Borderlands first opened its doors on Monday, November 3, 1997, at 534 Laguna Street (in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood). The space was about 1000 square feet in a pre-fire Victorian building. In the past the space had been an office, an ice cream store, and was originally the servants’ quarters for the building next door. The character of the building helped shape the aesthetic of the store, a style that the owner Alan Beatts calls “Minimalist Victorian”. During the course of getting ready to open, Alan learned how to build bookshelves, refinish wood floors, and more about plumbing than he ever wanted to know. Borderlands began as a used-only bookstore, the shelves stocked with about 6,000 books (a combination of Alan’s personal collection and some great collectibles and paperbacks purchased from the legendary, but now sadly defunct used bookstore, Know Knew Books in Palo Alto.) The store rapidly became a meeting place and social center for readers and authors, and hosted many special events. The earliest events at Borderlands were readings with authors Peter S. Beagle and John Shirley.
In the Spring, the store began stocking new hardcovers, with a special focus on independent publishers. To this day Borderlands has one of the best selections of small-press genre titles in the country. Near the end of that year the store began carrying selected new softcover titles. In October, Alan hired Borderlands’ first employee, Jeremy Lassen, who still works at the store on an occasional basis despite having two young daughters who get most of his attention.
This was the time of awards. Borderlands earned the honor of Best Creepy Movie Night in Hayes Valley from the SF Weekly newspaper, and the Best Place to Meet a Kinky Space Cadet from the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2000. On the heels of both of these awards, Alan was repeatedly reminded by his friends and staff that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” It was also a time of upheaval in the Bay Area as the “dot com” boom peaked at the end of that year. In retrospect, it shared many qualities with the “tech boom” that would come a bit more than a decade later. Borderlands weathered that storm, but it caused some major changes in the nature of the business. Perhaps the most significant wouldn’t come until a bit more than a year later . . .
As the bookstore’s lease was up for renewal, Borderlands’ Hayes Valley landlord decided he wanted in on that tech boom and attempted to triple the store’s rent. (This was how Alan learned a painful but tremendously useful lesson about verbal agreements.) By way of his mother, Alan learned of an opportunity to move the store to a much larger space in the Mission District. Since the Mission was where he had wanted to open originally, the rent was reasonable, and the store was starting to get a bit short on space, this seemed like a golden opportunity.
The owner of the used clothing store Captain Jack’s on Valencia Street wanted to close his store and move to Los Angeles to become a stand-up comedian. Borderlands took over the lease and bought the inventory from the clothing store and for several months all of the booksellers did double duty – selling books at Laguna Street and used clothes and weird Elton-John-style sunglasses on Valencia! When all the clothes were gone, they set about transforming the place into Borderlands. Alan built almost all of the bookshelves you’ll see in the store, and he and the staff put in countless hours refinishing the floors, repainting the livid pink and green walls to the current, more subdued antique white, building additional walls, removing large piles of moldering jeans and other debris from the basement, and otherwise becoming temporary handy-people to make Borderlands look the best it possibly could.
On Tuesday, May 8, 2001, Borderlands opened in its current 2000 square foot space at 866 Valencia Street. Shortly thereafter the store received an award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian for being The Best Sign of De-Gentrification in the Mission.
This year also marked another major turning point for Borderlands. In July, Jude Feldman relocated to San Francisco from Felton, California and accepted the position of General Manager. Her involvement in the business was a critical part of the path that Borderlands would follow for more than two decades.
Borderlands celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. In observance of that, Alan and Jude Feldman, the store manager, wrote a series of essays about the history and origins of the shop. You can find that collection here. They were also published in November of 2007 as a collection entitled Ten Years, Twelve Stories. Only 300 copies were printed, which makes it one of the more rare pieces of Borderlands memorabilia.
In December, just in time for a terrible recession and after too many months of preparation and construction, Borderlands Cafe opened at 870 Valencia St., in the space next door to the bookstore. It had recently become vacant after its previous long-term tenant, an upholstery and furniture repair company, moved to the East Bay. Once again, the build-out for the cafe involved much construction, carpentry, plumbing, and the safe and reverent dismantling of a Santería alter in the basement, where the previous tenants had apparently conducted regular religious ceremonies.
In January, the large archway between the cafe space and the bookstore space was opened up, allowing Borderlands to conduct events in the cafe space, which in turn allowed the store to accommodate nearly twice as many people for any given event. This change allowed us to have many memorable signings of enormous size – Currently Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, and Brandon Sanderson are swapping spots on Borderlands’ “largest in-store event” leader board. We don’t discuss how many people we have fit into the conjoined spaces but let us say that, if a fire inspector knew, he would have not only shut the place down but he would have taken Alan “out behind the chemical shed” and shot him.
