A Modern tragedy

Important progressive bookstore and gathering place facing closure

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SF Examiner photo by Cindy Chew

news@sfbg.com

After more than 40 years in San Francisco, the progressive independent bookstore Modern Times may have to close its doors in the near future, but not before issuing one final appeal for help from the community.

In the 1990s, Modern Times managed to survive chain retailers' predatory business strategies and cheap prices. More recently, it was able to withstand changes in the industry due to the increasing popularity of e-books and online retailers. More than half of the independent bookstores in the country shut down between 1990 and 2011.

This time, the threat is local: the gentrification and eviction crises that are on so many San Franciscans' minds these days.

"Our rents on Valencia Street, where we were for 20-some years, kept going up," explains Ruth Mahaney, the senior member of the collective that runs Modern Times. "When our most recent lease was up in 2011, the landlord wanted to raise it by over $1,000 a month, probably $2,000."

The bookstore had already been functioning at a loss for years because of its continually rising rent and other factors. There was no way it could afford such a massive rent increase, so Mahaney and her associates moved deeper into the Mission to their current location on 24th and Alabama streets.

"It's been lovely," Mahaney says of the new location. "People in the neighborhood have been really welcoming. We have much better rent and a great landlord. We're getting new customers and younger people. So we're really happy there."

Unfortunately, the bookstore has continued to function at a loss, albeit a much smaller one.

"Since we've moved, I think a lot of people haven't found us again, so we're not as much a center of activity as we used to be," Mahaney speculates. "I think a lot of our old customers thought we closed."

Progressive hub

Modern Times first moved to the Mission District in 1980, nine years after the bookstore opened as an all-volunteer collective project responding to "the hopes and passions" of the '60s. In the '70s, it was a resource for political activists striving to make progressive changes for social justice in the US. But by the '80s, the nation's political and economic climate had changed. If it wanted to survive, Modern Times would have to change as well.

The bookstore broadened its focus to meet the literary needs and interests of progressive people and the Latino community. It developed the city's first broad selection of Spanish-language literature and non-fiction. It was among the first bookstores in San Francisco to feature feminist and queer sections. From poetry readings to its Fall Zine Expo showcasing local artists, the variety of events it has hosted over the years made Modern Times a gathering place.

Mahaney and her associates have many ideas for how to make Modern Times a vibrant community space again, from new books to expanded lighting and more comfortable reading chairs.

"We want to make it more of a place for people to hang out and have meetings and events," she explains. "We want to have all sorts of new events, not just readings. We've been remodeling and we have a wonderful space in the back now that works really well for small things. We just need people to find us again."

Before this new vision of Modern Times can be realized, it will have to find some way to get rid of the debt it incurred trying to pay the rents on Valencia Street.

"We're hoping to raise $60,000 by the end of January," Mahaney states. "We need more than that ultimately, but $60,000 will take care of a lot of the back debt and get us going so that we're on more stable footing. If we can raise that, I think we have a chance. We can make it on the kind of business we have at this point and earn the rest of what we need more gradually, but we need this push first."

Comments

poor thing should be put out of it's misery and allowed to die with dignity.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 07, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

of places like the Lusty Lady and Modern Times are just unseemly.

Let it go, the extra few months are just an sad.

Posted by Matlock on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

There's no apostrophe in its when it's in the possessive case, which it is in this case. I say this because it's true and because it's my mission in life to instruct the world as to the correct way to spell its, in particular not to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one. On top of that, I say this because your snide attitude bothered me because Modern Times is dear to my heart and it is not a poor thing that should be put out of its misery to die with dignity. It is, on the contrary, a rich resource that deserves to live, despite the cynicism of a nation of killers in denial, etc. along witgh the rest of what's wrong with this US culture, including its propensity to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

" ,,,poor thing should be put out of its misery and allowed to die with dignity...."

There's no apostrophe in its when it's in the possessive case, which it is in this case. I say this because it's true and because it's my mission in life to instruct the world as to the correct way to spell its, in particular not to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one. On top of that, I say this because your snide attitude bothered me because Modern Times is dear to my heart and it is not a poor thing that should be put out of its misery to die with dignity. It is, on the contrary, a rich resource that deserves to live, despite the cynicism of a nation of killers in denial, etc. along with the rest of what's wrong with this US culture, including its propensity to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

If you want to save this bookstore then give them some money. That's the problem, apparently. What are you waiting for?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 7:52 am

" poor thing should be put out of it's misery and allowed to die with dignity. "

Funny, that's how I feel about internet trolls

Posted by Joseph Brenner on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 8:06 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 8:17 am

some stupid fuck who adds exactly zero to the discussion, except some half assed attempt at upsetting others. Because the sad stupid fuck has nothing else going on in their pathetic lives.
So, basically, you!
:)

Posted by Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

The other guy makes good points.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

So basically you are the troll….

Posted by Guest on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 4:05 am

Test.

Posted by Nonpartisan Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

Except
internet
trolls
have
no
dignity.
They
are
like
piles
of
dog
shit
on
the
sidewalk.
Just
ignore
it
and
walk
over
it.
This
format
style
is
the
only
way
I
can
get
this
comment
on
from
experimenting.
What
is
wrong
with
this
site?

Posted by Nonpartisan Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

"Whenever Yamazaki finds himself on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where the independent bookstore Cody's Books stood from 1956 to 2008, he feels a hole in his heart. He knows the hole made by Modern Times will be even bigger because of the bookstore's unique political role here."

