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826 Valencia: Pirates and More

by Jack Leibman

Last year while doing one of my walks in the Mission Dolores Neighborhood, I suddenly realized that I had been bypassing one of San Francisco's most interesting and famed addresses, 826 Valencia, now listed as a San Francisco Designated Landmark.

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826 Valencia offers much more than just pirate supplies

This relatively modest storefront exterior masquerades as a pirate supply store, providing a commercial “front” for its real business, which must be seen to be believed. If you can get past the tantalizing random and eclectic pirate supplies, such as spyglasses, eye patches, wooden legs, a fish tank, and an infamous tub of lard, the rest of the facility is dedicated to a vibrantly unique tutoring enterprise, now in its ninth year.

It was founded by local author Dave Eggers, on the strength of his excellent novel based on his own life. The building also houses McSweeney's Quarterly, a distinguished literary journal. 826 is dedicated to middle school and elementary school children to whom it provides workshops, classes, tutoring, and field trips, all conducted by volunteers, and all totally free, open daily from 12-6. Participants may drop in after school and on weekends.

The subject matter includes fiction, non-fiction, and ESL, all graphically encouraged by comprehensive programs in story telling, writing, poetry, video, essays, and book making. The programs have been so successful beyond expectations that similar enterprises have now been organized in New York City, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Chicago, and Boston--all entitled 826. An extensive array of state and national awards has accumulated, attesting to this program's effectiveness and enthusiastic reception.

The local unit boasts over 300 volunteers, comprising a remarkable gamut of talents and backgrounds, which are well worth perusing on 826's lively and amusing website. In fact, hundreds of uniformly enthusiastic reviews are posted on Yelp.com.

A score of books has been published, composed of the students' varied productions, included in at least 50 publications listed in four pages at Amazon.com. The most recent, in March 2009, Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country, was sent to and acknowledged by President Obama. The schedule of activity for May 2009 includes sessions at 12 different local schools.

If you have any energy left, don't miss 826's neighbor at Paxton Gate, an amazing collection of exotica and bric-a-brac.

More on 826 Valencia from Margaret Sheehan:

When Dave Eggers researched starting a writing program for children, he wanted a location where kids—and more important, their parents—would feel safe and comfortable for them to travel to alone. The requirements were that it should be accessible on public transportation, situated in a safe neighborhood, located on the ground floor of a building, and be an open environment with glass windows. The location on Valencia was great but zoned for a retail store.

So, rather than wade through the time-consuming variance process to get the zoning changed, the sale of pirate supplies was adopted to satisfy the retail requirement. It’s a wonderful solution and much better than selling junk food. The writing workshops take up almost all the space except for the street entrance.

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•Photo courtesy of Jack Leibman

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