Who Opens an Independent Bookstore in 2017?

Black Bird Books has what it takes to make it work. But who knew the Outer Sunset had this many boutiques?

(Photo by Eric Pratt)

When The Voyager opened on 15th and Valencia streets in 2011, it drew a lot of attention for an octagonal “window” that appeared to look below the surface of the ocean, like what you might find on The Life Aquatic or belowdecks on Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. But what was more significant was how this artsy, unisex-but-largely-menswear shop owed its existence to Mollusk, the high-end Irving Street surf emporium. So often, the Mission is the birthplace of trends — some of them extremely dubious, no doubt — but in this case, it was the Outer Sunset exporting the cool factor to Valencia Street.

It’s no blip. Be it the tight-knit community, the relatively affordable commercial real estate, or some sort of creative energy borne aloft in the maritime breeze, the Outer Sunset has a number of boutiques, studios, and expertly curated surf shops. Largely centered on Judah and Irving streets between 43rd Avenue and the beach, the surfwear district — so to speak — also includes a satellite, the 49-year-old Wise Surfboards on the Great Highway. There’s Aqua Surf Shop (3847 Judah St.), known for its board rentals and yoga classes, along with the powerhouse Mollusk (4500 Irving St.), which is about as art directed as it gets. Beyond its dual rows of surfboards lining one wall, there’s a treehouse attached to the ceiling (with a llama inside) and plenty of sunglasses, sweatshirts, and sneakers.

There’s plenty more. A few blocks away is the by-appointment-only storefront for Woodshop (3725 Noriega St.), a collective of four woodworking artisans who craft high-end boards, chairs, and household objects like spoons and “pizza peels.” If you’ve ever seen the image of a bear, um, bear-hugging an outline of California against a background of golden poppies, chances are it came from 3 Fish Studios (4541 Irving), where husband-and-wife duo Annie Galvin and Eric Rewitzer produce everything from fridge magnets to postcards to full-size pieces for walls, much of it love letters to the Golden State or to San Francisco’s 49-Mile Scenic Drive.

A few blocks east is Avenues Dry Goods (4121 Irving), which SFist senior editor Eve Batey founded with her husband, Tim Ehhalt, earlier this year in what had been a wash-and-fold laundry. It’s an eclectic mix of handmade crafts — dish towels emblazoned with Sutro Tower and other landmarks — and some thrift-store finds like vintage glassware and turquoise jewelry, plus a shelf or two of enamel pins.

But the biggest surprise of all might be Black Bird Bookstore, which opened on June 14 in a former day-care center at 4033 Judah St. Founder Kathryn Grantham had opened a “political, activist bookstore” in New York’s Lower East Side almost 20 years ago — it’s called Bluestockings, and it’s still there — and after the presidential election, she felt an urge to get active again.

“I wanted to do something doable for me, as a mother of three children,” Grantham says. “The space opened up … and it couldn’t be more perfect to be next to Trouble Coffee.”

Black Bird — so named because Grantham likes alliteration and wanted something that evoked San Francisco’s environment without glomming onto a surfing theme — isn’t overstuffed with shelves. Rather, it’s laid out along the lines of a gift shop, with about half children’s books and half adult books.

Given the existential crisis facing many independent bookstores — especially established ones confronted with periodic rent shocks — choosing what to carry is a challenge. Anyone can buy anything on Amazon, so Grantham says Black Bird’s ideal customer is the person who comes in sighing that they “just need a good book to read.” Rather than overload the shelves with 10,000 titles, she’s focused on sifting through recently published offerings to present the broadest possible range of voices and viewpoints. And while the shop was explicitly founded as a response to the president, not all the books Grantham carries are left-wing polemics.

Even if “it’s a novel that has nothing to do with politics,” she says, “the voice is still there. You’re starting to see that marginalized categories in our culture are now being published: women of color, African American queer women. Roxane Gay is on The New York Times best-seller list, published by a major publisher. That didn’t happen 20 years ago.”

Then there’s that other half of Black Bird’s shelf space.

“I’ve been researching children’s books for seven years,” Grantham says, referring to her tenure as a parent, “and these are my favorites. It’s classic stories as well as contemporary stories. There’s a huge movement in children’s literature right now to put different colored skins, different types of family structures, at the forefront.

“Children’s books are immune to the e-book phenomenon,” she adds. “It’s hard to buy one online when you can go into a store and find advice. You can also read the book yourself in 30 seconds.”

There’s no destination boutique for tech-savvy audiophiles in the Outer Sunset, and no single-screen movie theater either, for that matter. As Grantham notes, the neighborhood “doesn’t have a lot of commercial space.” It might not rival Valencia just yet, but one thing you won’t find on Judah and 45th is those shiny silver hoodies often worn by drunken vomiters during Bay to Breakers. At least, not yet.

Check out more stories in our feature on the Outer Sunset here:

It’s Always Sunny in the Sunset
Fog schmog, one of San Francisco’s loveliest neighborhoods is just blocks from the ocean.

Who Opens an Independent Bookstore in 2017?
Black Bird Books has what it takes to make it work. But who knew the Outer Sunset had this many boutiques?

Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: Eating in the Outer Sunset
Between Sunset Boulevard and the ocean, there are plenty of brunch spots, fish tacos, and third-wave coffee shops.

Unpaving Paradise
More than 113,000 gallons of the neighborhood’s stormwater are diverted through city sewers annually, thanks to the Sunset District’s Front Yard Ambassadors.

A Rejection of ‘Pure Shlock’
A colorful candy dish of castle-like houses hides along several blocks in the Outer Sunset.

Will Teach For Housing
Plans inch closer to converting a 1.25-acre lot in the Outer Sunset to homes for SFUSD professionals.

Surrender to the Sand
The southern end of Ocean Beach may get a facelift.

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