In Search of the Radical Bookstores of Old San Franciso
Dwyer Murphy Follows in His Father's Footsteps
Recently I went looking for the old revolutionary bookshops of San Francisco and got myself locked in a bathroom. It wasn’t the election that set me looking. This was several weeks back, when things were relatively rosy and it seemed defensible enough and possibly even worthwhile that I should spend my days chasing up larks.
You see, I don’t purport to be a revolutionary myself. I’m given to small displays of non-conformity and a certain redistributionist spirit. Doing without has always given me pleasure. Trespassing, too. The place where my wife and I are staying in San Francisco, a seasonal loaner, is near the Presidio and when I found out there was a golf course inside that national park, I began to reroute my evening jogs in order to cut across the fairways while giving golfers the bird. I don’t confuse that sort of impulse with what I’m feeling now or what my wife, who’s from Venezuela, is feeling, that yet another corrupt and feckless thug is going to rob her of a country. All the same, it was enough to pique my curiosity about the city’s bookish agitators.
San Francisco has a proud history of radical letters and commerce. It goes back at least as far as the organization of the longshoreman, and likely much further than that, depending on what you consider to be radical. In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin found a place that suited them on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, among the burlesque houses and cafes, where they could sell books and radical papers to bohemians and Italian workmen. In 1960, the Richardsons, who had a print shop on Fillmore Street, began offering books and pamphlets about black history and social movements. They renamed the shop Marcus Books, after Marcus Garvey. In the Mission there was China Books, importing from the People’s Republic.
That’s just to name a few of the more famous places, from a famous decade or two. (All three are still around, in one form or another—institutions, and rightfully so.)
The question, which I asked myself not long before the election, but which seems all the more relevant now, is whether there’s any room for that fine old tradition in the new San Francisco, with its surging rental market and golf courses inside the parks.
I have, I suppose I should say, my own peculiar reasons for wanting to find out.
When my father was a teenager, he drew a lousy draft number and joined the Navy, which, after boot camp, sent him to Monterey, California to study Russian. He told himself he was going to fight the system from within. I imagine a lot of young men told themselves the same thing. On weekends, he used to hitchhike up the coast to San Francisco and wander across the city looking for sympathetic girls and bookshops.
Books meant a lot to him at that age. He went to City Lights and to Haight Street, but not often, since going to certain areas meant running the risk of being called a baby killer, when really he considered himself a revolutionary, or at the very least an angry young man whose hair was buzzed short but whose spiritual hair hung long.
He tended to hang around Russian bookstores in the Richmond District and other discreet locales. His professors in Monterey—intellectuals who had defected during one purge or another—were turning him onto Bakunin and Trotsky, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. He read some Americans, too: Eldridge Cleaver, Ken Kesey, Burroughs.
He was 18, far away from home, and the government was training him to be a spy. That was the point of learning Russian at the school in Monterrey. Intelligence work. If he flunked a test or caught an infraction, they would send him to a serve on a riverboat in the Mekong Delta. If he continued to show aptitude and curiosity (but not too much) he would be dispatched to Europe, and quite likely he would survive.
He had five brothers and five little sisters at home, and sometimes they would send him books and letters. It still makes him uncomfortable, talking about that period in his life. The best way to get him to open up about it is to ask what he was reading.
There are any number of reasons why a person who finds himself with time to kill in San Francisco might want to seek out pieces of the city’s past. The reasons seem to grow more plentiful and more pressing every day. But that one, more or less, is mine. And so, I loaded up a Muni Pass and went looking for bearers of the old flame.
A revolutionary bookshop has, by my own carefully honed criteria, a few key features. First, it needs an ideology. Second, it needs racks. A radical bookseller lives and dies by his or her pamphlets. The more far-flung, the more incendiary, the better. The same goes for the books. This isn’t Barnes and Noble, after all. Finally, the store ought to be owned and operated by some manner of collective, cult, party, firebrand or soothsayer, or else the backing should be a secret, quite possibly illicit.
Bound Together Books
Bound Together Books is a small anarchist collective on Haight Street, near Masonic. The shop has been there since 1981. If you’ve ever made a pilgrimage to Hippie Hill or looked around for the Grateful Dead’s Victorian mansion, you’ve probably peaked inside the bookstore, too, or at the very least noticed the mural on the wall outside, which was painted by Susan Greene and features Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, Sacco, Venzetti and several other distinguished anarchists of the Americas.
Bound Together is an active place. It hosts the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair every April and sends books to incarcerated readers through the Prisoners’ Literature Project. But the heart of the operation is there at 1369 Haight, where you can find new books, like Rebellion in Patagonia, by Osvaldo Bayer, used books in decent condition, some titles from local authors, especially Rebecca Solnit, and also a shelf dedicated to bicycles, including several copies of Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20.
