Jonathan Siegel, founder of Viracocha- a haven for 20th century second hand pieces and local art. Photo, 2011

Viracocha, a Valencia collective filled with market finds, antiques, music and local art — one musician called it “a creative person’s flea incubator” — is set to close its doors by February, according to a letter emailed by its founder Jonathan Siegel.

“We’re losing a place for artists from varied backgrounds to come together and create,” said musician Isaac Frankle, known to some as “Shovelman” for his guitar rigged out of a shovel.

In a letter to email subscribers and posted to Facebook, Siegel, who is also an actor and poet, wrote, “I’ve thought about this letter for close to a year…I’m leaving San Francisco.”

The letter continues: “I must move on. I have my personal reasons…I have many reasons.”

It is not immediately apparent what those reasons are, though some have speculated that it’s a money issue. Siegel declined to talk for this article. Others made it clear that regardless of the reason, Siegel’s energy will be missed. Tireless and grand, Siegel and his friends hosted an eclectic set of events at the Viracocha Creation Factory including a free university, a lending library and a bone marrow center.

Siegel’s message leaves open the possibility of the store at 998 Valencia getting new ownership and management in Siegel’s absence. To that end, a fundraiser is being held on December 6th, at Viracocha.

“I can’t help but see it in the context of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that’s losing its artists,” said Frankle.

Siegel alludes to this in his message, saying that a new business model is being explored that would make the store more sustainable for another person to run.

Aside from its shows and artful market finds, Viracocha has been known for its quirky manner of doing business. Actor and artist Jason Whitacre worked at the store for two years. The pay was often infrequent —friends got paid when Siegel could afford it — the store gave him the freedom to explore his art. That opportunity, he said, was invaluable.

“Jonathan has meant more to me, and continues to mean more to me, than almost anybody else on this Earth,” Whitacre said. “Under his watch, I’ve been able to be part of something unbelievable.”

Siegel created Viracocha in 2010. He envisioned the store as a place to display and sell the old furniture and other finds he enjoyed collecting. More importantly, he saw it as being a haven for the artists he knew in San Francisco.

“I could always go in there and get my creativity sparked,” said singer-songwriter Mark Peterson-Estrada. Musician, Xandra Copora, said that Viracocha is the type of place that makes musicians, poets and other artists feel loved. “Viracocha has always been a kind of artistic refuge from the storm,” she said.

Viracocha has been a labor of love since the beginning. Siegel and other local artists, including Copora, renovated the entire storefront on their own. If you happened to walk by when they were working, Siegel would invite you in, offer you a beer and talk about his plans.

“I helped paint Viracocha in its inception,” Copora said.  A wall made up entirely of free wood taken from pallets and the panels of a home was Siegel’s favorite part of the store.

Peterson-Estrada and Copora both credit the store’s vision and creative energy to Siegel’s presence. “Jonathan Siegel [has] raised a family in San Francisco,” Copora said.

Siegel raised his family of artists in the Mission because he saw the district as “the last bastion for what was the true San Francisco.”

While it’s currently unclear whether Viracocha will continue in Siegel’s absence, it’s clear that in his absence, it could not be the same.

“Jonathan Siegel is Viracocha,” said Whitacre.

If you’d like to support Viracocha at it’s December 6th fundraiser, or at some of the other smaller fundraisers to be held in the coming months, be sure to follow them for information on Facebook here, or on Twitter here.

Justin Richmond

Justin Richmond has been educated all over California, including Orange County, Los Angeles and Berkeley. It’s an experience, he says, that will help him cover community colleges and high schools. He's...

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17 Comments

  1. There is no room in the new “entrepreneurial” SF for labors of love.

    There is only room now for the cold calculus of profits and losses, ad revenues and monetization of mass-surveillance.

    Thank you Google, Facebook and Twitter for destroying a once great city.

    1. Did you miss the part where Siegel said he was moving on for personal reasons? No mention of any financial issues.

      The gentrification/tech/eviction paradigm has to be pushed regardless though, right?

