Modern Times is closing after 45 years in San Francisco.
Today is the bookstore’s last day, coming a week after the election of Donald Trump. Ruth Mahaney, who has worked at the shop for 35 years, said closing in the wake of the presidential election was particularly painful.
Mahaney, one of four who collectively own the bookstore, said she was glad the decision had been made before the election.
“It would be really hard to decide now,” she said.
On Monday, some left the store, known for its leftist bent and shelves stocked with feminism, anarchist, and communist literature, with stacks of books in their hands on labor theory and political economics.
Customers were taking advantage of the half-off fire sale that saw the store’s shelves slowly picked bare. Still, hundreds of volumes remained, all of which needed to be sold pay off outstanding debts, Mahaney said.
Modern Times has been a center for radical and progressive politics since it first opened in the Castro, at a time when few other bookstores included literature on feminism and Latin American politics, for instance, Mahaney said.
“At that point, they didn’t have a women’s section, they didn’t have a gay section, they didn’t have a Latin American section,” she said.
The store has all three, along with a Spanish books section, shelves labeled “La Raza,” “Anarchism,” and “Global Activism,” and a socialist and communist pamphlet rack in the back. A fiction section was added decades ago to capitalize on novel reading, but the store was still heavily geared towards leftist politics.
Its closure in the aftermath of the Trump election was difficult for long-time customers, many of whom had frequented the bookstores for decades. Carol Jean Wisnieski, a teacher of English as a second language at City College on Valencia Street, used to drop in on the bookstore weekly at its old Valencia location to pick up political pins or check its calendar for upcoming events.
“We need this place more than ever,” said Carol Jean Wisnieski, a frequent customer since she moved to San Francisco in 1972.
“The irony is that now with this awful man who’s been elected, there’s a deluge of people looking for books on activism and how to resist and grassroots organizing,” said Kate Rosenberger, the founder of Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street and Alley Cat Books on 24th Street.
The store was a hub for leftist discussion. Mahaney said that in their pre-internet days, Modern Times would get calls from those asking for the time and location of upcoming demonstrations. When those same protests got out of hand, people knew to call the bookstore to get the phone number of the National Lawyers Guild.
“I remember a demonstration where 500 people got arrested and they were being held at a pier warehouse,” said Mahaney, recalling an action following the Rodney King beating in 1992. Mahaney got a call from someone held at the warehouse and hundreds of people yelling for them in the background.
The Trump election, she said, was maddening but just one of several disappointments for the left in the lifetime of the store. The election of Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, the Iraq War — all were dispiriting times for progressives, she said.
The AIDS epidemic in particular hit Modern Times hard. At the time, and in their old location on Valencia Street, the store employed a man named Tede Mathews, who “insisted” on the Spanish-only books section and sought to involve little-known authors in readings, according to Mahaney.
But Mathews died of AIDS in the mid-1990s, which Rosenberger said changed the bookstore forever.
“Frankly I don’t think the place was ever the same after Tede died,” said Rosenberger. “It’s a tough battle, it’s tough to keep your head up and keep smiling with people.”
Changing locations did not help. Modern Times started at 17th and Sanchez streets before moving to Valencia Street in the 1980s, where it stayed — in two different spots — until 2011. It moved to 24th Street then, into a smaller and more out-of-the-way spot, and many of its customers did not follow, Mahaney said.
The lower sales proved fatal, as the store had accumulated large amounts of debt paying rent on Valencia Street. It tried fundraising, renting out a back space as an office, and obtaining credit, but its debt hung overhead. The store has not broken even in several years, Mahaney said.
The closure means 24th Street has lost a bookstore. The commercial corridor had four — Modern Times, Adobe Books, Alley Cat, and the small Press for specialty books. The bookmarks given to customers along with their purchase noted the corridor as a book row.
Andrew McKinley, the founder of Adobe Books down the street, remarked on the fact and said the street “won’t be as bookish a row” anymore. He said it was an “inspiration” that the store could carry on as a collective for so many decades. Adobe Books is now a co-op and McKinley said he was “saddened” by the news that Modern Times was closing.
“I hope more bookstores open up shop here,” he said. “The more the merrier.”
Erick Arguello, the president of the neighborhood association Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, also lamented the loss, which he said affected both the Mission District and the city as a whole. The store would open its doors to “neighborhood folks” who needed a meeting space and were “great allies” to other businesses along 24th Street.
“They’ve been an institution around radical progressive literature and they provided a space where people can really express a different type of thought,” he said. “They were very integrated into the community.”
Several tenants were interested in the space, he added, though he did not say who.
Mahaney, manning the counter on Monday, echoed concerns heard throughout San Francisco in the past week: what would a future under Trump look like. As a lesbian, she has skin in the game, but said residents of the Mission District had the potential to be most affected. She had come to love the neighborhood in her decades here, she said, and worried about its inhabitants.
Modern Times will not be open as a library for leftists during the Trump presidency. But Mahaney will be resisting in a more direct way.
“I plan to be in the streets a lot during the Trump administration,” she said.