It was a cold, rainy night in the Mission. All I remember is a white pastry box, and a shadowy figure holding it out to me.

“Would you like a pastry?” asked the figure.

It’s not so much that the figure was indistinct. It’s just that everything has been wiped from my memory but the croissant that I took from the pastry box and ate. It was good (it was from Tartine, it turned out). And it came to me, unbidden.

“I sincerely doubt that ever happened,” says Andrew McKinley as I tell him this story in the entryway of Adobe Books. “I don’t know you. And I don’t give pastry to strangers.”

I’d tracked him down by going to Tartine. “What did he look like?” the kindly counterperson had asked me.

“I don’t remember,” I said. “All I remember is this enormous white waxed paper box. And a shadowy figure holding the box.”

The counterperson looked at me pityingly. “He seemed very nice,” I added.

I tried another tactic. “He said the pastries were from here. Does anyone come to collect the pastries when the shop closes?”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s Andrew. He owns Adobe Books.”

And that is how I come to be walking with Andrew McKinley past a crew of people selling used shoes and VHS tapes on a blanket near the intersection of 16th and Albion. As is the case with so many magical-seeming things in this city, it’s really just one guy, with a collapsible shopping cart.

McKinley offers a scone to a woman sitting on the sidewalk, next to a cat on a leash. She shakes her head no.

“No teeth tonight?” he asks, genially.

“No teeth any night,” she says. “But thanks, Andy.”

“You’re a good-looking youngster!” says Walt, who is standing nearby. He is pointing at me. “Next time I see you, I want to see your report card. I want to see A’s and B’s.”

I am strangely flattered. Of all the people who have ever yelled at me on 16th Street, not one has asked to see my grades.

“What about in gym?” I ask. Gym has never been my strong suit.

“A’s and B’s,” Walt says. “I’m your mother and your father.” Walt takes a ham and gruyere panini.

“It’s all based on the generosity of Tartine,” says McKinley. “Sometimes there’s nothing. Sometimes there’s abundance. It’s just a nightly ritual. And because we are able to do it every time, we are the chosen people.”

We cross the street and walk past the Roxie — a frequent stop, because McKinley loves the theater. He knocks on the door and a slight young man comes out. He eyes the pastry box with a conflicted expression. “I’m a vegan,” he says. “So….”

“They’re all fairly deadly,” says McKinley.

We continue down the street, pulling the cart behind us. “They’re tiring of food,” says McKinley. “I think we’ve over-quiched them.” We pass a pile of clothing at the corner of 16th and Guerrero. “Do you mind?’” asks McKinley. We go through the pile together. Two very nice men’s sweaters go into the cart. A ladies’ handbag with a hot pink satin lining is examined but returned to the pile.

“Walking down this street, you would never tell that there was a recession going on,” says McKinley as we trundle down Guerrero toward 17th. “There are so many people willing to spend their money. Cities have become very fashionable, and crowded. I’ve been here 20 years. But it’s slowly ending. Adobe will probably close soon. We have a new landlord. Higher rent.”

He points up at an apartment. “We could go up here. There’s a very nice pregnant couple. But they got food two nights ago. And the pregnant woman doesn’t like quiche….” He pauses. “Hey!” he says, raising his arm and waving to a car that is just pulling away from the sidewalk. It’s being driven by an old customer at the store.

“Ali is an artist, and a mother,” he says by way of introduction.

“I met Andrew when I was 21,” says Ali. “I don’t even want to tell you how long ago that was. I knew the bookstore before I knew him. Now it’s a scene. But back then it was a bookstore. He’s a quiet community activist. For him, it’s not about the money.”

“These days, it’s definitely not about the money,” says McKinley.

“If he sees a young student,” says Ali, “and they’re broke, but they really love a book, he’ll say, ‘For you? $2.50.’”

We move on to the Bi-Rite. “This was a sleepy deli when I moved here,” says McKinley. “We’re going here to see Lulu. She has a great countenace. She’s one of the nicest girls in the city, and it’s fun to give her things.”

Lulu, who is found by the vegetable case, turns out to have taken a vow not to eat sugar today. “It has to be not at all,” she says, apologetically. “If it’s just a little, I’ll keep on eating.”

The journey continues. We encounter a jazz musician (scone). We encounter the pile of clothes again (this time, McKinley takes the handbag).

“Kim Pierce!” he says, delightedly greeting a young woman walking toward us like she’s a long-lost relative. She turns out to be a musician whose band, Pale Hoarse, plays at Adobe occasionally. “Can I interest you in a fabulous handbag?”

Pierce examines it. “That will be a wonderful handbag for someone,” she says, diplomatically. “But not for me.”

We have come full circle, back to Adobe’s front door. “I’m tired,” says McKinley. “It’s been a long day.” He’s spent the day trying to thin out Adobe’s selection to make the store, with its piles of books upon books upon books, slightly more navigable. McKinley, for all his prophecies of Adobe’s imminent closure, is experimenting with ways to make the store work with the new rent hike.

But all of that is in the future. In the present, we have lost over a dozen pastries and gained one purse. All in all, a good night.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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