Big Changes at Adobe Books

Aug 19, 2013 at 6am

Editor's Note: As part of our Facing Change package, we invited Mission icon Andrew McKinley to write a piece about having to move his beloved shop, Adobe Books, after his landlord raised the rent by a significant amount. Adobe Books was more than a lit hub, it has also hosted generations of artists thanks to its dedicated owner and volunteer staff. Andrew was kind enough to accept our offer to contribute, with the caveat that his piece would need to be hand written since he doesn't own a computer or use email. We were thrilled at the idea of publishing such a personalized essay, and have for you here both the transcribed version of Andrew's story as well as a copy of the original piece, should you prefer to read it in his own writing. 

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The demolition team was quick, and they did an excellent job. There is nothing left but fragile, perishable memories.

For 25 years, I had a bookstore in the Mission district. I started with the hope of selling good, interesting, and useful books at low prices. I never expected to attach myself to a locale that would provide me with so much entertainment, stimulation, and cultural connections.

I am pleased with the bargain I have made, for I know there is a rich story from all that occupancy. It was important to take the risk to build a space and then watch it fill not just with books, but with the people who give life to a community and make a place special so that it will always be known as a special place.

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When I first opened Adobe, I remember remarking on how so many of the people who wandered in the door were artistic – lots of young people starting out on their careers and adventures. The place was emptier then, and all those who cared to visit were therefore more precious and more welcome. Perhaps we had the hospitality of the old Western frontier – a welcome way station in what appeared to some as a savage wilderness. Only now do I realize what a rare thing it was to have so many young and vibrant people gathered around – and not in a school situation. I will always be grateful for my school days, but the best part of my education has been right here on 16th Street. Here I came up against the very face of life in all its diverse and sometimes pathetic forms. Never have I lived in a neighborhood so diverse or where the different cultures and races have mixed so harmoniously. People feel comfortable in the Mission, and when you are comfortable, truly great things can begin to happen.

I always wanted great people to congregate in my store – who doesn’t? If something happened, if there was a scene that located in the Adobe space, if we helped to foster an era or an art movement, then I am grateful. But it certainly takes time, and book-selling paid the rent so that other things – artistic things – could happen in the space. In the dense and crowded world of the urban Mission, people needed a place to unwind and entertain – not everyone has a great home life or living situation, and I always wanted everyone to feel welcome. Getting people to hang out was no problem, and letting people put their art up on the walls seemed like the gracious thing to do. I hired artists as clerks, and I made it easy and free for people to use the space for displays. I allowed motivated people to promote their own work or their friends’ work. In the early days, we would never think of charging commissions.

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When Amanda Eicher offered to build a gallery in the back of the store and then curate a few shows, I was delighted. She created an intimate space that focused on the work similar to what more formal galleries offered. The back-room gallery became a cut above showing art in a cafe, with none of the attitude and politics that most traditional galleries seem to foster. It was a perfect place for young emerging artists to start out without the discomfort or pressure of a full-scale gallery. The times saw the return of making art close to the street level, where artists drew inspiration directly from the things around them – urban decay, graffiti – an almost naive style based on street experience. All this began to command a growing respect.

There was a collaboration not only between artists but also between artists and poets, and between artists and musicians. I guess this has been happening for years, but it is important when creative people relax and begin to help each other. This spirit of mutual respect and assistance – this is what helped to mold and shape what some people would like to call a Mission School. The bookstore was a comfortable place for artists of all kinds, and we are lucky if any great attention is now paid to this particular time.

All this great stuff was happening while book-selling paid the bills and subsidized whatever scene was percolating, but over time something happened to book-selling, and what happened is probably why I am writing this as a bit of a historical memoir.

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Blame it on the Internet; it is so easy but oh, so true. The number of bookstores diminished quickly. The content and knowledge in them was available elsewhere. When we opened, we were one of five street-accessible shops within one block of 16th Street and Valencia Street. Now there will be none.

We could have stayed on, but a new landlord was ambitious to get a higher yield for his property, and the squeeze between rising rents and diminishing book-selling income led to the present situation. Am I a victim? More like I am someone who tripped – someone who was tripped up by events. The old ways and the old methods of transmitting knowledge have been forever altered, and something has definitely been pushed aside in the process. Even if we could have stayed, the clientele is changing, and all those young people who showed up here now keep arriving but have to hustle so much more just to pay the rent, which is getting to be pretty dear. The “scene” that we helped to make and so very much enjoyed is destined now to erupt and percolate somewhere else.

I am grateful to all the many fine people who banded together to save and preserve the bookstore. It is a wonderful success story, even if we are to never sell another book. The new Adobe Bookstore opened in July at 3130 24th Street at Folsom. It is cooperatively run, and all of us are determined to make it a viable new bookstore for the modern era. What type of character will hang out in the new space remains to be seen. I will always be highly loving of all the people who added to the old store, played upon its stage, emoted in some form, and helped to make it a cultural space and not just a mere business.

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When we choose to interact with the public at a public space and in a public way, we all grow richer, sometimes in assets; but in the case of Adobe Bookshop, we are rich because we achieved an intangible – part legend and part living room. I just hope that more such spaces will pop up in San Francisco.

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