SAN FRANCISCO — Jean Pauline poured more than a quarter of a century of her life into a little leftist bookstore in San Francisco called Modern Times, full of ideas she feels the world still needs.
But the bookstore, a neighborhood institution since 1971 in the city’s increasingly less proletarian Mission district, may soon become a thing of the past. It faces an increasingly common threat for many counterculture institutions that once helped define San Francisco but now face being priced out of a city where a flood of wealthy newcomers — often in the tech industry — is blamed for rising rents.
"We need a critical, political bookstore in the community,” said Pauline, 94, as she lamented the problems of the world — from warfare and environmental degradation to her store’s uncertain future.
Outside the bookshop, the Brass Liberation Orchestra, San Francisco’s big ragtag brass band of the left, struck up a tune of support for the business. A scruffy, rotund man in a beanie — who called himself Pierre — played a whimsical sousaphone. A saxophonist, who goes only by the name Breakfast, played in a pink fedora with punk studs and a matching pink opera scarf.
Since 2003 the BLO — a band with a loose network of international counterparts like Titubanda in Rome — has set a soundtrack to the Bay Area’s social justice actions, essentially bearing witness to a decade of American history and radical protest. As the issue of gentrification once again becomes paramount for many San Franciscans, some protesters have chosen to block the buses taking tech industry professionals from the city to Silicon Valley. But where others get angry, the BLO gets ambient.
The band marched a few blocks away and then returned. Throughout the pro bono street concert by the musician-activists, Pierre made a series of pleas for the local community to support Modern Times in its latest incarnation — after it was priced out of its larger, more prominent location blocks away.
And then for the musicians of BLO, it was “taco o’ clock,” said Sarah Norr, 33, a band member since 2005, as she unstrapped a drum from her chest. In her years with BLO, Norr has played against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s played in defense of undocumented immigrants. More recently, she’s played events like the Occupy protests, the BART worker strikes and fast-food worker strikes as well as rallies against overcrowding and abuse at California prisons.
Now she finds herself playing against rising rents, housing prices and a spiraling cost of living in a city historically famous for its liberal and counterculture ideals. “When the band started, we were living in S.F.,” said Jamie Spector, a trombone player and one of the founding members of the band, who in 2012 moved to Vermont. “Now we are more and more in the East Bay as people got priced out of the city.”
The BLO —and its members' addresses — have changed over time to reflect the movements they aim to inspire. For example, Susan Crane, 70, joined little over a year ago, after she was released from prison for breaking into one of the nation’s largest nuclear stockpiles, at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state. She joined as the issues of atomic weapons and safe nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster were of particular concern.
“The BLO, in its structure, is really dedicated to being the way we want to see society organized in general,” said Crane, who appreciates the anti-nuclear stance of BLO.
And on the front lines in the battle against gentrification is Montana Swiger, 51, who joined BLO six years ago, at the beginning of a crippling recession that forced many out of their homes.
Swiger lived in San Francisco for 24 years. She is the single mother of a 12-year-old daughter who used to enjoy an array of art classes at a charter school in the Mission district. Last summer, Swiger said, her landlord warned her that his father would move into the apartment.