I remember when my mom, a Mexican immigrant, could afford to live in the Mission District, back in 2008. At the time, I was a college student in the East Bay, studying literature and Chicanx history at Berkeley. But on weekends, I’d visit her on BART and she would take me to her favorite bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the area.
I remember buying my first copy of a Juan Felipe Herrera poetry collection, “Exiles of Desire,” at Adobe Books on 24th Street, a decade before he went on to become the Poet Laureate of the United States. I remember walking around Balmy Alley and meeting some of the artists who were involved in those historic murals. I remember the smoke, liquor, and smell of old leather inside Bissap Baobab — the Senegalese nightclub on Mission Street that closed in 2019 — before I was even 21.
Though I never lived in the Mission, I have felt a certain connection to the neighborhood, people, and history that I picked up from my mom and through being a first-generation Mexican American with a deep interest in local art, music, literature, history, and community.
That’s why I felt blindsidedly excited to learn that there is a used bookstore at 2141 Mission St. near 17th Street that has been around since 1981 that I’d never been to. Despite being written about, I’d never even heard of it. Until now.
Bolerium Books is a large, hidden shop on the third floor of a commercial building that, since Covid-19 started, can only be visited by appointment.
According to its website, the rare shop specializes in “books and ephemeral materials related to the history of Labor and other social movements, including the struggles for Black and Chicano equality, the Gay liberation movement, Feminism, and Asian-American activism.”
By chance, my friend, Kevin Madrigal — a local writer from South San Francisco — had an appointment and invited me along. After buzzing an intercom, and having an attendant come down to unlock the door and lead us up the staircase, I was suddenly standing inside the largest, most unlikely collection of used books and paraphernalia I had ever seen.
Though the shop keeps a massive collection of some 68,316 volumes on various subjects –from atomic energy and nuclear reactors to the Zapatistas — my friend and I were there specifically for the Latinx stock. As Mexican American writers with roots in the area, we felt like two piñatas inside a candy store; we wanted to hold it all.
An original poster from the first “Flor y Canto En El Barrio” Poetry Festival, featuring the iconic poet, Francisco X. Alarcon, and future San Francisco State University Ethnic Studies professor, Leticia Hernández-Linares? Got it.
Political artwork from the Royal Chicano Airforce dating back to the 1970s, which advocated for the free election of farm workers throughout California with Prop 14, or called for the end of gang violence? There’s that.
Rare Latinx comic books, pamphlets, textbooks, newspapers, and poetry collections from local and international voices that you won’t find anywhere else? They have that, too.
“We try to have the lesser heard voices, and not just a collection to be sold to rich collectors,” says Alexander Akin, a longtime employee and now co-owner at Bolerium. Together with John Durham, the original co-founder and senior owner, they have kept the shop open for three decades.
The bookstore originally shared space with Alfonso Vijil, owner of Libros Latinos. But in 2017, Vijil took his entire stock and relocated down to Southern California, where he still currently operates. According to Akin, Vijil set the standard for having a rich collection of Latinx texts acquired from traveling all over the world, and Bolerium felt like it was only right to keep that tradition alive once he left.
“It’s been one of our specialties for years. As part of our focus on both immigrant communities from around the world as well as non-majority people within the U.S,” Akin added.
I have never seen such a quirky, politically bursting Latinx art and literature collection like this — and I’ve been to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. But the most important part of Bolerium? It’s all for sale.
Some materials are so rare, in fact, that a handful of the country’s most esteemed universities acquire their books from Bolerium, from the same exact stock that any customer would.
“The Ethnic Studies Library at Berkeley is one of our biggest customers. Yale University as well. Indiana University is a serious customer for our posters,” says Akin. “For stuff that is specific to San Francisco, the Library [SFPL] actually has an amazing reading room, and they get stuff from us a lot. It’s great for non-mainstream history of San Francisco.”
I spent an afternoon there and, despite having multiple warehouse-sized rooms throughout the building, I only wandered the Latinx archives (Akin says they are not technically “archives” because that implies an intent to curate and keep it all together which, he reminds me, is not Bolerium’s mission). Instead, Bolerium is determined to sell, buy, or trade whatever they have available to anyone interested, from the biggest universities to the most local artisans and collectors.
“We like to have people from the community who are interested,” Akin says. “We have lots of individuals who come in or buy online and they get involved by doing a cool project with materials they’ve purchased from us.”
Since 1981, the unorthodox bookhaven has acquired over 4,813 items of Latinx materials officially listed and available in their store. For comparison, I did a search of another reputable rare books store in the Bay Area, Bibliomania, and they topped out at around 500 items in the same category.
“There are so many bookstores that carry the same stuff you can find anywhere,” Akin tells me. “Why I love Bolerium and why I came here — even though I could make more money sweeping the street — is that we are preserving stories whose importance might’ve not been recognized in their day. But as the world has changed, some of these voices have become more visible. I like being able to, in whatever small way we can, uplift these narratives and add to the diversity that people can expose themselves to.”
Bolerium is not where you should go to buy a generic history book. It’s where you go if you’re looking for an original text from the early 20th century, published by an unknown author that might’ve been stored away in someone’s attic until it eventually found its way to Bolerium.
“The Viola Novelty Company, established by Pascual Viola, was one of San Antonio’s Spanish-language publishers, not only printing books but also two satirical newspapers, El Vacílon and El Fandango,” Akin tells me. “The novel, “El Dominio de Satanas,” by Manuel Mateos, features a doctor from the fictional town of San Nicolas de las Huertas, who gets a tour of the underworld. When we acquired it, there were no records of any library in the world holding a copy. This would have been seen at the time as cheap fiction without serious merit, so it would have flown under the radar of most institutions in the 1920s.”
But now, times have changed, and novels like this are appreciated as windows into the popular culture of the time. If time traveling into the past to rethink our present sounds like something you’d enjoy, then hop into Bolerium, and get ready for the historical ride.
To visit, buy, trade or sell rare books:
Bolerium Books is located at 2141 Mission St., Suite 300, near the 16th Street BART Station. Call (415) 863-6353 or firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit. Be aware, certain areas are no longer accessible for browsing, so you may be advised to prepare a list from the store’s online inventory.
(An issue of !Basta ya! from 1970, published in the Mission. Photo: Alexander Akin)