Modern Times opened its doors in a 750-foot space on 17th Street at Sanchez in 1971, on an initial investment of just $5000. Hard to believe. It was one of the many “movement” bookstores that sprang up in major US cities, in response to the optimism and turmoil of the times, when the war in Vietnam was still raging and young people by the thousands were taking to the streets in protest.
As the hopes and passions of the 60s gave way to disillusionment in the 70s and political reaction in the 80s, most of these stores vanished like mayflies. Modern Times faced severe financial crisis; we responded by transforming our vision of what the store should be. We realized that by addressing ourselves only to self-defined political activists, we were not only appealing to a narrow and dwindling audience but also failing to meet our core objective of keeping dissident ideas in circulation.
We realized that in order to become a viable bookstore, and to participate meaningfully in the culture around us, we’d have to address all the needs and interests of our community-from poetry to mysteries to cookbooks. And we realized that we could remain truest to our radical origins by seeking out and featuring the most innovative and cutting-edge work, whether it be fiction, cultural criticism, or politics.
In 1980, we moved into a store in the Mission district, a predominantly Latina/o neighborhood. At that time, writers, artists, and queers from all over were moving to the Mission, attracted by cheap rent, to take up residency next to already thriving Latina/o cultural spaces and movements, including Galeria de la Raza and the Mission Cultural Center.
Along with Old Wives Tales, the now-defunct feminist bookstore, we were the first alternative business in the area. Our customers helped us with this move in what became a big party and community event. A crew of generous friends did all the carpentry work for the new location. We were bigger, badder, and ready for business.
In 1991 we expanded again into our Valencia Street store, a move largely financed by loans and contributions from our customers. During this time, the Mission truly became our home. In 2011, we were displaced from that spot following a rent increase. We landed at our present location on lower 24th Street, Calle 24, the Latino cultural corridor, and other stores followed. The street is a modern-day bookstore row, a favorite haunt for local bibliophiles as well as a destination for bookshoppers from around the globe.
We now see ourselves as playing a double role-as a progressive resource for the Bay Area, as well as the community bookstore of the Mission.
A Progressive Resource for the Bay Area
As a progressive resource, we view it as our responsibility to maintain an in-depth collection on local, national, and world politics and economics, and to stay ahead of the curve on new social and cultural movements. We were the first bookstore in the city to feature a feminist section as well as a queer section. We developed the city’s first broad selection of Spanish-language literature and non-fiction.
When the Gulf War erupted, we received phone calls from all over the city, from people who wanted to educate themselves about the Middle East, the Gulf States, the economics of oil and the politics of military technology-from books whose sales records up to that point would never have justified holding on to them had we been thinking only of turnover. While stores across the country suffered sharp declines during the war, we boasted a surge in business, largely due to new customers who stayed with us after the crisis passed. Unfortunately, we find this same information needed once more as the US remains embroiled in Middle East affairs.
In 1992, we were possibly the first bookstore in the country to present a series of lectures and panels on the social and cultural ramifications of the Internet-before the World Wide Web had even been invented. Can we remember those days? In 2000, after demonstrations at the World Trade Organization had inspired a new generation of activists, we responded immediately with a Globalization series.
In the fall of 2001, we offered a series of lectures investigating media and military responses to September 11th. This speaker series morphed into an on-going reading group, which looks at the current War on Terrorism, histories of the Middle East, Afghanistan, and U.S. foreign policy in these regions.
In 2014, we responded to the displacement crisis in San Francisco with our State of the City Forum, a panel discussion on gentrification issues ranging from housing and racial profiling to the environmental impact of over-development.
The Community Bookstore of the Mission
The Latino community in the Mission is under threat from gentrification, but remains the dominant demographic group-and cultural heart-of the neighborhood. When Modern Times moved into the neighborhood, the local Spanish-language bookstores had a limited range of specialty titles, while we developed the city’s first broad selection of Spanish-language literature and non-fiction, in effect a mini-bookstore within the bookstore.
We stay actively involved in the cultural life of the community. For six years, we ran a monthly poetry series, spotlighting local poets, until other series emerged to take up the slack. We continue to offer a wide range of literary and community events, including panel discussions, author readings, art exhibits, live music, and comedy performance.
In 1997, we began a series of reading groups devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Led by store co-owner Michael Rosenthal, these groups have been an instant and stunning success, the response (hundreds of calls every time a new group is announced) far exceeding anything we could have imagined. By approaching Ulysses not as an intimidating masterwork that requires bottomless erudition, but rather as a novel about compelling characters in their social environment that can be read for pure pleasure, we have broken the barrier that has kept people away from Joyce’s sumptuous celebration of the ordinary. These groups also serve as a powerful indicator of how far we have come in re-imagining our mission. Presently our most popular reading group is Círculo de Lectoras y Lectores de Literatura en español, a monthly reading discussion group on a classic novel by a Spanish language author.
The Politics of Bookselling
With the dominance of chainstores and the consequent threat to independent booksellers, we came to realize that maintaining a strong and viable independent bookstore was in many ways the most politically effective thing we could do. We also observed that small and independent presses were fighting similar battles, and that their survival is essential to our surviva. Generally a quarter or more of our bestselling titles are from small presses and they remain our specialty. We try to maintain a balance between larger, more established presses, and small literary and poetry presses. Happily, we rely on enough small presses to keep our events calendar filled for years to come.
Our politics also shape the organization of our business. Modern Times has operated as a collective since the very start. All important management decisions are discussed collectively, and staff members are eligible to become worker-owners. Modern Times is a member of NoBAWC, the Northern California Alliance of Worker Collectives. We’re happy to be a part of a larger network of independent businesses working together to create worker friendly, conscientious, alternative models of business. And it’s Modern Times’ collective management structure that allows people to give so much of themselves, and pour so much of their creativity into a store that truly reflects the personalities of everybody who works here.