Ourshelves: an intimate and growing library

November 1, 2011

Kristina Kearns sitting in front of the Book Tree in Ourshelves

Kristina Kearns is the mastermind behind a small book-lined room at the back of a fascinating private-public space in San Francisco’s Mission district. She was recently awarded a $1000 Awesome Foundation grant. I recently toured the space and followed up with some questions for Kristina (and am currently reading the book she recommended for me after a return visit to this fascinating space)

Jesse: How do you explain “Ourshelves” to people who have never heard of it before?

Kristina: Ourshelves is a space designed to share appreciation for literature. It’s not government-funded like the public library, and it isn’t monetarily focused like a bookshop. It’s about sharing good literature — whether sharing suggestions, long conversations over tea, coffee and sometimes whiskey, lending books to the community, or putting little-known work on the shelf. It’s also about sharing possibilities about what publishing can be. San Francisco is one of the most literary cities in the world, still it doesn’t yet have a space completely dedicated to literature. That’s what Ourshelves strives to be.

How did the idea of Ourshelves first come about?

The idea of Ourshelves came about when I returned to San Francisco after spending some months living in an idyllic bookshop in Greece, called Atlantis Books. I was inspired by what these young men and women had created and sustained over the last seven years. Coming back to San Francisco, I wanted to create a space for literature that is more curated and intimate than the public library, yet doesn’t make money the determining factor of whether someone can read the books.

“I wanted to create a space for literature that is more curated and intimate than the public library, yet doesn’t make money the determining factor of whether someone can read the books.”

How long has OurShelves been open?

Three months! We opened our doors July 13, 2011.

Tell me about the name.

Ourshelves came about through long conversations with friends here in the city that are writers, editors and longtime booksellers. A lot of people speak negatively about print these days – they say the book is dead, that bookshops are dying, that the Kindle rules all. Well, corporate bookshops are dying. They can’t compete with Amazon. And certainly, most businesses are hurting in America right now, yet some used bookshops are thriving. Print books are increasing profit each quarter – not in leaps and bounds, but holding steady in the current American economy, As for the Kindle — a Kindle is a luxury item. I don’t mean to say that it’s highly expensive, or that affording one makes a person rich, but there are a large portion of people who can’t afford a Kindle. Movement toward financial privilege being one of the requisites to read a book – that scares me. Our cultural enlightenment came about when books left the hands of the Church and literacy moved through the masses. It’s integral to our society that everyone have access to books.

I love the public library. I hope the national budget cuts against libraries does not continue, and it is not indicative of further de-escalations. Yet friends and I who had lengthy discussions about bookshops and libraries didn’t feel right leaving it in the hands of others to hopefully change. We talked about the idea of a library that cuts out all the filler books and puts all the best books in one place. A library where someone could purchase the book after borrowing it, if they really wanted to keep it. We talked about what could happen if authors worked directly with bookshops to sell their books so that they took a larger cut from their own work. (If someone wants to purchase a book from our local authors who donated their works and a list of their favorites, the authors receive 80% on the sale of their book.) We talked about our ability to publish work ourselves. It slowly became — why not do this ourselves? Ourshelves?

We talked about the idea of a library that cuts out all the filler books and puts all the best books in one place. A library where someone could purchase the book after borrowing it, if they really wanted to keep it.

And the location, how did that happen?

By the good graces of Jonathan Siegel, the owner of Viracocha. There is local art, beautiful typewriters, interesting installations and lighting, and local chapbooks. I saw a poetry reading here and was just sort of stunned by the beauty of the space. That someone had created not just a space for art, but a space for community. It seemed to me that a lot of the authors had been in the city for a while reading in coffee shops and bars, and now they had this beautiful space to share their work.

That’s because of Jonathan Siegel. I don’t think he would say it that way, because so many people helped him put this together and continue to keep it going. But really, Jonathan Siegel filled this shop in the beginning with pieces he had collected over the years. He put all of his things for sale for this space. For the people that use this space, for the people who wander in and are inspired by it. I think what he’s done and what he is doing is amazing, and I think it’s worth pointing out at every moment. There are people who offer to the world not just their own self but space for people to be themselves. That’s what Jonathan does.

I know that personally. When Jonathan and I ran into each other one night and talked about books and publishing, among various other things, I never expected that a month later he would have remembered the conversation and offer me a back room in his space. But he did and then he even helped me build it. He put in the walls and floors and he gave me the idea for the galvanized pipes, which was brilliant. He made our light fixture for us and he donated over a hundred of his own books. I’m incredibly grateful toward Jonathan and those involved with Viracocha for sharing their space with us, thereby letting us exist.

There are people who offer to the world not just their own self, but space for people to be themselves.

You’ve mentioned a plan to work with with local authors?

Right now local authors curate a section of the shop. They give copies of their works and a list of their favorite [books], sometimes even donating their own copies. Should anyone want to buy their books, we will give them 80% of the sale. A lot of local authors submit their work. We read them to decide whether they fit the scope of the library, and prominently display work we hope others will read as well. We also want to start publishing a quarterly of as-yet-unpublished local work.

We just started working with the Riley Center in the Women’s Building. The Riley Center works with women and children victims of domestic violence, helping them get to a safe place. They have many children in their programs and would like to start a storytelling series where local authors come and read to the kids. Ourshelves will build a free library for the center and help them connect with local authors.

Who made the tree mural inside the space?

