A Radical Bookstore in San Fran Fights Gentrification with Passion and Progressive Politics

Dear Readers,

As we shift into this new year, Keena and I have been looking towards the future of Fabulously Feminist, and her mother-venture, Engage Space. I am excited to tell you that we are developing the foundations of a community arts and residency program, which has sparked a flurry of research! We want to share and promote the amazing spaces, organizations and projects we discover along the way. Back in November we introduced you to A Southern Woman’s Bookstore – the 13th bookstore in the entire United States. This month, we are proud to feature Modern Times Bookstore Collective, based in San Francisco, California. Marilyn Roxie answered our questions about the collective and their community in the Mission District.

Can you tell us about your mission?

Modern Times Bookstore Collective has been around since 1971, serving San Francisco as a bookstore and event space. While the focus of the store has long been around progressive politics and social issues in particular, Modern Times also meets general fiction, poetry, and children’s book needs along with a variety of other topics, as well as a large selection of Spanish-language books across genres.

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  What’s an average day like at the bookstore?

Work days vary widely depending on what’s going on in the Mission at the time, events at the store, holidays, and random chance of who happens to come into the store that day. There are many regulars who come in to chat or request books on special order, which we are happy to do if the title is available from our distributor or from the publisher directly. One of my jobs is receiving, pricing, and shelving donated books, including placing items on the $1 rack that we roll out each day. It’s always nice to see someone get excited about and purchase a book that I just put out for sale that day. Receiving packages and mail, reviewing publisher catalogs, updating social media, cleaning up, and preparing for events are other daily tasks. I really enjoy talking to and working with all my co-workers, too, and feel like the environment is generally upbeat and receptive to us all talking about anything, not just what is going on at work.

 Why is a progressive bookstore is important?

This is a great question because sometimes people may not understand or misinterpret entirely a such a bookstore, assuming that the need is already met elsewhere. It is incredibly important that Modern Times has well-developed anarchist, feminist, queer fiction and non-fiction, and critical race studies sections, to name a few. Information access is incredibly important and not every bookstore has adequate, or perhaps any, materials in the sections I have mentioned because they may be assumed to be outside of ‘general interest’, or there is perhaps not someone around with the knowledge to cultivate these areas. I would urge readers who work at libraries or bookstores to have a look at your offerings and think about how to improve these areas through researching reading lists and publishers specializing in these areas.

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Community is an important concept to Fabulously Feminist. How do you define community?

Community for us is certainly in the Mission district as well as those who visit us that are in support of our mission. People truly come into the store from all over, from across the Bay to across the border, from around the world, even. There is an incredibly intense struggle against gentrification in San Francisco right now. Civil rights continues to be a huge issue. People are in need of materials to get educated on what is going on on a small scale and a large scale, worldwide, and how to make the world a better place.

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Balmy Alley Community Celebration October 19th 2014

 What sorts of events do you host, and how do they help you engage with your community?

Some of the types of events we host regularly include author readings, film screenings, Mission Arts Performance Project events, a Spanish language book club, a monthly Queer Open Mic, and a regular panel for discussing issues impacting San Francisco called State of the City. We have an new events coordinator, Denise Sullivan, who has done a wonderful job with making exciting things happen in the store. Local authors and authors writing about topics of an established interest in our store [community] can draw in many new and familiar faces. The Queer Open Mic is my absolute favorite event and consistently brings in a large crowd. People do stand-up, sing, and read poetry and the organizers are committed to keeping the space safe and welcoming. We also have sold books and zines in booths at off-site events like the Howard Zinn Book Far or the Center for Sex and Culture’s Bookish Beasts.

 How do you function within your community? Have you found support? Lashback?

Modern Times has moved a few times over the years, the most recent move being a couple of years ago from Valencia to 24th Street, where we are now. Our community has been very engaged and supportive, as well as concerned. Everyone knows about the rent hikes, the businesses getting squeezed out, the book industry’s successes and struggles. We’re in solidarity with our fellow bookstores that are making their way in the post-online bookselling world, too, and there are a few more on our street – Alley Cat, Adobe, and Press. We have an ongoing Meeting of the Bookstores for discussion between booksellers and interested community members. I’m not sure there’s been lashback so much as some real questioning about what is the best way for the store to continue to exist – how do we not just “make it” in these times but carry on strong? We’re still processing the answer to that.

Trio Juventud. MAPP at Modern Times!

Trio Juventud. MAPP at Modern Times!

Progressive initiatives are faced with the challenge of integrating their social goals with a business model. How has Modern Times Bookstore Collective managed to stay afloat and also create an equitable workspace?

This collective part of the store is an interesting part of working here. We each have different time or financial commitments, skill levels, and ideas but we are all working towards a common mission. We have a steering committee, finance committee, and events committee. Consensus is sought around big issues and getting items on the agenda for discussion is a straightforward process. I do think that the collective structure is tricky in a capitalist framework – here there is no “big cheese”. We have a steering committee retreat planned soon to restructure and rethink what it means to be a collective in these times, actually, which I am looking forward to.

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Denise and Lois working at the Modern Times Yard Sale November 8th 2014

 Modern Times was established in 1971, how has it changed over the years?

Modern Times has been at a few different locations – 17th Street at Sanchez was the initial spot in 1971 and we’ve moved around the Mission a bit now to where we are at, 2919 24th Street. Modern Times sprung up as a political bookstore during very tumultuous times. Offering radical books through the years, making a lot of firsts in the area or in the city in regards to carrying feminist and queer materials, Modern Times has been right on the edge of what is happening and offering a critical look at it through the books we carry and events we host. We see ourselves as part of the fabric of local businesses speaking out for their right to survive. These are very interesting times in San Francisco right now.

 What is your absolute favorite book currently on the shelves?

It’s tough to choose just one! I think I’ll go with Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. This is a really inspiring book that seeks to put game-making power into the hands of people who may feel disenfranchised or feel like they don’t have the know-how or opportunity to make games through inspiring examples and details of tools available out there for use.

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We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into another intersectional space! You can keep up with Modern Times via their Facebook page.

All the best,

Callie & Keena

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  1. […] about issues that matter; organizing events like Femme Fest; running radical bookstores like Modern Times; and operating Feminist online magazines like Polyester Magazine (look for a feature on them coming […]



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