On a sleepy Monday afternoon, Bolerium Books owner John Durham receives a call from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, informing him that his store has made it into the annual “Best of the Bay” issue for the second time.
While giving him the good news, they gently try to sell him advertising space.
“Local people tend to come in and wander around without buying a f***ing thing,” Durham replies, having just canceled his ad in the Yellow Pages.
He continues to explain what his store is about: “There’s nothing normal here. If you want that, f*** you and stay away.”
This is the bold spirit of Bolerium on Mission Street, which specializes in archival collections of rare used books and political ephemera like pamphlets, buttons and posters. The store is organized by social movement, with sections on gay liberation, African American equality, feminism and more.
Boasting over 60,000 titles, the shop displays rows and rows of shelves brimming with books and full boxes that sit haphazardly in the aisles. While it looks disorderly, there’s a sense of controlled chaos at Bolerium; everything has its place, even if it’s hidden at the bottom of a box. The room is silent except for a heater that hums all day, lending a cozy feeling to the large loft-like space.
The shop is located on the third floor of the building, and you have to be buzzed in to visit. Once inside, Bolerium is like your grandmother’s attic, if your grandmother was a radical with a salty tongue. It’s full of trinkets and artifacts from the past: vintage pins that read “Viva Che” and “End the War in Vietnam”; the “Sacred Text” bookshelf featuring titles by Marx, Engels and Lenin only; a tattered gay flag; a windup Nunzilla doll.
The store first opened in a house on Judah Street and 14th Avenue in the Sunset District in June of 1981. After four years it became too big for the space and moved to the current location, where it’s been ever since. Durham runs the shop with help from five employees and his partner of over 30 years, Sue Englander.
Durham and Englander are longtime San Francisco activists who were involved in many of the movements featured in the store. Durham is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party and fought for gay rights and against the Vietnam War. Englander was active in the women’s and civil rights movements, and currently teaches history at San Francisco State University.
“I’m the snarky one,” Durham says early on, just so everything is clear. “I don’t think it’s possible to be snarkier than me.” Throughout the day he shuffles around the store in his socks, pulling books and paying bills. His eyes are scrunched tight behind wire-rim frames, making his constant sarcasm hard to read.
“John is just snarky because he hasn’t had his morning coffee,” Englander says with a smile.
Englander is wearing a heavy black sweater with a big red stripe across it and a matching black newsboy cap. She sits comfortably by the door, behind a large desk that’s covered with papers, surrounded by treasures like the lamp on her right, which has a collection of trolls hanging from it. On the couch adjacent to her is a large framed poster from the “committee to bring back the nude Olympics.” It depicts a naked man throwing a javelin. He is visibly aroused. She’s quick to clarify that this one’s not for sale because it “perks me up every morning.”
Englander spends the day archiving and cataloging materials. She enters new stock into the database, describes its condition and content, and puts it into archival mylar before shelving. Nestled among the store’s many tchotchkes, she thumbs through the myriad goods around her to find a pamphlet that reads “Nuclear War in Vermont.”
This one makes the Facebook cut, Englander explains, because it’s “incredibly perverse or weird.” She uses the Facebook page to spread what she calls “our bad reputation.” The store has gained notoriety among booksellers, partly because of its diverse retail — it has a popular gay pulp section, and mind control and mysticism titles. It is also is known for a wide price range, from free books to $10,000 collections.
The store does most of its business online and over the phone, with walk-ins making up less than 10 percent of total sales. Most of its profits come from sales to universities and libraries that are interested in the historical value of the merchandise, which documents both the details and the essence of various social movements. They get their material from other bookstores as well as individuals; their motto is, “You’re old, you’re dying, sell us your books!” says Englander. It’s because of this specialized niche that they may not be struggling as much as many other bookstores.
Foot traffic is low, and today employees Jay Kinney, “Captain Cranky” David Park and “Professional Packer” Bill Taylor are the main people in the shop. Jared Marchildon, who works at Latin American book purveyor Libros Latinos down the hall, stops by multiple times to partake in the communal free snack box filled with treats from Rainbow Grocery. The floor is also home to Myer Boswell, which specializes in rare law books, and downstairs is Valhalla, which sells modern first editions.