One result of this archway was that our beloved store cat could no longer make his home in the bookstore – the health department frowns upon animals in restaurants, and there was really no humane way to keep the cat from wandering into the cafe space. He now lives at home with the manager, but occasionally comes by the store for a visit.
On February 1st, Alan announced that the store would close two months later, on March 31st. The reason for that decision was the change in San Francisco’s minimum wage. Unlike other businesses, a bookstore couldn’t adjust prices to make up for higher payroll costs since the prices of books are printed on them and set at a nationwide level. Despite the city government being aware of this possible result, there were no steps taken to limit the effects of this decision. Borderlands was one of the first businesses in The City to realize the consequences of the new legislation.
However, instead of being the end of Borderlands, this crises changed the course of the business. In response to the opposition from our customers and as a result of their suggestions, Borderlands created a tremendously successful sponsorship program that, with the support of only 300 people annually, would allow the store to continue operating. See our sponsorship page for more details.
After the changes resulting from the Sponsor program, Alan realized in 2016 that the next crises for the shop would be the expiration of our lease on our current location in 2022. Given the shifts in the nature of San Francisco and the local real estate market, there was no possible way that the shop would be viable at the current rental rates for space. The answer to that problem was to purchase a building that could house the shop in perpetuity. At the end of 2017, after more than a year of searching, a suitable building was found in the Haight Ashbury district. In a whirlwind 11 days, Borderlands arranged for 2.5 million dollars of loans directly from our customers and sponsors that allowed us to purchase the building located at 1377 Haight St.
Due to economic changes in San Francisco and the associated severe labor shortage, the difficult decision was made to close Borderlands Cafe. At the end of April, the Cafe closed its doors for good. The connecting doorway to the bookstore that had been opened seven years previously was sealed up again. When asked how he felt about taking that step, Alan commented, “Running the Cafe was like a lot of things in my life; I’m glad I did it . . . and I’m glad I stopped.”
We are currently in the process of completing the construction needed to make our new home the perfect place for the next chapter in the history of Borderlands. Much of the work has been performed by a dedicated corps of sponsors and customers who have labored on Sundays for, in many cases, more than a year to make it, as one volunteer called it, “A jewel box of a store”.
Borderlands currently stocks nearly 40,000 titles. The store continues to expand and today is regarded as one of the premier genre bookstores in the country.
About Borderlands’ Name
There were many reasons for calling the store Borderlands; partially a tribute to the brilliant and eponymous anthologies of that name, partially a nod to Terri Windling’s Bordertown books, partially a reference to William Hope Hodgson’s classic House on the Borderland, but mostly because science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror exist on the borderlands of literature.
Myths are one of our most useful techniques of living, ways of telling the world and narrating reality, but in order to be useful they must (however archetypal and collectively human their structure) be retold; and the teller makes them over – and over.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, from Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences
Myth is the collective language of a people. The stories that we as a society and as individuals tell each other color our world view and shape our responses and judgments. These stories thrive in a hinterland of shadowy explanation, justifying our convictions and creating a safe place to house our deepest fears. Fantasy literature exists at this same (mostly unexplored) periphery of imagination and fundamental truths; the borderland from which our deepest certainties occasionally emerge. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing is the new mythology.
—Jude Feldman, Borderlands’ General Manager
About Borderlands’ Logo
Old Sages by the Figure of the Snake
Encircled thus, did oft expression make
Of Annual-Revolutions; and of things,
Which wheele about in everlasting-rings;
There ending, where they first of all begun …
… These Roundells, help to shew the Mystery
of that immense and blest Eternitie,
From whence the CREATURE sprung, and into whom
It shall again, with full perfection come …
—A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (London, 1635) by George Wither (the specific reference is to emblem 3.23)
uroboros (n.). Also ouroboros, uroborus. The symbol, usually in the form of a circle, of a snake (or dragon) eating its tail.
—The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition
The Ouroboros (alternate spellings include oroborus, uroboros, and oureboros) as an image dates as far back as 1600 BC, where it appears in Egypt. The name comes from the Greek and means, literally, “biting its own tail”. It also appears in Norse mythology as Jörmungandr, otherwise known as the Midgard Serpent which encircles the world and will wake for the final battle between good and evil ( Ragnarök). The Greeks interpreted it as symbolizing the cyclic principle of the universe and that which has no end and no beginning.
We chose the ouroboros as the logo for Borderlands because of the relation it has to used bookselling (which was where we got our start). Though a used book has a beginning and (if we’re unlucky) an end, there is a very cyclic nature to the business. Any number of times we have resold the same book over and over as one customer buys it, later sells it back to us, and then we sell it again.
Plus, to be honest, it looks pretty neat.