A Modern Times worker at work on a window display, underneath a giant heart built by former employee Annie Danger.

It is a neighborhood story, through and through. The painter and paper-maker Shawn McFarland was at a meeting for the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP). She had just found the perfect studio and gallery space at 2919 24th Street, but it was twice as big as she needed. Did anyone, she asked, know of someone who was looking for space?

The new storefront is on 24th Street, a few doors down from La Victoria bakery.

Would you, asked someone at the meeting, consider a bookstore? A historic, neighborhood institution, here-in-the-Mission-for-20-years kind of bookstore? One whose landlord had just chosen not to renew their lease?

“As soon as I knew they were looking for a space, it was a done deal,” says McFarland. “I mean, I make paper.

The storefront where Modern Times is now having its soft opening had most recently been a gym, but many people in the neighborhood, including McFarland, still remember it as the Chinese bookstore. “That’s why the murals on the front of the building have those Chinese motifs,” says McFarland. “It was here for years. The man that owned it was the first person who was allowed to import The Little Red Book into this country.”

As coincidences go, it’s an interesting one. When Modern Times first opened, says Ruth Maheney, it primarily carried books on Marxist and socialist theory. She’s been with the store for three of its four decades. It first opened in the Castro, at 19th and Sanchez, then after 10 years moved to 968 Valencia, the spot currently occupied by the Mission Creek Cafe. After nine years there, the store moved to 888 Valencia, where it stayed for two decades, until just a month ago. This year, says Maheney, the store will turn 40. When? “In the fall. Sort of Octoberish. As near as we can tell.”

In the ensuing decades, she says, the Marx has shrunk in relation to other sections. Especially the socialist economic theory. What’s doing well? “U.S. history is good. Spanish is growing. Labor is big.”

“Geography is big,” adds another worker, Tibby, who is shelving books nearby. “Books about how maps influence the world. Books about how maps lie.”

To celebrate the opening, McFarland will be making paper for the next three days straight. The neighborhood is invited to stop by and see how it’s done. “This,” says McFarland, “feels destined for success.”

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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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  1. Yo — how can you have a story on this and NOT mention that it’s in the historic China Books building? This is part of the history of the left in San Francisco and in the Mission. Research, please.

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