      1. Did you miss the part where Siegel couldn’t always pay his people? Clearly, money troubles were an issue, and I’m guessing that jumbo rent was central to those money troubles.

        While it’s unclear if his rent got bumped up recently, that’s irrelevant. because no doubt the rent was absurdly high to begin with.

        My point is country simple: high rents make labors of love impossible. And it is precisely these labors of love, by the thousands, that made SF special.

        1. Yes, rents are high in popular, affluent areas. Nothing new or original there.

          The article says that “some have speculated that it’s a money issue”. But that’s just a speculation. For all we know, it’s a purely personal matter, and you are just framing the transition to suit your agenda.

          That said, it doesn’t sound like it was a very viable enterprise and, while they might be room for a few quirky enterprises in the city, bills do have to be paid.

          Perhaps someone else will take on the venture in a location that makes more fiscal sense? Will you be contributing at the fundraiser? Volunteering you time and energy to save the place? Or do you prefer to just chew at the political fat?

        2. If money is an issue, he can move somewhere in the city (or Bay Area) that’s less expensive than Valencia/21st. Lucky for him, that’s most of the city.

    1. Yes, the numbers cannot crunch. You could say the same thing about that pirate store.

      Many of these idiosyncratic, self-indulgent stores are only viable because the owner is wealthy and runs it more as a hobby than a business.

      There are cheaper places for such endeavors than prime Valencia Street. For instance, there are a few vacant stores towards the eastern end of 24th Street, where Adobe Books moved recently.

      1. John, fyi, the Pirate Store at 826 Valencia is not one of “these idiosyncratic, self-indulgent stores are only viable because the owner is wealthy and runs it more as a hobby than a business.” It’s actually a front for a international conspiracy to improve the neighborhood’s literacy. You should drop by some time.

        1. Mark – The Pirate Store is great. It is the hidden jewel of Valencia St. My youngest son [now 25] had gone there when he was in grammar school, plus he had joined a local bookmobile. Because of those 2 places, he still loves to read, and use his imagination!

      2. “Idiosyncratic, self-indulgent stores” – have you ever actually been to Viracocha or 826 Valencia?? If you had, you would know how wrong you are. Idiosyncratic, sure. That’s part of their unique charm. But self-indulgent? Get a fucking clue.

        1. Lu, OK, maybe self-absorbed would have been a better term.

          Yes, I am familiar with those stores and I do find them amusing in a quirky way,

          But I can imagine life without them. And you don’t have to swear to make your point.

          1. Dave Eggers, owner of 826 Valencia (aka The Pirate Store) earned his money by writing a memoir about his experience raising his 8 year old brother after both his parent died — within a year of each other. He was 21 at the time.

            He took the money he earned from that memoir and started the non-profit 826 Valencia which offers free programs and tutoring for children, in multiple languages. The Pirate Store sells many whimsical pirate related materials, designed to encourage children to drag their parents in off the sidewalk. It also creates a nice environment for kids coming there to learn.

            Mr. Eggers wrote at least one book that you should read before casting aspersions on him: Zeitoun. It’s the nonfiction story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American who choose to ride out Hurricane Katrina in his home in New Orleans.

        2. *Utterly* self-indulgent. Viracocha is not some community resource, it is a clubhouse for a few people to show how quirky and special they are. The very definition of self-indulgent.

          Now 826, on the other hand, that is putting quirk to a higher purpose, and provides, along with ScholarMatch, a valuable service.

      3. “prime Valencia”…

        The only people who use the word “prime” in this context are realtors and developers. Thanks for outing yourself.

  2. Artists should band together in tribes, go all across America, inhabiting sleepy abandoned cities, buy up property there, make them “cool” again, and attract developers to swoop in and usher in a new phase of gentrification. Wash, rinse, repeat, and America is back to being awesome again.

    1. There is an article today about artists moving to downtown Vallejo in the Chronicle. That is a weird place with lots of old architecture

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