Adobe is a scrappy bookshop --
and a locus of the Mission's art scene
San Francisco Chronicle
April 10, 2003
It's a quiet Friday night at Adobe Book Shop on 16th Street in San Francisco. A few patrons wander the stacks, sit and read, or chat by the front desk. Kristin Sobditch, working the desk, hits her bell to acknowledge the occasional sale, and when things get too quiet, she'll shout out, "Buy a book! " in her best Michigander nasal twang.
At first glance, Adobe is a large, disheveled used-book shop, appointed with comfy if dusty mix-and-match furniture and an orange cat named Leo. On the front desk are flyers for art and music events, a vase of wilting flowers, a tiny urn full of cat food and two tall stacks of books waiting to be priced and shelved. Outside the front door, the white-haired and bearded, almost literally resident poet and pigeon-keeper, Swan, tends to his birds.
An uninitiated passer-by would be unlikely to imagine that a few nights ago the store was packed for a reading by authors Lydia Lunch, Stephen Elliott and Michelle Tea, or that former American Music Club front man Mark Eitzel had tried out a few new tunes with Tracy Chapman in the house a few weeks before that. But what's most surprising is that Adobe is the home base and gallery for a vibrant, decade-old art scene that has won national and even international acclaim.
Opened in 1988 by Andrew McKinley and Bryan Bilby on the site of a former coin shop, Adobe quickly became a hub of neighborhood activity. Bilby left Adobe in 1995 to open Chelsea Books on Irving, but McKinley is still welcoming people on 16th Street. He is a kind-eyed 45-year-old with a round, fatherly face and a reputation for generosity, both to the down-on-their-luck in the neighborhood and to the artists, musicians and writers with whom he's always staffed the store.
McKinley clearly treasures his role as neighborhood patriarch. "The people I've met have been the true treasures," he says. "I'm interested in nurturing people." He then quickly credits his staff, friends, artists, writers and musicians with fostering the Adobe scene.
The Yo-yo Man
Philip Silverstein, a longtime store habitue and 16th Street stalwart, arrives, pulls a bag of yo-yos from his bib overalls and, in what one quickly learns is his classic well-intentioned abrasiveness, foists them upon the store's patrons. Soon nearly everyone is testing long-forgotten "walk-the-dog" and "rock-the-cradle" skills between bookshelves.
A young woman perhaps just out of high school enters the store and asks for "that book 'Catchers in the Rye,' " and suddenly everyone stops yo-yoing and starts talking Salinger. No one can find a copy of "Catcher," so the woman asks about "that Hitchhiker book" and is pointed to the section where guides to the galaxy might be found. A bit of yo-yoing resumes, but it has clearly lost its momentum.
In the '90s, as the Adobe scene grew, McKinley and Bilby started hosting parties at the store -- parties led to live music, and to artists putting work on the walls. Soon, thanks to early curators Sean Regan and Brandon Stepp, the parties became art openings.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a book collector and an Adobe regular in those early years, appreciated the rec-room quality of the store and the energy of the parties: "Combining art openings with live music, the band playing in the middle of the floor at eye level, gave it a kind of anarchic, underground feeling."
Rene de Guzman, visual arts curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, recently gave a group of students a tour of the store and gallery. Asked why he chose a gallery so far afield of the Geary Street mainstays, Guzman called Adobe "an incredible model for a cultural institution, with its sociability, community-building environment, and intellectual and aesthetic engagement."
Art by the Book
Adobe's legitimacy as an art venue has grown immensely in the two years since its tiny Back Room Gallery opened. The gallery is the brainchild of artist Amanda Eicher and was built by Eicher and artists Christopher Garrett and Chris Johanson, a winner of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's SECA award.
The current Back Room show, "Auto Repair," consists of drawings and paintings by Robert Gutierrez. A De Young Art Center 2003 artist-in-residence whose work can be found in Market Street Art-in-Transit kiosks, Gutierrez is the first successful outsider to the Adobe scene who has asked to be shown in the gallery.
"I like the funky space and the audience it attracts, the community," Gutierrez says. "I also like that it's kind of hidden, that you have to search it out."
Currently in the store's main room is "The Peace Show," a collective exhibition that features a typical Adobe mix of nationally recognized artists such as Johanson, Amy Franceschini and Barry McGee alongside longtime Bay Area painters and several up-and-comers. It's the first exhibition from the new curatorial team -- Sarah Bostwick, Eleanor Harwood, Megan Hickey and Misako Inaoka -- that's taken over for Eicher. The show's opening on March 28 was Adobe's biggest to date, with people spilling out the doors and up and down the block.
If McKinley has to choose between business and community success, it's clear which he prefers: "I dream of a cleaner place, but I'm happy the way it is. In my next life, the store will be a showplace. This store is my home."
And on a quiet Friday, Adobe serves quite nicely as shop, gallery and clubhouse. People come to look at the art. The young woman who came in looking for "Catcher in the Rye" eventually leaves, smiling, with a copy of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," Sobditch taps the sale bell, and everyone looks up for a moment, then goes back to their books, conversations and yo-yos, as the ringing fades.
© 2006 Jamie Berger