On an uncharacteristically warm Saturday afternoon in the Mission, 24th street is bustling with activity. To a steady tune of traffic and cumbia, pedestrians weave up and down the sidewalk; popping into hip cafes, old-school panaderias, and a growing number of independent bookstores on what is becoming known as “Bookstore Alley.”
In the past several years, four bookstores have opened within a small-block radius: Adobe Books, Alley Cat Books, Press: Works on Paper and Modern Times Bookstore Collective. While each store has its own character and clientele, it remains to be seen if the four newcomers can survive.
“It’s interesting because a lot of people are now thinking of 24th as a bookstore row,’’ said Ashton Di Vito, a collective member at Modern Times Bookstore, which is having a difficult time. “This is a really good city for bookstores, a very literary city.
As San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor John McMurtrie proudly proclaimed in an interactive map that profiled the city’s literary giants, “San Francisco is one of the most vibrant literary cities in the world.”
But for a city crazy about books, local independent sellers have struggled to stay afloat and some on 24th Street have ended up there, fleeing high rents elsewhere in the Mission. Last year, Adobe Books was booted out of its location of over two decades after the store’s landlord announced he would be increasing rent by more than $4000 a month. Adobe responded by launching a wildly successful indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and hauled itself to 24th Street. After changing up the business model and clearing out titles that had been languishing on shelves for years, the store seems to be faring well.
But Modern Times, a lefty neighborhood fixture dating back to the ‘70s, hasn’t had as smooth a transition. As Mission Local’s Alexandra Garretón reported Friday, the progressive retailer owes $100,000 in back rent and credit card debt after the rent at its Valencia street location skyrocketed. The store implored the community for help and in late November, it launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo to raise $60,000 by 11:59 on Friday, Jan. 24th Street.
That effort failed – only $10,417 was raised – but De Vito said the loss isn’t the last chapter for Modern Times. “We’re not near the end or anything like that. We’ve done fundraising so we have been getting what we need to pay the debt from Valencia,” he said.
Di Vito noted, however, that the competition nearby has depressed sales. “Sales have not been as high as when other stores have not been here,” he said. “Compared to other stores, our December intake was lower this year. Sales kind of have dipped specifically because there are so many options here.”
Rather than vitriol or competition on Bookstore Alley, employees from all shops say there’s a sense of camaraderie; a shared deference of the underdog and quiet acknowledgement of the good fight. “If people can’t find a book here,” De Vito said. “I’ll tell them to check out Alley Cat Books or Adobe.”
At Press, a small store that primarily sells rare books on design and art, co-owner Paulina Nassar said each bookstore has its own personality – “like a bunch of different kinds of restaurants or clothing stores” on the same block. And it’s true. Spend an afternoon at each location, and you’ll find that Modern Times is your thoughtful lefty uncle with sleep-mussed hair, constantly devouring books by Eduardo Galeano and Jeremey Scahill; Press is your dainty co-worker with an eagle eye for vintage classics. Together, the collection of stores transforms the block into a vast “browsing zone” for titles ranging from the lyrical to the philosophical, Nassar said.
“I don’t think having a number of them on a block hurts,” she remarked. “If anything, I think it helps. I think people are like. ‘I’m gonna go to 24th and go book shopping!”
And perhaps this time, the timing is right. De Vito speculates that the worst for independent bookstores might be over. “There’s a lot less people going to bookstores due to Amazon, but that’s manageable,” he said. “It’s about finding a business model that works. I think the doom and gloom attitude comes from in the past decade a lot of stores were thinning out. It looks like that’s kind of leveled though.”
In September, CNN Money reported that independent bookstores throughout the nation were actually seeing a rise in business. According to the American Booksellers Association, sales grew 8 percent in 2012 and are slated to continue rising next year. “The uptick is welcome news for the industry, which has been in turmoil throughout recent memory,” reporter Verne Kopytoff declared.
To be sure, the David and Goliath narrative – the community-minded indie retailers trouncing the corporate giants—is a tempting one to latch onto, especially for those who favor non-screen reading. But many struggling shops have yet to nail down business models that will sustain the reign of online retailers and rising rent prices, in an era when everything is niche. “I do think the traditional model of a bookstore is done,” Nassar said. “San Franciscans do support bookstores. You just need to run a good business.”
As an employee at Alley Cat put it, “I don’t expect to thrive, I expect to survive.”