Backstage Heroes is a column by gal-about-town Hiya Swanhuyser spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area.
The death of an independent bookstore is hard to un-see. Standing inside the echoing skeleton of Modern Times Books on 24th Street in late December of 2016, after the business had officially closed, the empty space seems to amplify current certainties, and questions: I know who’s been elected President; I know hate crimes are on the rise; I know the incoming political machine has requested lists of names — which scientists worked on climate change? Who in the State Department encouraged gender equality?
The empty bookshelves of Modern Times, taller than any bookshelves I’ve ever had to fully reckon with, might as well be shouting about the future and its many challenges. Basically, I’m freaked out.
Ruth Mahaney, a Modern Times collective member for 35 years — the democratically run bookstore never had a boss — isn’t freaked out. Even though she’s been sitting in the depressing, mostly empty storefront for weeks now, trying to get rid of the last of the furniture and books, piece by piece, she’s still in practical mode, ever an on-the-fly organizer. (Later, I use my own van to take a desk—the desk over which Modern Times sold books for who knows how many years—to Community Thrift, and even so, I have to sell it a little, giving it a thump, saying “It’s really solid!” before they’ll agree to take it.)
Everything left at the bookstore is like that: too big to carry, too tall to fit in a regular car, and if no one takes it, Mahaney herself will have to pay for it to be hauled to the dump. She is still, to this bitter end, concerned with keeping as much as possible out of the public landfill.
As we talk, the bookstore’s double doors are wide open, and conversation, bus noise, and music from passing cars floats through. Every so often, somebody stops at the doorway and shouts in.
Man: Hi, are you getting rid of stuff?
Mahaney: Yeah, everything you see is free. Haul it off on your skateboard!
“I was the one who was here the longest,” Mahaney tells me of the 45-year-old Modern Times. To give an idea of how much has changed since she first laid eyes on the place, here are some numbers to make you howl in pain: “I moved to San Francisco in September of 1971 and found a three-bedroom apartment for $150 a month, over on 14th near Sanchez.”
Walking around the neighborhood, she stumbled across “these people who had a big sign on the ground, and they were painting it.” This was Modern Times, and she became a customer of the new bookstore, which began (and, we can say now, ended) as a project of what Mahaney calls “movement people,” or “the left.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, and I don’t think she likes the question very much. I have the impression I’ve asked a fish to describe water. But it’s only a moment before she ticks off some specifics, not without pride: “It was one of the first bookstores to have a women’s section, and a gay section, and it was very involved in the struggles in Latin America to overthrow dictators and support progressive movements everywhere.”
It was also a dropoff spot for the Weather Underground, a radical activist group operating in secret, in the early days — Modern Times collective members were once instructed to go to the payphone booth in Dolores Park, under which was taped a package containing the manuscript of one of the group’s then-famous manifestos. Dorothy Allison had her first reading at the 888 Valencia site, Mahaney says. Alice Walker had her first reading at the 17th and Sanchez store, long before she published The Color Purple.
Ruth Mahaney’s careful haircut, cozy sweater, and “we got this” smile give her the look of a tough grandma, or the feminist professor who always wins the classroom argument with the guy who says “but men are stronger!” In fact, she is that professor; she teaches LGBT history and culture just up the street at City College. (I intuit the argument-winning part, but trust me.)
The bookstore has certainly played no small part in her expertise on local history: Modern Times used to be “the place that people would call when there was a demonstration,” she says. “They’d ask where is it, where’s it starting? And in those days, we knew.”
One of those protests happened in 1991, a few days after the Rodney King verdict exonerating the LAPD officers that the whole country had watched beating King on television; it was one of the first citizen-reported stories of police brutality to go viral. Mahaney’s story begins with peaceful gathering of neighbors, then takes a sudden turn to looting Union Square, and ends with a declaration of Martial Law and 6 o’clock curfew, after which anyone outdoors would be subject to arrest.
“I was in hysterics about it,” Mahaney says, surprising me by laughing. “Because later, they announced that anyone out after 6 o’clock would be subject to arrest unless they were going to an expensive restaurant. The Chamber of Commerce got upset, like ‘Hello, this is how we make our money!’ But people going to cheap restaurants were still subject to arrest! This poor guy got arrested when he was going to get his pizza from a pizza place nearby his house. So that night at about 4 o’clock—” And then we’re interrupted by a woman standing in the doorway of Modern Times, looking shellshocked by its empty appearance.
Woman: Hi. I’m so sorry.
Mahaney: Hi. Me too.
Woman: I’ll miss you.
Mahaney: Well. Thank you.
Woman: Thank you for being here.
I don’t know the extent of the loss Ruth Mahaney must feel, either emotionally or financially — she was in charge of paying the bills for Modern Times, so she knows exactly what happened — but I’m struck by her incredibly buoyant approach. She anticipates more demonstrations, but also notes she doesn’t walk as easily as she once did. She’ll still be out in the streets fighting injustice, she says, again surprising me by laughing, right in the face of this empty husk of a half-century’s dream, and the sound of her laugh echoes through it. I may be freaked out, but Mahaney’s concerns are brilliantly, bravely practical.
“There may be limits,” she says, “on how much running from the police I can do!”