The store is run by a team of volunteers: the active members of the collective. Their ranks are a little thin these days, but they still have the lifers, like Michael, who was watching the store the last time I went in, and has been been watching it two days a week for most of the last thirty years. Michael has a long gray ponytail and a gentle manner. He’s patient with the tourists who stop in and ask questions about the posters and the literature on cannabis and cannabis cultivation. He told me to take pictures if I wanted. I don’t know why I’d expected him to be camera shy. Bound Together is a respectable operation, and anarchism requires a certain mellowness.
I don’t usually buy things when I’m in a shop like Bound Together. That would be gauche. What better way to reveal oneself as bourgeois than by taking out a wallet?
In any case, this last time I did buy something: a booklet called How to Fire Your Boss, put out by the Industrial Workers of the World, Edmonton branch. It’s about the size of a mousetrap, and inside are several interesting techniques for workplace action.
- The “slowdown” – working slower, taking many bathroom breaks
- The “good work strike” – performing the work, but refusing to charge clients
- The “sick in” – everyone gets the flu on the same day
When Michael rang me up, I noticed that the register, when idle, displayed a message: “demand the impossible.” My receipt repeated the advice, just in case.
Eighteen and Hitchhiking from Monterey
The other night I called home to tell my father what I was doing in San Francisco. I wanted to ask how he was feeling back then, when he was 18 and alone and hitchhiking up the coast from Monterey. But to get there, first I asked about books.
We talked for quite a while about Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, how both their work resonated with him when he was young and how curious that seems to him now. Finally there was a pause in the conversation, during which time it became clear that he understood what I was really getting at—the question I wanted to ask.
“Mostly I was just feeling jealous,” he said.
Jealousy, it turns out, is what he remembers most from that time and place. He was jealous of the college students and the kids hanging around the parks, of the people he came across in bookstores, of just about everyone he met except junkies and marines. “It just seemed like the government couldn’t wait to get me killed,” he said.
When I was younger, I used to envy his spy and secret revolutionary days. Now it makes me sad, thinking of him at that age, away from home for the first time, poor, hanging around stores reading books he couldn’t afford, wishing for a different life.
Modern Times, at 2919 24th Street, is run by a collective, like Bound Together, but not of the anarchist persuasion. There were days when the store was more political, and while a few vestiges remain, it has tried to change with the times, as the name suggests. (A Chaplin reference, in case you were wondering. The same goes for City Lights. Chaplin is a patron saint to bookish radicals here, or maybe he is in any city.)
The store has been around since 1971. The original location was on 17th and Sanchez. It was later moved to Valencia, but when things got too toney on Valencia it was moved again, this time to 24th Street, taking over a space that China Books once used for packing and shipping, and which before that was a mortuary. The shop is chilly, as you would expect of a former mortuary, but it’s vibrant nonetheless, with good lighting, chairs scattered around, and a large skull on the back wall, with “libros/books” printed on the teeth.
The store, once a bastion for the new leftists of the 1970s, the young Turks taking over where the beats and hippies and Berkeley radicals had left off (or come up short, depending on whom you ask) is determined to stay relevant and financially solvent, which, at Modern Times anyway, means carrying some contemporary literary fiction like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Emma Cline’s The Girls. There are also children’s books. A is for Activist, by Martha Gonzalez, is shelved prominently, alongside the book’s Spanish-language edition, A de Activista.
In fact, the store’s most notable feature, radical in its own way, is the excellent selection of literature from Latin America. Modern Times is now on the Mission’s Calle 24. Accion Latina is across the street. There are Mexicatessens on every other corner. There’s also a Philz a few blocks away, where they serve pour-over coffee priced like gold. The Mission is a complex place. Gentrification is a concern at Modern Times. They are a collective, after all. They don’t want to be part of anything unsavory. And so the Spanish language inventory is given special attention and pride of place. The afternoon I went by the store, there were kids in Catholic school uniforms running around the front, near the YA books and a shelf dedicated to La Raza and past the shoebox of Cortázar paperbacks being offered at a 20 percent discount.
At the back of the store, beneath the skull, there’s a good table and chairs and several racks of pamphlets, booklets, and zines, as well as general literary periodicals. It’s a welcoming, discreet place. I could picture my father there at 18, wiling away an afternoon, catching up on the latest issue of Criminal Class Review and daydreaming of going AWOL.
On the way out, I noticed a flyer advertising groups that regularly meet in the shop. On Tuesdays and Saturdays there’s a sewing group. The second Monday of the month belongs to the Jacobin Reading Group. The revolution contains multitudes.
