Author Rebecca Solnit asked the large group that had gathered around her at Adobe Bookshop if they remembered when the store organized its book collection by color. There were nods and laughter — signs that some of the more than 60 people who had come for the “Celebration of Adobe Bookshop” event had seen the store through one of its more memorable transformations.
“What makes someone a San Franciscan?” she asked. She guessed it might be complaining when something familiar disappears, like the woman she once met who said that the view of the bay from her home was ruined by the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Start stocking up on memories of what used to be,” Solnit advised the crowd, both young and old, who were sitting in worn chairs, standing on tiptoe and peering around bookshelves. “I hope we don’t have to remember when Adobe closes.”
No one — not even owner Andrew McKinley — knows exactly what will become of the beloved bookstore that teeters on the edge of extinction. “There is this mixed message that’s driving some people crazy,” McKinley said a day after the event. “People would like to know if we’re ending, and I can’t quite say yet if we are.”
The life of Adobe Bookshop was threatened last spring by a 35 percent rent increase and the growth of online book sales and digital publishing. According to documents from the San Francisco Planning Department, the designer menswear retailer Jack Spade expressed interest in leasing the space. Scheduled to go out of business by the end of August, Adobe succeeded in postponing the closing thanks to a proposal by friends of McKinley’s and fans of the store to transform the space into a member-operated collective.
The mixed message includes mourning, confusion, excitement, celebration and now uncertainty over whether or not enough money will be raised, all of which has transpired over the Internet.
Months ago, rumors circulated that Adobe was dead. McKinley, who proudly states that he doesn’t go online at all, says a brouhaha ensued.
“I’m very sad to read this,” someone wrote when an event called “Farewell Reading for the Adobe Bookshop” was created on Adobe’s Facebook page on Jan. 10. “Adobe will be missed.”
“This is our rec room and where we grew up,” wrote another.
Paul La Farge, a friend of McKinley’s who lives in New York, had arranged for Solnit and authors Stephen Elliott and Michelle Tea to read from books they’ve written, in honor of the shop’s closing. Meanwhile, McKinley was selling off his inventory of books, preparing for the worst.
Two days later, a question mark was added to the event name: “A Farewell (?) Reading for the Adobe Bookshop.”
Five minutes after that message came this one from La Farge: “IMPORTANT, HOPE-GIVING CORRECTION: It’s been brought to my attention that an effort is being made to keep Adobe open by transforming it into a cooperative.”
Over the last six months, a group has rallied to develop the Adobe Books and Art Cooperative, a member-supported and operated group that could save the shop by expanding it into a sustainable business.
“I love Adobe and I hate losing something as important to the history of the Mission and something that’s so supportive of the arts,” said Jeff Ray, one of the leaders of the cooperative effort to prolong and transform Adobe’s lifespan.
On Jan. 14, the name of the event was changed once more to “A Celebration of the Adobe Bookshop.”
Dedicated to retaining McKinley’s spirit of generosity and inclusiveness, the working group is in the process of drafting a business plan that includes expanding the art gallery and selling new books, original artwork, unique crafts and recorded media. A variety of pop-up shops, art shows, performances and cultural activities are being planned to encourage people to get involved.
“A co-op is shorthand for an attempt to engage the community,” said Howard Gutstadt, one of the working group members. “The more community engagement, the higher the success.”
The group, of which McKinley is a part, has researched other stores that have been able to buck the trends working against independent bookstores; among the places it has drawn inspiration from are The Booksmith, Park Life, Noisebridge, Printed Matter, Pierogi Flat File Gallery, City Art Gallery and Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.
“It’s a matter of putting pieces together of a rather complicated pie,” Gutstadt said. “But if one doesn’t try, then everything goes away.”
Some of the pieces include getting more people involved, raising at least $60,000 and hoping that the landlord of the building will go for the new business plan. “He’d rather something else happen,” McKinley said. “But he’ll entertain our proposal.”
McKinley says that the landlord is allowing the bookshop to stay until the group gets its act together. But he harbors a fear that they could be given three months’ notice at any time.
In the letter that Jack Spade submitted to the zoning administrator, the company stated that it’s important that it “become part of the neighborhood’s fabric.”
As a forward-thinking fashion retailer, the letter said, Jack Spade “put forth great effort to find real estate locations for its boutiques wherein individualistic, creative-minded and culturally diverse communities welcome them as neighbors.” Though it sells a duffle bag for $395 and a raincoat for $495, Jack Spade contends that it operates like a traditional haberdashery, with a focus on relationships with clients and community.
David G. Williams, a longtime Adobe supporter, is saddened by the thought of losing the relaxing place where he often finds specialized odds and ends like old military books. “I hope they can do something,” he said while browsing in the shop. “This is a place that doesn’t seem like it’s out for money. There are places to sit down, people talking.”
He’s a little skeptical of the co-op idea. “Sometimes those things are hard to run,” he said. But he’s willing to help.
“If the co-op doesn’t raise enough money and get a good lease from the landlord, then we’ll disappear,” McKinley said as he sold stacks of cheap books at 75 percent off.
Gutstadt says that Adobe’s fate will be decided within the next 30 to 60 days.
Whether last week’s event was a final farewell to an institution that has become familiar to so many, or a collective prayer that the new business plan will be accepted, it was a tribute to a space that has welcomed writers, poets, artists, activists and the community for years.
“I wanted to fly back and pay my respects to this place that has mattered so much to me,” said La Farge before introducing McKinley. He told the crowd that when he mentioned to friends in cities and towns across the country that Adobe was closing, they shared cherished tales with him. “It turned out that everyone has Adobe stories,” he said.
Stephen Elliott reminisced about the hours he once spent reading, writing and observing in the bookshop. He talked about people sleeping on the couch, a regular named Swan banging on his typewriter, the smell of curry floating in from down the street, and the three Adobe employees he’s dated.
“Too many things I’ve written have direct relation to Adobe,” Elliott said. “I love this place. It’s a treasure trove, a medicine for a certain disease.”
During the event, a man slept sitting up on the couch and, head tilted back, snored loudly. Another recited poetry in between readings and walked around with a cardboard Popeye’s box full of change.
McKinley told the crowd that the way he’s been running the store is no longer viable. “It’s been the best part of my life,” he said. “It’s important to keep this here and we’re going to depend on the charity of others.”
He warned the audience of the fundraising campaign that’s about to kick off, which includes plans for Indiegogo crowdfunding. “We need to fight to do this and enroll everyone into an army that will help,” he said. “If all of you could sign up to help, that would be great. I’m not gonna beg, but I’m gonna wish.”
McKinley is friendly and gracious, and knows almost everyone’s name. When he sees customers with books they have picked out, he tells them he’s glad they found what they were looking for. He lets them know it’s a pleasure to have them.
McKinley hasn’t thought much about what he’d like to see Adobe become, because he’s been too busy trying to save it. But he hopes that if it survives, “more budding poets, painters and bohemians will come through its doors.”
Gutstadt and the other members of the working group are optimistic that they can create a space that welcomes a diverse group within the context of a creative exchange. “Andrew has been behind this for 23 years,” Gutstadt said. “The rest of us are just trying to take the legacy and see if we can do anything with it.”
At the event, Rebecca Solnit admitted she had no idea where to stop reading. “I could go on forever,” she told the quiet, attentive crowd. It looked as though they could listen forever, as well. And then she came across this line: “Same place, different world.”
“Same place, different world,” she said. “That might be a good place to stop.”
The working group meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Adobe Bookshop to discuss plans for the co-op. Anyone who would like to get involved is encouraged to attend. For more information, visit Adobe Bookshop’s Facebook page.