new business that is willing to take some risks and the neighborhood will continue to improve (gentrification is a good thing).

    So long Modern Times! If you only carried books I actually wanted to buy I would help you out. It’s a bit pathetic for a for-profit store to ask for “donations” to stay in business when it could just do a better job by providing customers with a actual goods and services.

  3. strange fruit

    Abandoned Planet was evicted by landlords who want to start a red community center?? That spot used to be t he CPUSA book store–do they still own the building?? Yeah commies make great landlords!!

  4. HUAC

    Good riddens to Modern Times–these are post modern times–no room for leftist leftovers

  5. sara

    to marshall: what books do you wish Modern Times carried? They’ll order anything you want at no extra charge. do you really believe that a place that holds free community events and workshops should be charging more or pushed out by “economic development,” like all those boutiques on valencia now going out of business?

  6. Worth noting that among Modern Times’ competitors is Amazon, an out-of-state retailer whose business model is based on sales tax avoidance.

    Modern Times and other local retailers don’t mind competing, just give them a level playing field on which to do it, Amazon’s failure to collect sales tax costs the state over $200 million annually, and its 10% price advantage right off the top puts local stores, and by extension city neighborhoods, at risk.

  7. whatever

    I live in the Mission. Modern Times staff is as rude as the checkers at Whole Foods. So long Modern Times. When I go to buy a book, coffee or groceries, SPARE ME THE RUDENESS. Ive been buying books elsewhere because of this.

  8. I feel like a jerk saying this but if Modern Times is in such trouble, why did it take me 15 minutes to find the “Save Modern Times” link on their website? Why isn’t in on their blog which hasn’t been updated in two years? Is there a giant banner in the front window saying “donate?” Are they keeping their comunity up to date on twitter?

    Heartless perhaps but how should we as the community be mounting sympathy for a bookstore who clearly needs help and yet, makes a half-hearted ashamed effort in asking for it?

  9. randolph mortimer

    have they considered perhaps selling some buggy whips alongside their books ?

    i hear this horseless carriage will never catch on.

    ‘modern times’ indeed.

  10. JMurphy

    Nice to see that people have nothing better to do with their lives than gloat over the demise of a small business, the destruction of a centuries-old form of communication (and its replacement by inferior, totally corporately-controlled technology), and of course, the resulting loss of jobs.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us might as well familiarize ourselves with the hyper-banal work of these “wits.” Once bookstores and publishers are cleared out of the way, this will basically be the zenith of literature. But hey, the god-awful garbage we’re stuck reading will be super-cheap!

  11. randolph mortimer

    how deliciously ironic that you are posting such a comment on a website conducting an experiment in hyper local journalism, contributing to the demise of the newspaper industry and the resulting loss of jobs.

  12. randolph mortimer

    also i wish people in san francisco would learn some basic economic realities.

    sadly they are too caught up in their polarized ideologies to learn anything from mathematics or history, i fear.

  13. JMurphy, I love Modern Times and do not wish its demise for a moment. But I work in book publishing and am sick and tired of significant segments of this business acting as though they are immune from the basic laws of capitalism. Can’t pay your bills? Can’t serve a customer base? You don’t get to survive. It’s that simple. If you can come up with another model that works (many bookstores are non-profit, subsidiaries of a larger endeavor), I applaud that. But I cannot for the life of me understand why Modern Times clearly needs the help of its community and waited this long to a) ask for it and b) went about the effort so half-heartedly. Do they want to survive or simply our sympathy? Do they want to be a surviving small business or a martyr to the idea of a small business

    I am prepared to help Modern Times (as well as Aquarius Records, Paxton Gate, The Bombay Creamery or every other indie business in the neighborhood) when they fall on hard times provided I see they are making a good faith effort to survive, innovate and serve their community better. It’s unfair to ask that community to support “keep things the same” if “keep things the same” isn’t working.

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