Bolerium - Bookselling as Performance Art
Bolerium - the long perspective
By Bruce McKinney
An interesting shop in the San Francisco barrio south of Market Street; this is Bolerium Books on Mission. The street is busy, the traffic young. From down the street a giant BOOKS sign, in the same type and size New York used a few years ago to salute the Yankees after winning their umpteenth baseball championship, is visible on the building front. Across the street an unusual combination of loiters suggest illegal activities. Passing by I pat my wallet. No one pays them or me any mind. This is San Francisco. One intersection over is Capp Street that ten years ago was the place to speed-date.
For those not scanning the horizon as they approach, Bolerium and three other bookstores in the building at 2141 Mission; Libros Latinos, Meyer-Boswell, and Valhalla Books, are easy, as you walk by, to miss. Their names are printed in 24 point on the recessed entrance, Bolerium one of the buzzers temporarily attached years ago to the door's seen-better-days frame. These bookstores, it turns out, are nested in a three-story building, occupying all or parts of the upper floors. The entrance to the building is locked, the keypad provided to signal your interest, the doors secured until you establish your bona fides. Even Lex Luther has to be buzzed in.
I have the company's card in hand and read it carefully:
Bolerium Books specializes in American social movements - labor and radical history, African-American Studies, Hispanics in the U.S., gay and lesbian studies, Asian-American history, and the Spanish civil war. In other words: mainly if not exclusively twentieth century movements.
The stairs I now climb will be a barrier to some, but may explain why John Durham, the proprietor, soon mentions that the clientele is younger. I didn't ask how many people have died on the way up. Never mind. Later I learn there's an elevator.
I soon discover the seventy-four steps are worth the trip. The door on the third floor at No. 300 opens into a warren of floor to ceiling displays retrieved from garage sales a century ago. A map of the store tells all, both the categories of material, and the Bolerium approach to them. The two thousand square feet are divided into passages, sections, divisions and dichotomies. The "gauntlet of boxes and bags" on the left side, and the "Berlin Wall of Boxes and Piles" on the right, are bridesmaids ushering you to the alter where the head man waits to seduce and direct you toward shelves with such names as "overpriced books, "gay, more gay and even more gay," "refuge of endangered ideologies," "inlet of high hopes," and "purgatory" to name only some. In one direction the subjects under these banners are clearly, if innocently, marked: Labor, Radical & African-American Small Pamphlets & Ephemera; Lesbian Literature, Hispanic-American material and Black History. Going the other way opportunities to get insight into various sins are provided. In nooks and crannies niche subjects wait their chance to command entire alleys. Lenin gets a book end, Sacred Texts another. Lesser characters and subjects must petition John for placards. He's no doubt negotiable; how many things do we have? Can we put shelves in the water closet? Think J. K. Rowling's "Room of Requirement." You are in it. All space is occupied, if not assigned, most once empty corners named.
Bolerium - Bookselling as Performance Art
Narrow aisles and broad ambitions
The pamphlets and ephemera on the left wall are interesting. Communist literature from the '40s makes nice with social commentary in the '90s , shares open files with labor speeches, government documents, and the NAACP. The official description according to the store map lists American Labor & Radical History as a topic in this section, but such topics are shade trees under which exceptions prove the rule. It's an interesting mix. John explains it this way, "On the left we're known." The Birch Society does not hold its meetings here.
In this shop a sawbuck will get one or two items and some interesting conversation. Here, you can feel like your parents' experience is the stuff of history, not the landfill. Here, generational and historical perspective hove into view. Just two floors below, the world feels two-dimensional. Here depth and implied purpose ride shotgun over random material that, sorted by subject, becomes contemporary narrative presented as collectible fields. The currency in this bookstore is information; the twin requisites for successful participation intelligence and curiosity. You come here to get a book. You get repartee on the house.
This is the new face of bookselling and book collecting; where affordable collectable material of the 20th century is offered in the 21st century in a setting out of Charles Dickens with shades of Hogarth and decor by vente de garage. For those who enter, it helps to be smart, wry allusions suffuse the place, bon mots fly by at the speed of light. If you think the world is a murky place, your key will fit into their front door. Here you seek clarity by first staring into dark corners.
Standing back a bit, this is bookselling as performance art. It works.
San Francisco, California 94110