Good Neighbors: 826 Valencia

Midnight, a small hovel. Jitterbug nerves hopped up on caffeine and desperation. Fluorescent lights glaring down, desk littered with crumpled drafts and vending machine wrappers. Computer screen with nothing on it save for a blank page with obnoxious cursor blinking ominously me as if to say, “Really? You still haven’t written anything?” Eight hours until a due date…

Writing is hard, and even the best scribes face blocks every now and then, no matter how much passion or talent the have. Author Dave Eggers knows the importance of building strong writing skills from a young age, and he also realizes that overworked teachers and parents need help giving their kids one-on-one academic attention. That’s why he sought to create a writing center where neighborhood students (aged 6 to 18) could receive free tutoring and develop strong expository and creative writing skills.

In 2002, Eggers teamed up with educator Nínive Calegari to found the nonprofit organization 826 Valencia, named after the site’s Mission District address. But, there was one problem: The building was zoned for retail. Wanting to keep their name and location, the pair got creative and converted the space—it’s now part tutoring center and part pirate supply shop.

As you might imagine, The Pirate Store is not your typical afterschool study space. Ropes and chandeliers hang from the wooden beam ceiling. Skull and cross bone flags drape from the bookshelves, and the place is filled with pirate gear: glass eyeballs, blackwater fever pills, mermaid bait . . .

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Those who stumble into the store are often so disoriented by the paraphernalia that they miss the nautical-themed classroom, tucked in the back. Here, elementary students write mystery stories, middle school kids draft screenplays, and high schoolers hammer out college essays. All programs are free of charge, with volunteers tutoring students, teaching writing workshops, and helping to run The Pirate Store.

In addition to giving students academic support and a warm community, 826 Valencia also publishes student work in beautifully bound books, many of which are sold in the store. All merchandise sales, from books to belly of the whale escape kits, fund programs for students and teachers.

The Pirate Store is 826 National‘s flagship location, but the program has burgeoned over the years, with other 826 stores popping across the country. There’s the Superhero Supply Company in Brooklyn, The Boring Store in Chicago, the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair Store in Ann Arbor, The Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company in Seattle, and hopefully more on the way!

But it all began (as most good things do!) in San Francisco. We were eager to learn more about The Pirate Store and get our hands on some quality mermaid repellant, so offMetro sat down with Pirate Supply Store Manager Caroline Kangas to get the scoop on the store’s beginnings, favorite writing prompts, and what’s in the lemon drawer.

Why a pirate theme?

This space used to be a weight-lifting room. When they ripped out the walls during construction, they saw these old weathered beams. Someone remarked that the building looked like the inside of a pirate ship, and The Pirate Store was born.

What’s a typical day like at The Pirate Store?

It’s a pirate theme, but no holds bar. One day I could be planning a formal event, and the next day I’m going to the beach to pick up sand. There’s a lot of bartering at The Pirate Store. We have this huge vat of lard we use for bartering . So throughout the week, we’ve got to make sure the lard vat is full, fill the treasure chest, and check the lemon drawer.

Wait, a drawer full of lemons?

We store lemons in it—to ward off scurvy . . .

Oh, of course. So, what kind of things are bartered?

Kids trade artwork or songs or tell jokes, which leads to some pretty cute encounters. The other day a girl told me this joke:

“What did the boy octopus say to the girl octopus?”

“I want to hold your hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 9.56.58 PMAw, that’s actually a pretty good one, cute. What do people think when they walk into the store?

If they don’t know about The Pirate Store, they’re usually confused. Disorientation is one of our tools. People come in thinking it’s a costume shop or a hardware store, and they’re totally dumbstruck. We do have merchandise for sale – mermaid bait, glass eyes, blackwater fever pills. All the proceeds from the store go to creative writing classes and teacher support programs.

What makes the Pirate Store different from other learning centers?

I think the most unique thing about The Pirate Store is that we’re actually publishing the students’ work. At the end of a workshop, every students gets a published copy of his or her book. We also sell student work in the store. It’s not uncommon for students to come to the store for after school tutoring and see a customer purchasing their book. It’s a really special experience for them.

What have you learned about education by working at the Pirate Store?

It’s broadened how I look at the classroom space. We can accomplish tasks while also goofing off and giving kids ownership over their learning. We’re making beautiful things and there’s a real personal connection to the work the kids are doing.

What do kids think of the Pirate Store?

We re-opened [after some renovations] a few weeks ago, and on one of the first days this little girl walked by the window. She was about seven years old, and she did a complete double take before screaming, “They’re open! They’re open!” It was a really cool moment.

Do you have any favorite writing prompts?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. I like the exercise where students write from the perspective of darkness. They always take it in really creative directions and being kids, they’re so open to running with a prompt like this one.

How much is Dave Eggers involved now that 826 Valencia has been operating for over 10 years?

The McSweeney’s office is across the street, so he pops into The Pirate Store from time to time. But when he’s here he wants to talk with the kids. People will tell Dave, “I’ve heard of 826 Valencia,” and he’ll say, “That’s great, you should volunteer!” It’s really his baby, and he has so many great ideas.

So what suggestions do you have for new volunteers?

Whenever I’m struggling with a student, I try to bring it back to him or her It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s so true that the students are really the teachers. Everyone’s got a story, and the trick is to get students thinking about what they’re interested in and what they can teach others. (For more information about volunteering, click here.)

When you’re not working at The Pirate Store, where do you like to set sail for an out of town adventure?

I like to go to Point Reyes to look for whales. It’s great to hike out to the lighthouse and watch the sunset from a windy, rocky beach.

Photos: 826 Valencia