A Brief Stint in Jail
Once he was done learning Russian and spycraft, my father was sent from California to the Mediterranean, where he practiced his new trade in various port cities during moderately turbulent geopolitical times. His passports show him as long-haired, with a scraggly beard. He looked like a young radical, which I suppose was the point.
He was reading mostly old Russians then. Hadji Murad and A Sportsman’s Sketches.
It was easy enough, he told me, to forget about his life from before and to focus on work, which was engaging, if sometimes heartless or even cruel. But then something happened. My mother showed up at his house in Cyprus. She was his high school girlfriend, from the same small town in Massachusetts. She’d told her parents she was spending the summer with cousins in California, then made her way to Cyprus instead. They lived there together for a while, and afterwards it was harder to forget.
The old misgivings and desperation came back. Eventually, he told the agency he was working for that he considered himself a conscientious objector. The agency was unimpressed. He told them he forgot how to speak Russian and that brought things to a head. They threw him in a brig with a pair of marines standing guard at the door.
He was in jail for three months, which was something I only found out very recently, when I called once again to ask him about books and bookstores and San Francisco. To pass the time in jail, he read. The embassy library sent books though his guards.
I asked if he remembered any of the titles, which made him laugh a little nervously. Buddhism, it turns out, had a strong hold on him then. It was the 1970s. He got into chanting, too—at first only to annoy the marines, but then it really started to help.
Mauro Javier Cardenas
While looking for the revolutionary bookshops of San Francisco, I decided to reach out to the Ecuadorian writer Mauro Javier Cardenas, a longtime resident of the city, whose recently published novel bears the auspicious title The Revolutionaries Try Again.
A bit on the nose, I know, but in any case, I thought he might have some information about the kind of bookshops I wanted to visit, so I asked to meet, and we talked for a while about radical yearnings and filial angst, which are, approximately speaking, the central preoccupations of his provocative, stylish and utterly strange new book.
But as it turns out, San Francisco’s countercultural legacy has no particular hold on Cardenas. In fact, he knew nothing about it when he first arrived from Ecuador, though over the years in California, he has drifted far to the left of where he began. You see, Cardenas once dreamed of returning to Ecuador with an American degree and assuming the role of benevolent, right-leaning, market-friendly dictator. That was the plan. Read his novel and you’ll learn a good deal more. It’s quite a story.
But for the purposes of this story, let me just say that we got to talking about the last time he was in Guayaquil, and how he found it difficult to be around some of his old friends, who seemed to spend so much of their free time shitting on the country’s left-leaning President, Rafael Correa. Eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore and decided to go to Cuenca. Cuenca is a city in Ecuador, high in the mountains. It’s known as a leftist stronghold. Cardenas has family there, family his mother used to warn him about because of their politics. One day, when he was visiting that family, Cardenas climbed into an attic where his political (radical) uncles used to meet. Their books were everywhere. “Fat, red books” was how Cardenas described them.
It was clear from the way he talked about that attic that he understood the kind of place I was looking for in San Francisco. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any addresses.
“You should try the Mission,” he said. “You might have some luck searching there.”
It was a sunny afternoon. We were sitting outside a coffee shop in recliner chairs, beside a park in Hayes Valley. All around us, young professionals were eating ice cream cones during their lunch breaks. At some point, before we left, Cardenas turned to look at them, the young professionals of Hayes Valley, San Francisco, and asked me to consider how many of them were secret radicals, posing just like we were posing, hanging onto our radical pretensions, comforting ourselves with them in order to enjoy the fruits of our capitalist pseudo-paradise with a clean conscience.
It struck me as an odd idea, but not without some truth. It may even be the idea that the new San Francisco is built upon, although I didn’t say that to Cardenas. What I wanted to know then, and asked him, was how to tell the true radicals from the fake.
He turned slightly to better take in the sun and the young professionals. I did, too.
“If we were true radicals,” he said, “we’d be locked up in a jail somewhere.”
A Bookshop of One’s Own
After those three months, my father was let out of the brig and sent home with—mysteriously it seemed to him then, and still does—an honorable discharge. Thanks to the GI bill, he went to college and earned a degree. He flirted for a while with the socialist groups of Boston, Massachusetts, then went to work managing a bookstore.
It wasn’t a radical bookshop. It was a college bookstore, the kind with textbooks and emblazoned sweatshirts and student employees. The work was hard and the pay wasn’t much but he was around books all day long and had some time to read and to go for jogs across campus during the slow mid-day hours. I worked for him there. So did my sister. It was a pleasant place to spend time. The Russian lit professors would come by to drink coffee and talk books. The store opened very early and closed late.
Bolerium, on the third floor of a nondescript building on Mission Street, is your communist uncle’s attic in Cuenca, full of fat red screeds and manifestos. It’s the fever dream of a conscientious objector, lying on the floor of a Mediterranean jail.
