When I moved to San Francisco three years ago, I got a job at Adobe Books and fulfilled my long-sought fantasy of working at a used bookstore.
Working at Adobe is even more interesting than I could imagine in my dreams. There’s a whole community of people who surround the shop, which is illustrated in a name-web that’s displayed on its very walls, high above the shelves of books. Written five years ago by Amanda Eicher, one of the first curators of Adobe’s Backroom Gallery, the web begins with January 1989 and Andrew McKinley (the owner of Adobe). Next are the names of McKinley’s family members, then Bryan Bilby (who originally co-owned the shop), and it goes on to list former employees, musicians who have played in the store, and artists who have exhibited in the Backroom. If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for long enough, you’ll recognize names of people you know, or maybe a politician or vagabond you’ve heard about on the news.
Recently, a few more names have been added to the web, further evidence of the store’s ever-evolving community. Additional names appear on the walls and new faces emerge in the store, but there’s one factor that remains the same: It’s these regulars who make Adobe great.
Andrew is the owner of Adobe Books and my boss, but he’s a lot more than that. He’s the binding agent. His talent is his memory for faces and names. Once Andrew meets you, he’ll remember your name and approximately three important facts about you.
The second time I came to talk to him about getting a job at Adobe, he said, “Oh yes, Michelle, who went to Oberlin, and grew up in Hawaii, and is a journalist.” Based on the aforementioned facts, Andrew’s “good feeling” about me, and my ability to ramble on for hours about my favorite books, I was hired.
Andrew really loves books, but his happiness and drive come from the people who frequent the shop and from all of his friends. My brother always calls Andrew “the unofficial mayor of San Francisco,” because Andrew knows everyone and they all love him.
Ananda is the book-shelving master. He wears a black robe and sports a white beard — think Gandalf style. Apparently, it’s actually very difficult to get black wizard-like robes; he has to special-order them from a ninja catalog.
Ananda is Andrew’s wingman on estate-sale book-shopping sprees. They’ll come back to the store carrying crates of new inventory, and Ananda will find space for it all on shelves that seem entirely filled to me.
Ananda’s dream is to own a teahouse, so on the shopping sprees he amasses cups and saucers, exotic cushions and rugs, low tables, and so on, which he stashes above the store’s big windows. He’s an expert in naturopathic remedies — he drinks lichen tea for energy, makes elixirs, and often discusses alchemy.
Steve always comes in, like clockwork. He is Andrew’s roommate (they live about two blocks from the store) and although he’s not an actual employee, he is there every day.
He always begins with a follow-up thought about a past conversation; his memory is impeccable. Next, Steve will ask me if I have the Chronicle and then will do the crossword puzzle. (FYI: He’ll already have finished The New York Times ’ crossword puzzle while at his job as chess overseer at the Mechanics’ Institute Library.) Occasionally, he’ll look up and ask me Hawaii trivia (“What’s May 1 in Hawaii — three letters?” “Lei.”).
A customer will come in and ask for something I’ve never heard of before, and then Steve will chime in and not only has he heard of it — he’s read it. If there is anyone who has come close to reading the hundreds of thousands of books that line the walls of Adobe, it is Steve.
When I first began working as a bookseller at Adobe, Devon curated the Backroom Gallery. Devon is extremely knowledgeable about art, while also being nurturing, encouraging people in their creative pursuits. Noticing my interest in live music, Devon suggested that I become the coordinator for the shop’s live music events, which I have been doing ever since.
Devon cleared out and cleaned up Adobe’s window spaces, transforming them into the Parlor Windows for experimental art exhibitions. With the help of artists Andy Vogt and Joshua Churchill, she also doubled the size of the Backroom Gallery. She did all this while earning her MA in Exhibition and Museum Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Devon still regularly checks in at Adobe, but she now works as the program manager at Kadist San Francisco, a foundation that focuses on contemporary art and artists’ importance to developing society and culture. You can visit her every Saturday at Kadist’s reading room, where you can immerse yourself in a collection of art magazines from near and far.
Working toward her MA in curatorial studies at California College of the Arts, Katie has taken over as curator of the Backroom Gallery. She’s also a barista at Faye’s Video and Espresso Bar.
When Katie enters Adobe with an artist, you can see her adding and crossing off items on her mental checklist of everything that needs to get done before the opening. She’s extremely excited by art and artists, and has a spirited energy that’s all her own. I never doubt that everything will get hung up or arranged the right way before the opening.
Together, Katie and Devon have given special consideration to the fact that the Backroom Gallery is set within a bookstore, which not only contributes to the experience of the art, but also often inspires a dialogue between the artist and the shop itself.
Kyle stops into Adobe between arduous bike rides. We quickly became friends, and his drop-ins became times when we’d talk about Kyle’s next gig with his band Pale Hoarse, the mural he was working on, or new portraits he was creating. He introduced me to San Francisco music from before I moved to the Bay. From Kyle, I borrowed 45s of Tina Age 13 and Hickey, and heard about early Coachwhips shows at the bookshop.
For his “Portraits” show at Adobe Books, which Devon curated, Kyle painted a Herculean picture of Andrew and another of his bandmate Kim Pierce. He also painted musician and artist friends, like John Dwyer, Sonny Smith, Daniel Higgs, Heidi Alexander, and others he’d met through Adobe.
Aaron has been an employee since long before I’d even heard of Adobe Books. Currently, he works the Thursday and Sunday daytime shifts. He leaves his nights free to play gigs. A clarinetist and composer, Aaron has been creating experimental musical compositions in San Francisco for over 12 years.
Before I knew or heard Aaron’s music, I fell in love with his hand-drawn comics. In lieu of flyers to promote his shows, he has created a comic series littered with elaborate space creatures.
One of Aaron’s most recent releases puts music to the writing of outsider artists (I’m using that term’s original meaning) like Adobe regular Michael Bernard Loggins, who writes at nearby Creativity Explored.
Pati ’s the most recent hire at Adobe. A native Peruvian, she makes grandpa sweaters look darling and has the most epic half-dos I’ve ever seen. She’s studying visual arts at CCA and also works on the fourth floor at SFMOMA.
She’s transformed the Parlor Windows into elaborate book displays, including books hung on a clothesline, cascading piles of red books, and hanging banners reading “LIBROS, LIBROS, LIBROS.”
In September, Pati will be exhibiting with Emily Huffman in the Backroom Gallery.
Orion had an art show at Adobe called “I Was a Green Beret,” which Devon curated. The show featured miniature trompe l’oeil paintings of book cover designs. These works expressed a passion for book collecting that Orion and Devon share.
Along with being a humble member of the surf community, keeping an Americana-themed blog, and making his own art, Orion works at SFMOMA, where he gets to put up other people’s art.
This is just a time capsule of Adobe Books and the community that’s intertwined with it. If you want to discover the community of Adobe, visit often.