It started in 1971, with a handful of people who worked for Socialist Revolution magazine and wanted to sell books that would give the Movement – and back then it had a capital M – some historical and theoretical perspective. The magazine’s editor, Jim Weinstein, provided the rag with a free 900-square-foot space in a building he owned. With $5,000 in raised funds, the idealistic collective opened Modern Times Bookstore in the Mission.
A lot of similar projects were launched in San Francisco during that era – co-operative businesses and ventures founded by activists with a radical social vision – and most of them folded. Modern Times grew. And while independent bookstores around the country are failing by the day, Modern Times is thriving.
"I think it’s because we’ve always had the support of the community," Michael Rosenthal, who started at Modern Times just weeks after it opened and retired this year, told us. "We were always a community bookstore."
And unlike a lot of ’60s-era institutions, Modern Times was open to adapting and changing – while preserving its core beliefs. There have always been books for sale on Marxism and socialist theory, but as Rosenthal points out, "at a certain point, we realized we were just speaking to a coterie."
Taking a broader approach, Modern Times became one of the first bookstores in the country to offer a lesbian-gay section and one on women’s issues. And these days the store has an incredible variety of books from major and small-press houses in all sorts of different genres, including Spanish-language and children’s books, and an extensive rack of zines and cultural periodicals. New College, right down the street, uses Modern Times as its school bookstore, a deal that helps both local institutions.
Modern Times has maintained its worker-ownership structure – and has always been a community resource. Its back room is abuzz with local author book signings and queer experimental poetry readings. Political and community groups use the store for everything from panel discussions on the city’s wi-fi plan to workshops on economics and how-to sessions on bike safety. The site has hosted events featuring the storied radical feminist ’80s performance art and culture-jamming group the Guerrilla Girls, and San Francisco’s innovative Cutting Ball Theater is currently in residence there. Check out the events page on the store’s Web site for a fabulous list of upcoming eclectic and wonderful writers, speakers, and interactive programs.
Modern Times has become more than just a neighborhood bookstore for the Mission. It’s also a crucial part of San Francisco’s progressive community. And it’s a sign that independent bookstores can withstand gentrification and the assault of the big chains – and make a difference. (Tim Redmond)
MODERN TIMES BOOKSTORE
888 Valencia, SF