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Posts Tagged ‘The Booksmith’


Readers of this blog will already be aware of my affection for the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Several articles have been devoted to its history, architecture and culture.

Following my recent trip I have revisited my collection of photographs of the neighborhood. It started off as just a series of images but I have found it hard to resist commenting on a number of them in passing.

I will start with the store in which my vacation dollars and I are most easily parted – Land of the Sun, the  best place on Haight Street for tie-dye shirts and hippie paraphernalia such as jewelry, beads, throws and other household accessories.

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The other store in which I have often satisfied my craving for tie-dye is Haight Ashbury T-Shirts.  It might not be as enticing as Land of the Sun from the outside, but it is a great place to hang out in, even if it does mean you having to spend much of your time craning your neck to view the merchandise that occupies the entire ceiling space.

But it does have the added kudos of being sited at the iconic Haight  and Ashbury intersection (though not the definitive corner – that honor now goes to Ben & Jerry’s).

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Haight-Ashbury is not just hippie clothing and smoke shops of course. It also boasts some of the finest Victorian architecture in the city, as illustrated by this fine pair of Queen Annes situated literally yards off the main drag.

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My first port of call on hitting the ‘hood was once Positively Haight Street, a wonderful hippie-oriented store with stunning facades.

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In June 2012, new owners opened Jammin on Haight on the same premises. Still dedicated to tie-dye fashion, it is undeniably a beautiful store but I haven’t yet quite warmed to it.  Much of the overtly Grateful Dead apparel and accessories – despite the sign in the window below – have gone (or do I have “two good eyes” but “still don’t see”?), and it exudes a more upmarket, well scrubbed vibe that I can’t readily relate to. The window displays, though sporting different designs, remain beautiful.

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I once sang (I use the word advisedly) the Grateful Dead song, Ripple, with a young busker on that corner above. I often wonder whether he was still able to eat that evening.

Though I have not had cause to visit these establishments much, here are some more colorful shopfronts.

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Although I’ve still not managed to beat the lines at the legendary Pork Store Café, the following have provided hearty sustenance over the years. And we will get to eat at Cha Cha Cha one day too!

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Familiar and long gone (but not forgotten) look out on you every few yards along Haight Street.

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No photo gallery of the Haight would be complete without a full frontal view of 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead’s home between 1966 and 1968.

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Back to Positively Haight Street, once the retail king of the neighborhood for an unreconstituted Deadhead.

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With every visit to San Francisco I learn of the demise of more quality neighborhood bookstores. Even since my last trip less than a year ago, Badger Books in Bernal Heights and Phoenix Books in Noe Valley, the latter replaced by an inferior alternative, have closed. I was shocked also to find that Aardvaark Books on Church and Market had been remodeled as a secondhand store.

It is reassuring, therefore, to find that Booksmith on Haight Street appears to be flourishing. I continue to make my small contribution to its future.

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Curiuously, in view of my love for the music that originally flowed out of San Francisco music scene in the late sixties and early seventies, I have never got excited about the prospect of visiting the massive Amoeba Music.

It might just be the sheer scale of the place and the fact that it occupies a single floor that disconcerts me. I am, or rather was, accustomed to the stores (Virgin, Tower, HMV) back in the UK  that occupied several tiers which made it easier to find what you were looking for.

Or it may be the legacy of my first visit when I was told rather aggressively that I had to leave the small bag I was carrying at the entrance. I understand that theft may be an issue, but I form an aversion immediately to any establishment that tells me at the front door that I am not to be trusted. I may be naive but this struck me as especially disappointing  on the street where the concepts of love and peace were once so trumpeted.

I haven’t been confronted recently but I still find it difficult to cope with the size of, and lack of warmth in, the store. But that’s as much my problem as theirs. As it happens, I am not a great fan either of Rasputin Music which has recently been providing competition for Amoeba on the street.

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I will finish where I started – with the Land of the Sun store and its reference to the familiar Grateful Dead lyric from Truckin’ of “What a long strange trip it’s been”.

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There are many other places, events and photographs that I could have included, some of which I have paid tribute to in previous posts, but I am conscious that this post will already have tried your patience.

Many will accuse me of having a romanticized, tourist’s – or even dippy hippie’s – view of the modern day Haight, and claim that what echoes there are of the Summer of Love are slight and inauthentic; that, effectively, it is no more than an open air museum (the number of tour buses that still crawl along the street might reinforce that argument).

I don’t presume to know whether there is any vestige of truth in that or not. What I do know is that, amid the upscale stores and expensive accommodation (the Haight boasts more single millionaires (283) than any other San Francisco neighborhood), it still means something valuable and relevant for many people – those who lived through the sixties and those who are their grandchildren. You only need to walk the area during the annual street fair or 4/20 festivities to recognize that.

May the trip continue to be long and strange!

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.

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But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.

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A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.

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What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.

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Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.

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Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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