826 Valencia might not seem like a do-gooder kind of place from the outside. It’s got a crazy window display and an inventive mural up top by Chris Ware that only hint at what’s to come if you walk inside. Once you’re in though, you’re likely to want to stick around. The storefront houses the West Coast’s only pirate supply shop, and that’s just the beginning. Yes, you can buy a replacement peg leg, and yes, you can purchase an eye patch. But all of that, plus the large selection of books, magazines, and DVDs for sale, all by local imprint McSweeney’s Publishing, is just the storefront. Past the nautical rope is the real reason for 826 Valencia: a non-profit organization that helps local kids shape and polish their writing.
The writing center / pirate store has been around for over 10 years now, but in a city that values the latest trends, in a neighborhood that’s always changing, this place never gets old. Started by Dave Eggers in 2002 (you may know his hit memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), the author used his fame and connections to start this amazingly awesome organization, originally housed in the same building as Eggers’s publishing company, McSweeney’s. As the story goes, the space they leased on Valencia was zoned for commercial retail, so even though they just wanted a place for kids to come and write, by law they needed to sell something. After some brainstorming, they figured why not have a pirate store? And in the end, it turned out to be a pretty good marketing tool… get people in the door through appealing to hipness and imagination, then tell them about the volunteer opportunities that exist behind the rope.
826 has expanded to other cities in its 10 years in existence, and now even has an umbrella branch, 826 National, which works to manage all the organizations. At 826NYC you’ll find a superhero store in front of the tutoring center; in LA, a time travel store. Chicago has a spy store, and Washington, DC houses the Museum of Unnatural History.
826 has tons of fun programs to get kids excited about writing, which is the whole idea. They go into schools to do poetry and college essay workshops, but school classes come to 826 Valencia to make books together and learn how to write poetry about stinky stocks or dinosaurs living in the basement. There are also volunteers at the center almost every afternoon to sit with students to offer help while they do their homework. 826 has succeeded in creating an exciting environment for kids to work one-on-one (or nearly one-on-one) with volunteers, and has drawn volunteers in by being such an exciting place and having ties to the literary world.
Next time you’re in SF, come by the pirate store and check out some of the published work from 826 students. You might find yourself wishing you had this magical place in your city!