Art by Xara Thustra

Gallery-goers filled the Luggage Store Gallery to attend the May 10 opening of a group show of 66 Bay Area and international artists celebrating the 10th anniversary of artspace and shop Needles & Pens.

The Mission space was born a decade ago when a guy who liked zines and a girl who liked sewing decided to open up shop, and live illegally, in a tiny storefront on 14th Street.

“It’s crazy that a little zine shop can still be here,” said sewing and craft maven Breezy Culbertson, co-owner of Needles & Pens.

“When we started it we always just said to each other: ‘One more year of doing this, and that’s it,’” added zine connoisseur Andrew Martin Scott, her business partner.

The exhibit, now continuing through June 8, features pieces by artists who have all had work on display in the gallery at Needles & Pens. Large works include Kyle Ranson’s mixed media piece “The Carpet,” a colorful acrylic on wood painting by Xara Thustra, and an installation of large photographs from the publication Hamburger Eyes.

The 10th anniversary show is remarkable, even to the founders themselves, in part because Needles & Pens was started on a whim.

In 2003, Scott and Culbertson had just returned to San Francisco from several months of traveling in Europe. The pair – then dating, but now business partners – struggled to find jobs downturn after the dot com bubble burst.

They wondered, why not do their own thing?  Scott had been making zines since he was a teenager and Culbertson loved creating her own clothes and jewelry. They wanted a space that would combine both.

The down economy also meant opportunity—specifically, laissez-faire landlords. When they found a tiny Mission storefront on 14th Street with a landlord who didn’t care if they slept in the back, Culbertson and Scott opened Needles & Pens, an emporium for zines and handmade goods.

“The beginning was the toughest,” said Culbertson. “We were so young, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were just stumbling along.”

Despite what Scott describes as “real naiveté” and struggle to break even the first two years, the shop persisted. In 2006, they moved to their current, larger space on 16th Street where they were able to include a gallery to showcase local art.

Needles & Pens also gained international recognition from art publications and journals. Culbertson and Scott found themselves curating group shows at galleries in Sweden, England and Japan.

Berkeley-based artist Miriam Stahl, whose work appears in the Luggage Store show, said the shop plays a role encouraging young artists in the neighborhood.

“Needles & Pens will take these zines even if they aren’t something totally professional,” she said. “It makes you think: ‘I could do that’… This keeps a new generation of young people making stuff.”

Scott is frank about the struggles involved in keeping his decade-old business afloat. “It’s hard to make money,” he explained. “We’re selling zines for $3 each. It’s like selling chewing gum, not a high profit margin. People that go into zines don’t last that long.”

Several specialty book and art shops in San Francisco have closed their doors in recent years. Brick and mortar locations for the Curiosity Shoppe in the Mission and Giant Robot in the Haight are just two examples. Scott credits Needles & Pens’ ten-year run to “cool landlords, lucking out, and masochism.”

“Breezy and I are gluttons for punishment,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to live off what we live on. We’re used to living on less.”

Scott admits to wondering if people’s interest in zines may be waning. He said he’s observed a lack of money from Silicon Valley employees going towards purchasing art.

Culbertson, for her part, keeps an open mind about the future.

“The shop takes on a life of its own,” she said.  “It’s a community space. The community still wants it.”

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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  1. Good luck to Needles & Pins. Here’s to many more years! This is such a great shop. Nice to hear about non-greedy landlords..

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  2. Knowing Breezy Culbertson for nearly half my life,I know and gain inspiration from her resilience and her determination to make something work just for the love of doing it.Few people are more deserving to the success she and Andrew have had. Congratulations!

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  3. How do places like this make money? It sounds like the owners are barely scraping by.

    Best of luck to them.

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