San Francisco may soon lose yet another bookstore — but the Hayes Valley shop isn't being evicted. Instead, Bibliohead owner Melissa Richmond says her store is being pushed out to make way for a seismic retrofit of the building, and a high-end boutique is set to take its place.
Richmond, who has worked in bookstores across The City for almost the past 30 years, has been asked to vacate the Gough Street location where her store has operated for a decade by September 30. She says she was previously told she could stay until December, but the deadline was moved up to accommodate construction.
Her landlord is required to retrofit the building under the 2013 Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Ordinance, and, with Richmond's five-year lease expiring August 31, she was asked to leave to make way for the renovation. Once the retrofit is completed, Richmond says her landlord intends to re-rent the storefront to a boutique at a higher rent.
Richmond says she approached the building owner, Pearl Investment Company, with an alternative funding plan, but was rejected. "I approached them with a plan that I could meet their demands, which included me paying for separate renovations to the space, and I was still turned down for a new lease after the renovations were complete," she said. Pearl Investment Company did not return requests for comment.
Although many independent bookstores in The City have gone under or been forced to move in recent years, Bibliohead is solvent, according to Richmond. "There is a perception that bookstores aren't viable," Richmond said. But that's not true in her case — "Today we have sales that are double what we started at," she explained. "Last month was my best non-Christmas month ever."
The Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit has been controversial among property owners and tenants alike. Passed in April 2013, the law requires all San Francisco buildings that meet certain criteria — they have wood frames, applied for original construction permits prior to January 1978, and have five or more residential units, among other requirements — to undergo mandatory retrofitting. Buildings are ranked into four compliance tiers that indicate how quickly they are expected to comply with the law; all of the work must be completed by 2020. However, the law has flared tensions in an already-heated real estate market as property owners and tenants struggle to assign responsibility for funding the required retrofits.
Patrick Otellini, the chief resilience officer for The City, works to ease these tensions. He helps manage a loan program that funds the retrofit of buildings with more than four units. "The loan program that we've created is primarily to serve people affected by the mandatory retrofit," Otellini said. "The loan programs are tailored to them because the clock is ticking on them."
The loan program has received about 350 applications from property owners, who will receive notice this fall if they qualify for a loan. Pearl Investment Company is one of the applicants.
Otellini estimates that about 2,000 small businesses are effected by the mandatory retrofit law, and that these businesses employ over 7,000 local workers. "By doing this now, we are saving ourselves from a huge problem in the next earthquake," he said. "About 60,000 people live in these buildings, too."
Richmond understands that the retrofits are necessary. “I worked at Green Apple during the Loma Prieta earthquake," she said. "I organized search parties to make sure no customers or workers were trapped.” However, she added, “Part of the problem with the retrofitting program is that a lot more properties are in limbo.”
The fact that many buildings across The City are beginning the retrofit process complicates Bibliohead's search for a new home. “I'm looking for a landlord who wants to see quality small businesses flourish, especially businesses that contribute to honoring the literary history of San Francisco,” Richmond said.
Part of honoring that tradition, according to Richmond, is making sure the commercial needs of neighborhoods like Hayes Valley are being met. “There's thousands of new residents coming in every year; they're under-served for basic goods and services,” Richmond said. “We can control through the planning department whether a new restaurant can open in a neighborhood. I think we're at a point where we need some balance and control over what goes into a neighborhood other than restaurants. Landlords are perceiving the boutique as the only way to go in order to get higher rents.”
As Richmond continues her search for a new space, she is also considering other options, like sharing retail space with an art gallery or opening a mobile bookstore. She is also running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for Bibliohead.
Meanwhile, the other commercial tenants in the building, Las Estrellas taqueria and Caffe Delle Stelle, are staying — their leases have yet to expire.