It's Saturday afternoon in the Mission, and on Valencia, the strollers are out in full force. Young families linger in front of shiny store-window displays; manicured couples fill the tables outside every bustling cafe.
On the corner of 21st and Valencia, through an unmarked wooden door, a black cat named Asha is ignoring it all from inside an antique clawfoot tub. Sharing the perch with her is an antique birdcage that, in turn, is propped against a mannequin sporting an ornate vintage wedding dress. Billie Holiday's voice wafts through the store while a little girl studies the record's vinyl sleeve from a velvet couch next to a piano. Her mother is nearby, asking Duo, the resident typewriter repairman, about the price on a 60-year-old Remington. Downstairs, in the performance space, someone starts sound-checking for tonight's show.
As the afternoon light filters through the dust in the air, illuminating the artwork, machinery, and instruments covering every inch of the walls, Jonathan Siegel — a writer, actor, and designer, and Viracocha's owner, tenant, and primary employee for the past four years — surveys the room and sighs. A first-time customer pauses just inside the door, cranes her neck up to the rusted signs near the ceiling, then back down to the little girl, the couch, the piano, and the cat, and asks the question Siegel's been trying to answer for four years: "What is this place?"
Viracocha is an antiques store that punk kids love. It's a speakeasy with no password to speak of. It sells handmade furniture, clothes, typewriters, jewelry, 'zines, small-batch soaps, National Geographic magazines from 1975. Up until last month, there were no price tags on anything. It's staffed by writers, musicians, and artists who show up and hang out regardless of whether or not they're on shift. The lavishly appointed bathroom recently competed against nine others for the title of Best Bathroom in America.
But the heart of the place lies underground. Viracocha is a performance space — a dreamily lit wooden stage and seating area that have played host to poetry readings, history classes, brass bands, folk singers, weddings, dinner parties, Amy Winehouse tribute nights, and a weeklong sold-out residency with the folk singer Jolie Holland. Often, Siegel lets groups use the space for free. Some call it a community center; one filmmaker who uses it for shoots likens it more to a church.
No matter what you call it, there's one rule at Viracocha: Keep it quiet. For the past four years, all of these events have technically been illegal, on account of fire codes, that one big staircase, and the lack of ADA compliance. No one's allowed to talk publicly about the venue or promote its events.
If this all sounds vaguely unsustainable, that's because it is. As of the first week of December, Viracocha is $40,000 in the red. The rent for its prime space along the Valencia Corridor is a cool $10,000 a month. And Siegel — a one-time construction worker who built most of the place himself — is ready to move on. At a series of fundraisers throughout December and January, he hopes to raise enough money to make the space attractive to potential investors while maintaining the venue's soul and purpose. The fundraiser kickoff show on Dec. 6 saw upwards of 100 people jamming themselves into the space on a rainy Friday night for performances by local bluesman Quinn DeVeaux, the soul-rock band Whiskerman, and folky bluegrass from Megan Keely and Kelly McFarling (also a Viracocha employee). "We feel so grateful to have this place in our lives," said Keely to the packed house between songs.
Siegel is, among other things, a poet. After moving to San Francisco from New York in 2005, he spearheaded poetry nights at bars like Dalva, then Club Deluxe, and a series of other bars. When their owners realized that "poetry nights aren't exactly profitable," Siegel moved to a Thursday night reading at the 16th and Mission BART station. The original idea for Viracocha was simple: He wanted to create a space for the musicians, writers, and artists in his life — a place where they could be sure no one was going to kick them out.
"I'd look around and say, 'All my friends are geniuses, but they're griping about their coffee-shop jobs and treating these things they're really good at as hobbies,'" he says. "There has to be a way for us to work together, to make something more tangible for ourselves as artists.'" He poured his savings into remodeling the interior and basement, enlisting friends as volunteers. He invested several thousand dollars into the sound system, because he was sick of hearing his friends' bands play with terrible sound. "The acoustics are perfect," he says about the downstairs space. "People sound like gods in that room."
Despite the dictum to keep Viracocha's stage on the DL, it's often felt like the worst-kept secret in the city. Firefighters from the local station walk wide-eyed rookies through the space so everyone knows how it's laid out, "just in case," says Siegel. State assemblymen have had bachelor parties here. Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney in the S.F. Public Defender's office and one-time vice-presidential candidate, teaches classes downstairs for the Free University of San Francisco. And while things sometimes get rambunctious, the only time a neighbor has called the cops with a noise complaint, it turned out to be for a group of "about 50 sorority girls having a party across the street," says Siegel. "They were screaming their heads off."
"I don't know why Jonathan Siegel let me turn his storage room into a library. Which is to say, he'd probably do the same for you," says Kristina Kearns, a writer who opened Ourshelves, the lending library at the back of the main room, in 2011. "I had an idea, and because I was encouraged to make it a reality, there's now a membership library used by over 300 people in San Francisco." Ourshelves now has five other locations, including senior centers and homeless shelters.
"That place is so special, it's ridiculous," says Jolie Holland, who lived in a cozy attic apartment above Viracocha for the week of her residency — a room Siegel lived out of while getting Viracocha off the ground in 2009. "The volunteers and employees who keep it going, all the amazingly sweet personalities there... they're angels. People like that don't just show up in one space for no reason."
Saturday afternoon has become Saturday evening, and from behind the 1930s cash register, employee Jesse McDaniel is directing people downstairs for tonight's music. Inside 10 minutes, three different people ask if the rumors are true, if Viracocha will be closing. McDaniel points to an e-mail list, tells them to be on the lookout for community meetings about how to keep it going.
"This became a home really quickly for me," says McDaniel, who first found Viracocha through the spoken-word scene. "If there's a night where I don't have anything going on, these are the people I call. This is the place I go."
What does Siegel make of the fierce loyalty in this community he's built? Of the scores of people who've been drawn to Viracocha, who are rallying around Viracocha, writing impassioned testimonials about what the place has meant to them?
"I think looking for a place you belong is a universal human thing," says Siegel. His reasons for leaving the Bay Area are personal, and his immediate plans are uncertain, though he'd like to travel. He has friends and an offer of accommodations in Germany, which is sounding pretty good — but not before ensuring that Viracocha will thrive in his absence.
"We say community, but what we mean is family," he says. "And everybody's searching for a home."