Chris Drellow, a great visual and video artist. He had created the tree on his computer, one book at a time. (There are 1,206 books.) Viracocha owner Jonathan Siegel saw it and suggested it for the space. Chris and his friend Erik Andersen came by for three days while Chris painted from a projection. I’m so glad to showcase it.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day starts off slow, which gives me time to make coffee and do all the backend work. At least one member on any given day will come in to exchange books, and often stay for a bit to talk about the one they just read or other literature they think I should read, or I think they should read—I love my members. Some ask for more assistance than others; part of the reason some use the space is for a guiding hand. Some people shame me with their knowledge of books. They often help me figure out what new books to bring in.

A few days a week WillBilly will play piano right outside the library, which I love. The weekends are busy here, there’s a consistent stream of people coming in. The week is a bit slower but still nice. I love when someone comes in and spends time looking at the shelves, then picks a book and sits down to read. I try to balance giving people their space and welcoming dialogue.

What has surprised you from the experience? (What has been harder than expected? Easier than expected?)

I was surprised by the relative ease of sign-ups. Almost 100 people have signed up, yet it is a bit tricky to extend member communication to monthly dues. We just started taking credit card information, which I had not wanted to do, [but] it [easily] allows members to decide they would rather keep the book, without feeling like they can’t come back and borrow another one. So it’s actually positive—but it can obstruct the flow of conversation and goodwill when signing up.

One of the nicest surprises was how well-received the selection is. There was a moment an hour before opening day where I almost panicked. I had put together the books I care about most and, being a private person, felt overwhelmingly exposed all of the sudden. Some of these books define who I am and I’ve made that public. Overcoming shyness in order to promote the project has been one of the hardest, yet interesting and necessary aspects of the project.

Overcoming shyness in order to promote the project has been one of the hardest, yet interesting and necessary aspects of the project.

Tell me about the plan to have free library satellites at the Women’s Center and other places?

Thanks to a $1000 award from the Awesome Foundation, we will soon build a free library in the St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Francisco Riley Center. The Riley Center has various programs and services, as well as emergency shelter and transitional housing for women and children victims of domestic abuse. They do amazing work and have wanted a library for some time. We will build the shelves and provide English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish books. We have talked to 826 about having their kids curate the children and young adult sections.

I’m really excited. There are many people without easy access to literature here in the city, and we hope to offer more free libraries in senior centers, youth homes and cultural centers. We’d also like to host book clubs and writing programs—particularly oral histories. Everyone we have talked to so far has been very welcome to the idea. Nonprofits and senior housing have budgets that don’t necessarily make space for these projects, and we can come in and do the work for them.

How do you get and select books for Ourshelves?

Michael Chabon let us borrow from his personal library for our initial stock. Friends of the San Francisco Public Library let us trade some books as well. There have been a few hundred donated, and the rest I purchase.

How many people come in each day?

I don’t know! I should probably pay attention to that. Over a seven hour or ten hour day, I would say around fifty to one hundred. Some weekdays are much slower.

I can’t help but ask, what are you reading right now?

I am just starting Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I’m often reprimanded for not having read it yet. I might put it off just a bit longer, though, since we just got the new translation of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It’s the first time the complete and unabridged version has been translated in English. The only English copy until now was translated by a male zoologist who might not have had a grasp on what he was translating. I don’t mean that harshly, but he had to look up what existentialism meant when he wrote the introduction -which was after he finished the translation. I suspect he may have misrepresented some of her theories.

How did you hear about the Awesome Foundation?

I had been to an Awesome Foundation gathering about a year ago and was impressed with all the interesting  and different projects the Awesome Foundation funds. A few visitors to the shop mentioned the Awesome Foundation and suggested I look into it for Ourshelves.

What are you planning on using the $1000 award for?

The $1000 will go toward the Spanish language books and building costs for the Riley Center library. We could not build the library without it, and we are very, very grateful. Thank you!

How can anyone reading this article help you move forward?

We are always looking for book donations. We’re especially interested in Spanish titles and titles on our Wish List, which is also posted on our Facebook Page. Monetary donations are welcome as well. I think people would be surprised to know how much difference a donation makes. A thousand dollars is almost enough for us to build an entire library. Every donation, regardless of the amount, helps further our goals. Donations and memberships are available at www.ourshelves.net. People are welcome to contact me at kristina@ourshelves.net for any further information. We also need volunteers to spend a few hours a week in the library.

How can people find OurShelves in person or online?

Ourshelves is  located at 998 Valencia St, on the corner of 21st and Valencia. We are open from 11-6pm Wednesday through Friday and 11-7pm on the weekends. We are also open 2-3 nights per week for events. People can call 415.705.9950 to set up access outside of normal hours.

Anything else you want to share?

Ourshelves is open to anyone who would like to be involved. The monthly dues do help us pay our rent and build new libraries, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. I want to offer the space, too, for writing and reading. All we did was build the space. It is yours to make use of, in any way that you like. Please stop by.

I’d also like to make some public thank-yous, if possible. I don’t get the opportunity to thank these people enough. John Marshall, Jeremy Hatch, Anisse Gross, Michael Berger, Ian Tuttle, Isaac Fitzgerald, Adam Roszkiewicz, Oscar Villalon, Byron Spooner, Laura Maguire, Amy Cray, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Sarah Rosedale, Sean Taylor, Amanda Rino, Sierra Logan, the anonymous woman (Kate), Carlos Bueno, Duo von Dagrate, Ashley Townsend, Andrew Leland, Michelle Quint, McSweeney’s, Chris Drellow, Erik Anderson, Radhika Garland, Caitlin Donohue, Jason Whitacre, Charlie Getter, Chad Xavier, Brad Johnson, and Jonathan Siegel. All of the local authors who help curate. I owe them everything. John Marshall —a thousand times over. And, truly, the Awesome Foundation and all it’s wonderful members. Thank you!!!