Jonathan Siegel, a gray beret on his head, sits back in a green vintage barber chair behind a large slab of wood that’s been turned into a front counter. The bookcase behind him holds an impressive display of old typewriters.
Like Siegel, Viracocha, the vintage store and art/collective space at 998 Valencia Street, exudes an air of all things 20th century. The cash register is an elaborate gilded piece dating back to the 1930s. Some customers who wander in even wonder if commerce is allowed.
It is, but spend 12 hours in Viracocha and it becomes clear that Siegel is less interested in commerce than in creating community. It’s a shop that’s also a cross between the Bloomsbury Group and the Dadaists, with a bit of 1960s San Francisco tossed into the mix.
“I wanted this to be a fallout shelter for the artists,” says Siegel, adding that he never intended to create a simple vintage store. An actor and poet by trade and an interior decorator by chance, Siegel’s mission since he opened Viracocha more than a year ago has been to create a space for San Francisco’s artistic community.
It’s not until evening that the store morphs into its true purpose as a venue for workshops, community events and performances. In the meantime, anyone who drops by walks into a decidedly different commercial space.
Take, for example, the mother and daughter who glance through the collection of Life magazines from the 1950s. They walk past the phone booth set up in the middle of the room, then stop to stare in awe at a Singer sewing machine, as if on a visit to a museum.
The walls are hung with paintings, the bookcases are filled with poetry written by local talent, and the intricate lamps are all made by musician Jimmy Sweetwater, also known as San Francisco’s king of washboard and mouth harp.
Another woman looks around at the used goods, clearly confused. “What is the deal at your place?” she finally asks.
Siegel says the idea for Viracocha grew out of a temporary gig organizing open-mic poetry events around San Francisco. Venues were hard to come by. Bars were reluctant to offer their space to the slow-drinking crowd of poets and poetry appreciators.
Artists, he discovered, needed a stage to experiment on with poetry readings, concerts and performances.
His idea gained momentum when money from a lucrative investment suddenly became available and he was able to get the space next to ATA, the video collective, on Valencia Street.
Siegel then enlisted the help of his friends to transform the space. The plumbing and electricity, the painting — all were done by artists.
“There was no construction crew; poets and artists donated labor to help create this place,” he says.
The lack of a business plan became clear on opening night: Siegel had not yet set up a system to take credit or ATM cards.
But one year on, his store continues to run on the steady enthusiasm of some 30 volunteers. For Jason Whitacre, an actor and artist, working at the store has been a blessing.
Even though the pay is inconsistent (“I pay him whenever we make money,” Siegel says), Whitacre can work creatively with other artists, a perk his former employer, Starbucks, didn’t offer.
Isaac Frankle, aka Shovelman, dressed in brown overalls and black sunglasses, saunters in. On and off, he too helps out at the store, but his main gig is playing experimental folk music on a shovel he tinkered into a guitar.
Frankle’s CDs are neatly stacked on a giant table next to a dusty set of books on dinner speeches and eloquence. He was called in earlier today to help watch the store. In return, Siegel promised food — half a sandwich and potato skins.
“I make sure everyone is well-fed,” Siegel says. Some helpers apparently even crash for the night when things get tough.
But what about the store’s business model, most would ask.
“The tough part is to make this place sustainable,” Siegel says. “Everything sold in the store goes to rent. Every month is a challenge.”
At the end of the day, total sales are $107.75. No matter, Siegel is delighted that 6 p.m. has come around, and suddenly he jumps into action.
Extra help arrives for the evening shift. Lisa Escobedo, cheeks flush with energy and pink powder under a shock of black curls, rushes in. By day Escobedo is a student of fine arts and Raza studies, and a tattoo apprentice. By night she does security and watches the store.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” says Duo, a former graffiti artist turned typewriter specialist. “Here we go. Here they are.”
Whitacre opens the door and Gaby Lala, one of the evening’s artists, walks in, dressed in a light blue cat suit. The evening ritual has begun.
A thickly knotted rope cordons off the store merchandise as Siegel and his troops quickly transform the floor into an intimate theater. Chairs of all shapes and sizes are set out in rows. Old washboards turned into lights shine on the podium.
Siegel walks around waving incense to bless his temple of the arts for the next performance.
Ginger Murray, the evening’s MC, is up on stage. ”Welcome to Viracocha!” she bellows, undeterred by the small crowd of 12.
Ananta Fiddlehooper starts the evening with her electric violin, accompanied by self-composed loops of music. She picks up a sparkly hula hoop and continues playing while rhythmically twirling it.
Gaby Lala is up last. With her hair put up in Japanese cartoon style, she plucks a sitar, a ukelele and a theremin as the audience grows to 14.
At midnight, when everyone has trickled out, Siegel looks exhausted but content. There have been a lot of performances over the past year.
“The question really is, what haven’t we done on this stage?” volunteer and author Sean Taylor says after putting the room back in order.
“There was good, weird, and then there were the naked clowns,” says Siegel, laughing.
Ah, art — ah, free expression.
“We don’t know how long we can last,” Siegel says, “but I want us to have fun. I want us to explore what it means to be alive.”