Bolerium, though, is not technically a bookshop. The website describes the business, named for an extinct species of rodent, as “purveyors of rare and out-of-print books, posters and ephemera on social movements,” but that doesn’t do the place justice, either, although it describes the collection fairly accurately. Beneath the exposed rafters and banners from radical actions past lie many dozens of shelves, packed tight with tens of thousands of books arranged by social movement and political philosophy. For a price, these artifacts can be yours. Bolerium is in the antiquarian trade.
But the only way to really understand the operation, I think, is by meeting the staff. They are not strictly a collective, like Bound Together or Modern Times, though they call each other comrade and converse back-and-forth over the towering stacks like a cadre of convicted revolutionaries awaiting the king’s justice. The afternoon I dropped in, they were discussing weekend plans, wondering if their clients would be more or less moved to order radical books on Labor Day, and debating whether the box with the book fair paraphernalia was “on the guerilla rack on the left,” or in the storage room near the gay periodicals and the Yiddish overstock. I thought maybe they were inventing sections of the store in order to muck up my sense of the world, but in the end, it turned out they were in earnest, and the box was soon discovered.
John Durham is the madman in charge at Bolerium. Comrade Alex Akin is the heir apparent. Many of the others who work there once had radical shops of their own. For those who ran afoul of the authorities, wanted posters are proudly displayed.
Bolerium was started by Durham and a few fellow activists and travelers. Their stock originally focused on Labor, but soon they were dealing in material from other movements, especially Gay Liberation and Feminism. In recent years, the store has come to be known as a place where collectors can find gems of Asian radicalism. On one wall, above the shelves, is a striking, hand drawn banner that declares “Korea Is One!”
Those who wish to help out at Bolerium are given a brief quiz. Those who come by on a Wednesday afternoon snooping and carrying a notebook are given the same quiz. One is asked to “identify and explain the significance of at least three” from a list of ten radicals. One is then prompted to “compose the lyrics to a theme song about Bolerium, to the tune of ‘The Internationale.'” The grading scale is a mystery.
After the quiz, I wandered around the aisles for a while, looking through the Spanish Civil War books and lingering in the “USSR, Trotsky, Anarchy” stacks, Durham offered to lead me on a tour. I took notes while we crossed through the many rooms that make up Bolerium. Still, I can only recount bits-and-pieces of what heard.
- “mainline Trotskyists out of Bolivia and Argentina”
- “David Duke’s doggerel masturbatory poetry”
- “the YPSL newsletters”
- “foot traffic at 5-10%”
- “If You’re Telepathic, You Don’t Need a Safeword”
That last one, I think, was a book title. Durham has a way of smiling without actually smiling. There’s no way to tell when he’s serious, but the chances are he’s not. A love of revolutionary esoterica and a morbid sense of humor, it seems, go hand-in-hand.
“The stuff we deal in,” Durham said, “if you get too serious, you crack up. The good guys lose. They die in prison or pain. There aren’t great endings. Just great people.”
Some time later—I don’t know how long; it might have been an hour, or possibly several days—I was back outside, on Mission Street, holding a few souvenirs: three pins from the Anita Bryant-citrus boycott of 1977 and some flyers bearing the store motto: “Fighting Commodity Fetishism With Commodity Fetishism Since 1981.”
They were gifts, I think. Or stolen. Maybe I bought them. There’s no way to be sure.
The Incident at Peet’s
Later that same evening I was locked inside the bathroom of a Peet’s coffee shop. I was in there for about 45 minutes. The fire department was called and a woman with an axe chopped down the door so that I could leave. When the door finally came down, there was a crowd of about 40 people, including customers, firefighters, and stymied locksmiths, gathered around. They applauded as I stepped over the threshold, back into the world. I’m not comparing my time in Peet’s to my father’s stint in a Mediterranean jail. I’m only telling you what happened after I left Bolerium with my flyers and buttons and a notepad brimming with radical snippets.
In any case, my father thought the parallels were pretty funny. I called him up to tell him that I’m leaving California soon, and to figure out a way to ask what exactly it was about my mother showing up in Cyprus that made him feel like a secret revolutionary again, wandering around San Francisco hatching plans and killing time in bookshops. I didn’t ask him, though. I’m not sure why. We talked about Bolerium instead. I told him all about Durham and his comrades and the citrus boycott and fighting commodity fetishism with commodity fetishism since 1981.
But mostly what he wanted to talk about was the locked-room mystery at Peet’s. They really used an axe? Was I given anything after being freed? I was. Five coupons, each one good for a complimentary beverage of my choice at any participating Peets.
Five coupons struck my father as a pretty paltry sum. “It’s an insult,” he said. “You know what I think you should do? Call up those Bolerium guys. Start a revolution.”