Marchildon has green eyes that stand out above his dark beard. The epitome of a bohemian, his hair is in a messy bun beneath a straw fedora, and he wears a colorful scarf. He launches into a story about his friend, who wants him to appear in his movie dressed in a suit while praying to a vagina.
“If you’re in a movie like that, be sure to tell me so I don’t see it,” Durham says as they quip back and forth.
It’s common for the bookstore employees to frequent each other’s shops for coffee and to share the gripe of the day.
“We tolerate and even have a gentle affection for each other,” says Marchildon, adding that he goes to Valhalla to talk to owner Joe Marchione about everything from his love affairs to philosophy.
“Considering the weirdness of many communities, we’re as much of a book community as there is,” Englander says.
A “Wanted by the FBI” poster hangs on a pillar toward the front of the store. It depicts former employee Claude Daniel Marks, who was wanted for offenses that included destruction of government property and receipt and transportation of explosives. Marks pleaded guilty to a plot to help a leader of the group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional escape from prison. Although he is no longer working at Bolerium, the flyer has been marked “Employee of the Month” for the past five years, and is a source of pride for Durham and Englander.
Job applicants at Bolerium need to not just know, but be expert in, the history of social movements. To weed out the unqualified, a staff member drafted a test for all prospective employees that explains, “it takes some pretty arcane interests and a certain degree of tastelessness to feel at home [at Bolerium].” In addition to asking the test-taker to identify and explain the significance of various historical figures, it also has some more open-ended questions, like:
- Explain why you got fed up with whichever revolutionary movement you formerly belonged to.
- If a book dealt with Afro-Venezuelan transgender poetry, translated into Yiddish, in which of our sections would it most appropriately be filed? Would your answer change if it were profusely illustrated with nude photos?
The test is so difficult that even Englander didn’t get a perfect score the first time.
“I only missed one!” she protests as Durham teases her. He starts to walk away.
“Oh John…” she says slyly to get his attention.
“What?” he replies.
She squeezes her “New Age Bob” doll that she calls her “mascot” and keeps handy on her desk. Made in the 1970s in response to feminism, the male doll says touchy-feely things.
“Let’s cuddle tonight,” Bob says in a cheesy voice as Durham walks back to his desk, unamused.
Sitting next to Durham is Kinney, a quiet man with a serious face framed by circular glasses and a gray beard. An author and prominent comic artist from the 1970s, he has worked at Bolerium for four years, processing one to two dozen online orders a day, cataloging new material and shelving books. His favorite part of the job is “all the different material we get to handle and reliving history by going through [the shop’s] artifacts.”
Kinney doesn’t have to deal with too many customers — only one or two people stop by each day, a minor nuisance that interrupts his tasks.
“Do you have a section on boating?” he says, imitating an imaginary customer. “It’d be gay boating or African American boating,” he responds.
Durham, trying to fix the broken printer, interjects that one of the reasons the shop is on the third floor is that they aren’t set up for walk-ins.
Surprisingly, three young men walk into the store. They’re MFA students in town to visit photographer Jim Goldberg’s studio, down the street.
“Are you alphabetical?” one asks. “I’m looking for anything by photographer Susan Lipper.”
Durham attempts to explain the store’s setup. “Here we have antisocial art,” he says, pointing to one section. “And here is gay art — that’s mostly naked guys.”
It seems that Durham does this for the joy it brings him, not because it will actually help them find what they are looking for. Nonetheless, the customers seemed amused.
“We have 65,000 titles,” says Durham.
“Hard to remember them all?”
“Yup, despite having read them all,” Durham replies coyly, and the men chuckle.
Bolerium doesn’t have the book and the three men leave empty-handed. Durham returns to his desk to get cracking on the bookkeeping, which has been looming all day. He has a lot to get done before he leaves on a scouting trip to Boston the next day. While there, he is attending the International Antiquarian Book Fair and hopes to pick up some collections from a bookstore owner who is “changing the direction of his business.”
Despite having two full storage spaces in the building and three off-site, there’s always more history to acquire, more ephemera to capture.
“We’re doing OK,” Durham says. “But we have to hustle.”