Modern Times more important than Cody's?

Come on.

Posted by racer さ on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 9:04 am

City Lights owns their building - that's the key to their success. Progressives need to fight for more property ownership.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 9:45 am

But to so called "progressives" owning property makes you the enemy… They would rather use rent control to steal property from those "enemies".

Posted by Guest on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 4:00 am

Keep moving south, Modern Times. The real radicals are in Daly City.

Posted by Chromefields on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:53 am

and their shops as well. Hopefully Campos will get right on this and pass a law.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

I will get right on this after i give a million dollars to the black bookstore which also cannot survive.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

Book stores have a crappy business model but if they are vaguely left-wing then they must be saved, but not otherwise.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

I miss Adobe where I spent hundreds of dollars. I miss the bookstore that was on Broadway and Kearny where I also spent hundreds.

Giving money to a place that has a done business model is just extending the agony.

In the case of Modern Times, the surly help certainly didn't help the business model.

Posted by Matlock on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

It's my understanding that they are actually making enough to cover their expenses at the new space and that the fundraising is primarily to pay down old debt which is threatening to sink them.

Say what you will but if a one time big fundraiser can secure a public gathering space that has a 42 year history in sf and allow it to be solvent in its new form, it seems pretty worth it to me.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:38 pm

AGREED!

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 6:56 am

You know, that is how a business is supposed to be viable. Not from charity.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 7:53 am

At least Modern Times isn't asking for a handout from the government.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 8:36 am

I'll bet that MT does not, since it is loss-making.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 9:18 am

It's my understanding that they are actually making enough to cover their expenses at the new space and that the fundraising is primarily to pay down old debt which is threatening to sink them.

Say what you will but if a one time big fundraiser can secure a public gathering space that has a 42 year history in sf and allow it to be solvent in its new form, it seems pretty worth it to me.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

" ,,,poor thing should be put out of its misery and allowed to die with dignity...."

There's no apostrophe in its when it's in the possessive case, which it is in this case. I say this because it's true and because it's my mission in life to instruct the world as to the correct way to spell its, in particular not to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one. On top of that, I say this because your snide attitude bothered me because Modern Times is dear to my heart and it is not a poor thing that should be put out of its misery to die with dignity. It is, on the contrary, a rich resource that deserves to live, despite the cynicism of a nation of killers in denial, etc. along witgh the rest of what's wrong with this US culture, including its propensity to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:50 pm

Trolls should be put out of their misery. Modern Times should live on.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 12:09 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 7:54 am

Put your money where your mouth is.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 8:03 am

" ,,,poor thing should be put out of its misery and allowed to die with dignity...."

There's no apostrophe in its when it's in the possessive case, which it is in this case. I say this because it's true and because it's my mission in life to instruct the world as to the correct way to spell its, in particular not to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one. On top of that, I say this because your snide attitude bothered me because Modern Times is dear to my heart and it is not a poor thing that should be put out of its misery to die with dignity. It is, on the contrary, a rich resource that deserves to live, despite the cynicism of a nation of killers in denial, etc. along witgh the rest of what's wrong with this US culture, including its propensity to put an apostrophe in its when its shouldn't have one.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 10:11 am

in this debate than we thought.

Viable businesses do not survive unless they have a rich owmer who runs it as a hobby. Why don't you put your life's savings into MT?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 11:07 am

Test.

Posted by Nonpartisan Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

Test.

Posted by Nonpartisan Guest on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

Adobe Books is still open, but they had to relocate also, are now on 24th st. b/c the gentry juggernaut has changed most rentals along that Valencia corridor in the last 20 years, especially the last five. Forest Books, also on 16th at Valencia has had to relocate in the last couple years; Abandoned Planet got closed out, a new independent retailer near 19th didn't last long, Modern Times had to move and many people indeed still don't know that it's still around, just went elsewhere in the Mission 2.5 years ago. Only Borderlands, a specialty genre bookstore which opened a cafe helping to subsidize the venture, and Dogeared Books are still going on the Valencia strip which was a Bookstore Row.
re: "In the case of Modern Times, the surly help certainly didn't help the business model" --i worked at Cody's on Telegraph 2000-'04, an operation (apart from the other Cody's branches) which was four times the size of Modern Times in its heyday. i can say sometimes employees weren't especially helpful to customers, and sometimes people really went above and beyond to offer service, the same as in many customer service arenas. i can see some Modern Times help sometimes coming across as unhelpful--i began being a patron in 2000 and worked there '03-'12--but don't think it's been more notable there than at many other local enterprises, and i think on the whole, a majority of workers at Cody's and MT have offered a lot in interfacing with the public and supporting people in finding the sometimes otherwise difficult to access print media, author suggestions and public reading opportunities they want. and i'll note that MT has really put creativity and effort over the years into making available unique titles, interactive art events and classes, and supported local authors and small presses--as a project operating with a much smaller scale and staff than big indies like Cody's or Stacey's Books (rip), formerly of downtown SF.
fwiw, MT does pay taxes, the debt's grown on other fronts. some people have grown accustomed to browsing online and mail ordering all their books, videos, candles, ironware, etc. some folks still value seeing what a storefront can hold, and communicating re: literature and political texts in person, more than in virtual space. if the Guardian wants to invite folks to support this historic independent and collectively operated bookstore, let them. if you're not interested, ok; no need to bother commenting.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 12:20 am

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