Modern Times, iconic bookstore in the Mission District, is closing
In the back of Modern Times Bookstore Collective, there’s an image of Charlie Chaplin gumming up the works of a machine in his movie Modern Times.
It’s part of a shrine of sorts to the progressive political perspectives the store has always championed here in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Wendy Bardsley lives in the neighborhood. She’s been coming to Modern Times for years, from when it had a much bigger location over on Valencia Street.
“Oh my God, it’s such a welcoming place for women,” she says. “For anybody who’s struggling with all the money that’s in the city right now. I love to read. Reading means so much to me. And it really feels like home here. I’m really sad to see it go.”
Modern Times isn’t very big, anymore. But it’s still extremely eclectic. Spanish and English children's books fill one corner of the store. Literature about disabilities is located next to a section on erotica, which is right next to the cookbooks.
“Unique as hell”
Up front, store manager Ashton DiVito is serving a customer who’s buying a stack of paperbacks. The store’s book buyer and manager is the only person working here on a weekday afternoon. He’s normally here five days a week. Sometimes seven days.
“I’m usually here more than I am at home,” he laughs. “Let’s put it that way.”
Ashton used to live two doors down from the old Valencia Street location. He started volunteering there and worked his way up. He says the work is unique.
“Oh, God, unique as hell. It’s just, I never know who’s coming through the door. I meet some of the strangest people in this city here, and I love it. I absolutely love this place,” he says.
Today, he meets Castro, who grew up in San Francisco back in the 1960s.
“I went to high school with Carlos Santana,” says Castro. “Can you imagine having a pep rally with Carlos jamming away? I mean when he was sneaking into Avalon Ballroom up the street and then down to the Fillmore on Tuesday night jam sessions? The jam sessions were sometimes better than the weekend. But they had, man, they had the best of the best when Bill Graham was there. It was just out of this world.”
That was San Francisco back when Modern Times opened in 1971. There was a super vibrant arts scene, with culture rippling through every block. The bookstore brought it together in literature and conversation.
“I mean they’re an inspiration,” says Castro. "For regular people. Intellectuals. Non-intellectuals. I mean they share the knowledge, the philosophy, the psychology of what’s going on around the world. And a multitude of poets. Poets. Writers. It’s very artistic. They’ve always been here for the neighborhood. And not just the neighborhood, but anybody coming to visit. You’ve got people who have all these field trips on graffiti and art on the wall, and all of them walk by here. Some of them walk by here and some of them don’t. It’s freedom of expression, that’s what it’s all about.”
Modern Times hosts book readings all the time. Monthly queer open mics. It has an indigenous poetry series. It’s been a meeting space for activist groups, like a Jacobin reading club and the club Gay Shame. The place serves a lot of people, but Ashton says it’s not enough to keep the store from closing.
“We haven’t been breaking even for a long time. For a really long time,” he says. “And we’ve done pretty much everything everybody involved can think of to turn that around. And pretty much all that’s happened is it’s set the end date back a little bit. We do a giant fundraiser or something, and it sets it back. Nothing’s really pushed us toward profitability. As an anti-capitalist bookstore, you’re in a kind of precarious situation when you talk about profit. But we never really wanted to make money or anything, we just wanted to break even. And we could never really figure that out, unfortunately. Not for a long time, at least. Since the rise of Amazon, it’s definitely been a lot harder.”
“I still see a lot of hope in the city”
We talk about how San Francisco is so expensive now, that many people feel forced to be very money-conscious — even money-driven.
“Oh, man,” Ashton says, “It’s getting harder and harder. You’re right, the margin for error is incredibly slim. And that always disproportionately affects the marginalized, the low-income kind of people. Whoever the ideal target is, everybody who falls outside of that range are the ones who get screwed by that kind of attitude way quicker. I mean I still see a lot of hope in the city, there’s a lot of great people in the city, there’s a lot of great organizations.”
But, come Tuesday, Modern Times Bookstore Collective will not be one of them.
“I need to close this place out,” says Ashton. “It’s heartbreaking, but you kind of got to see things through.”