On a ledge above Viracocha’s window display at 998 Valencia Street, sit two white couches side by side.
They have been upholstered, rebuilt and deemed rare antique objects worth no less than $10,000 each, according to Jonathan Siegel who acquired them from a friend who owned a furniture store on Valencia and 20th.
Selling one couch would cover a month’s rent. However, selling a couch involves a skill that Siegel says he lacks: he is not a salesman. He does, however, have a sense of showmanship and community that has carried him through four years in which he’s managed to keep the store open by relying on friends and other artists for repairs, staffing and participating in events.
This fall, Siegel announced that he was looking for someone to take over and that he was ready to move on. While that is still the case, Siegel’s process of leaving has been slow, sure and as idiosyncratic as the store itself.
Its one consistent source of revenue, the downstairs venue, was closed at the end of December because it did not have the proper permitting. So Siegel is now trying to figure out if bringing the space up to code is a matter of a “40 grand” job — one his contracting team will do for beer and pizza — or a “400 grand” job, which makes no sense since he doesn’t own the space.
He does however, have six years left on his $10,000 a month lease and an option for another five years.
That stability, he hopes, will make it attractive to new leadership — most appealingly to him a collective leadership of other people who can take the business endeavor seriously and go through the bureaucratic process of permitting.
“If there is no one really willing to believe or take it on with a great deal of responsibility, it’s going to have to shut regardless,” says Siegel, who could shut it down at any time.
He has met and talked to people who have businesses in the Mission and desire the vibe of Valencia Street. “I want people I know and can trust, not just people with money to open up a restaurant,” he says.
From the start, Viracocha’s business model has been different.
“The store was created as a fallout shelter in case an impending cataclysmic doom happened,” Siegel said of his initial opening. “I had some time, a little money because an investment panned out. I wanted to at least have a place where we could all congregate, learn more about each other, of the period instead of running and being scared. [To know] that there was love and friendship. My hope was to bring people from different walks of lives to feel less alone.”
In addition to his friends who contribute their time, Viracocha has also relied on private investors, mainly people in finance and commercial real estate who Siegel met in New York when he was an actor and produced plays. His landlord has also been lenient on late payments.
However, reality is setting in or as Siegel puts it “in order for this to become a legitimate operation, in order for this to move forward it will have to become a business.”
Legitimizing the downstairs space is contingent on what the inspectors say. In the meantime, the permitting process has not been able to begin because there is not a clear evaluation of what has to be done, nor whose name will continue to lead and follow through on all the paperwork.
To economize he has cut his staff from 16 people to two and depends on volunteers. “It’s like you are sitting on a lame duck; you have this space but you have all the space downstairs that can be used but it’s prohibited by the city of San Francisco.”
As for the couches that could cover each month’s rent, perhaps it would be wiser to make them face the street, instead of having them displayed above eye-level inside the store. That way deep-pocket buyers who have no time for the arts but enjoy beautiful things, might see them as they walk along Valencia Street.