San Francisco's Adobe Books: An Appreciation

In 1990, I bought 1984 at Adobe Books, and I don’t think a three-day period has gone by  that I haven’t thought about that novel since. Yeah, I've picked up a lot of great books at Adobe over the years, but substantially fewer the last five or six.

Adobe bookstore owner Andrew McKinley (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

A job, a kid. Amazon.


You know.

That's the core of the problem for Adobe,  the not-buying-books thing. For almost 25 years, it’s stood on 16th Street off Valencia in San Francisco as a repository of the printed word, holding steady in a part of the city still called the Mission but which is beginning to look a little like Tribeca with tacquerias. Now Adobe is facing a 50 percent or so rent hike that owner, Andrew McKinley says he can’t pay. So the bookstore’s supporters are trying to turn it into a collective, with a soon to-be-launched Indiegogo campaign. McKinley very much wants the co-op effort to succeed, even though he would no longer be running the show. In regard to this, he is philosophical though not particularly happy.

"There’s a possibility the store will turn into a cooperative," he told me. "It will be a different store if that happens, with a new business model: new books, remaindered books, T-shirts, artwork.”

He finds his predicament ironic.

“I was always waiting for things to get better in the neighborhood, because it was sketchy when I opened. But now it’s funny to be pushed out by economic forces. We never expected this, but in retrospect we had 25 good years. They’ve been the best years of my life." Last Wednesday night, Adobe fans gathered to drum up support for the transformation of the store and listen to local authors Stephen Elliott, Rebecca Solnit, and Michelle Tea give readings related to the place and talk about how much they love it there.

Adobe looked spiffed up for the event. Not the most practical place to browse in terms of physical access: The shelves, which have the excessively worn look of the starter furniture you threw out when you got your first real job, are usually and literally overflowing with books that crowd already-narrow aisles. It's just not a masterpiece of feng shui --  more like Das Boot with a Fiction section. And I wouldn't say the most careful attention has been paid to the categorization scheme. You're as likely to find a pile of paperback thrillers sitting atop a space ostensibly devoted to, say, European history, as you are to find them in their native section.

But Adobe never did give the impression it was overly interested in maximizing commerce. It's a definite take-it-or-leave-it type thing. At one point, the books were organized by color, the perfect arrangement for those in the mood to read something with a red cover. Then there are the people who regularly hang out on the couches in the middle of the store, snoring or mumbling to no one in particular. Encountering these folks can lead to the momentary impression you’ve stumbled upon break time at a particularly ineffective AA meeting. While a lot of business owners will do whatever they can to ward off the homeless or the overtly destitute, the bar for admittance at Adobe in terms of ability to actually pay for something is non-existent.

"We’ve always enjoyed having all types of people," McKinley said. "It’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods, probably in America. The mix of young and old, rich and poor, homeless and yupster. We’ve been very proud of that. We like to be all-welcoming. We cherish bohemians, and some of the best bohemians are the most down-and-out people. But we could use more wealthy customers at this point."

By all public accounts, and many private ones too, McKinley is a proprietor to admire. I don’t know him personally, but he did give me three dollars in trade once for a Françoise Sagan novel, turning it over in his hands before we sealed the deal.

"Françoise Sagan," he had said, downright wistful. "I wish I could offer you more."

It stuck in my mind, I guess, because it was the first and only time I’ve ever heard that particular sentiment coming from someone who actually meant it. And also because it seemed to pack into one pregnant exchange so many unpleasant developments for the bookstore lover of today. "I wish I could offer you more,” might as well have been, "It’s really too bad people don't buy these things like they used to." With the subtext that as far as an appreciation of Françoise Sagan goes, well, that and $3.50 will buy you a local latte.

David Solnit, Rebecca's brother, was at the reading. "His primary logic is not trying to make a buck," he said of McKinley. "It’s harder and harder to find spaces where you can do that in San Francisco."

Actually, I have always wondered how a places like Adobe do make a buck, even when they made more of them. Some of these tomes look like they’ve been sent straight from central casting to populate a cultural institution that has turned a blind eye to mass tastes. New Looks at Italian Opera, The Secret Diary of Harold Ickes, Listening to Catnip. I assume the Harry Potter books are somewhere, but there were about a hundred people in the store Wednesday, creating too many cul de sacs to look for much that wasn't already staring you in the face. Gloomy types may experience a small wave of depression from perusing titles like Birds of the Great Basin and The Year of the Kangaroo. Someone once labored long and hard over The Year of the Kangaroo. But who will read it now?

Or know it even exists if Adobe bites the dust?

Still, waiting somewhere among the warren of shelves, you can usually find something  up your alley. For that and other reasons, the Adobe community is upset and forlorn about the constellation of circumstances that have conspired to put the bookstore in jeopardy.

It should probably be said around now that not everyone feels the same way -- I know plenty of people who not only like what's happening in the neighborhood, but who don't particularly rue the fact that one day Steve Guttenberg may be remembered more than Johannes Gutenberg. But at Adobe on Wednesday, there was a surplus of clarity among the faithful: They don't like  e-readers, they don't like Amazon, and they don't like the dozens of upscale new restaurants and stores that have changed the character of the neighborhood.

"It's like  a mall," said longtime Adobe patron Wade, of the new and improved area now often referred to as Valencia Corridor.

Alex, 20-something, has eschewed electronic reading. "It’s the aesthetic experience of a book. I love a book with a beautiful cover; I love the way a book smells; I love the weight of a book. All books look the same on a reader. I want character, I want history, I want the inscriptions of people who owned the book before me.”

"They're trying to convince us that books are obsolete," said Rebecca Solnit. "But I challenge you to show me an app that’s going to last 200 years, and it’s just as readable as it was in 1789."

Maybe so. But let's face it: It's not the handwriting on the wall troubling the bookstores of San Francisco, it's the pixels. A friend of mine in her 20s who came to the event confessed she has bought, over the past several years, exactly one printed volume. One. Everything else has been purchased electronically in the comfort of her own home -- or wherever else she happened to be when she got the itch to read something new.

“This has happened to many bookstores," said Andrew McKinley. "If you’d been in San Francisco 30 years ago, there were 40 or 50 used bookstores. Now there might be five or six."

There are actually a few more than that, but the trajectory is really not looking good.

Bookstores. Why is it that whenever another one tanks, I go a little nuts? Because I've spent literally hundreds of hours getting lost in these dusty places of possibility, which are often mistaken for repositories of obsolescence? Or is it because one can choose to view the very existence of a book as  predicated on an act of generosity? Of, even, communion? Read me! says New Looks at Italian Opera. Check me out! exhorts Listening to Catnip.

1984. I'd never read it. But a chance glimpse in the "recommended" section at Adobe in 1990, and I've never really looked at anything the same way since.

I hope Adobe makes it, in whatever form. “In 10 or 20 years," said Rebecca Solnit, "you guys are gonna be like, 'Oh, you moved here after Adobe books? I remember Andrew’s old Adobe books.'

"Start stocking up on memories of what used to be.”



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