Walk into Alley Cat Bookshop at 24th Street and Treat Avenue, ask for a copy of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, and expect the following question: in English or in Spanish?
Six years ago, veteran bookseller and visual artist Kate Rosenberger set up shop in San Francisco’s predominantly Latino-populated 24th Street corridor. Already the proud owner of Dog Eared Books in the Castro district since 1992, Kate decided to add cats to her menagerie. “Alley” refers to Balmy Alley, the famous Mission district landmark directly across the street. Since Kate let the cat out of the bag, a mighty staff of five has worked tirelessly to “keep Alley Cat local,” stocking used, new, and remaindered books in English and Spanish and hosting a variety of bilingual events.
“There’s a certain vibe to a neighborhood where you can tell it wants a bookstore, where it’s the right environment,” Simon, longtime Alley Cat bookseller, told me. “It’s like mushrooms; it’s got to be dark and wet.” Can you tell Simon is a poet? The bookshop echoes 24th Street’s artsy, colorful, “old school San Francisco” crowd. Weave your way through the airy shelves, decorated with handwritten shelf talkers and “weird junk we found that we think is cool,” to the back of the store, where there is a large gallery space.
“It is a space that wants to be used by the community,” Simon emphasized. Since Alley Cat doesn’t have a dedicated events staff, people from around the neighborhood bring the events to them. In return, the bookshop rarely charges rent, and most events are free. Catch a movie at the monthly “My Gaze, Ur Gaze” event, a queer film night and Simon’s personal favorite. “The person who introduces it, Irwin, is very effusive and intelligent. It feels like you’re in a film class — a really fun, easy film class.” The bookshop also hosts the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop each Tuesday, oil painting classes every Wednesday, variety shows, a monthly bilingual poetry reading called “Voz Sin Tinta” — even a square-dancing class here and there! Check out the events calendar on their website.
I asked Simon what’s changed over the past six years at Alley Cat Books. So began an extended, stirring meditation on gentrification and indie bookstores’ social responsibilities. As Simon put it, Alley Cat’s story is folded into the story of San Francisco and the Mission district in particular — one of increasing wealth and whiteness. “This is a conversation we’ve been having since we opened in this neighborhood. To what degree the bookstore participates or does not participate in that.” With the closure of many community spaces, Simon thinks Alley Cat’s gallery might fill the void, and the team strives to make Alley Cat’s books and venue as affordable and, therefore, accessible as possible.
Of course, prioritizing their neighbors over the salability of their stock comes at a literal cost, and it’s always a challenge to keep Alley Cat purring. But Simon argued that Alley Cat’s eccentricity gives them a leg up: “I think the bookselling model is changing. I think what used to be the norm — stocking the bestsellers, stocking everything — I think that’s dead. Amazon really changes the nature of what a bookstore can and should be […] You have to be more selective in what you stock because the taste you have is your advantage over the internet, which can provide people anything they want.” While an algorithm might show you books you’ll like, Alley Cat’s team introduces you to books you’ll love, throw, agonize over — books you might never have encountered otherwise.
The staff’s mark is evident everywhere you look. Since most of them are poets or artists, they dedicate more shelves to these topics. Above all, Simon’s love for his coworkers and what they’ve made together was clear: “The employees feel personally invested in the store. You’re really allowed the freedom to stock what you want, to not stock what you don’t want. And because it’s really small, we’re all friends in and outside of work. And since we’re writers, this isn’t just a job; it’s our lives […] We’ve had really good, smart, committed people working here. Besides me, obviously.”
Looking to the future, the team plans to stock even more political work and Spanish books, and invite more local artists, poets, and writers to share their handiwork in the gallery. “We’d really like to expand the gallery and double down and become firmly entrenched in the neighborhood and the politics of the city,” Simon told me.
Without a doubt, these cool cats will continue sharing new perspectives with San Francisco residents and travelers. Welcome to LARB’s Reckless Reader program, Alley Cat Books!
Not a member and want to receive special perks and discounts at Alley Cat Bookshop and other participating stores? Become a member and we’ll send you a Reckless Reader card and all the perks!