Some things defy easy explanation, and that’s not a bad thing, especially in the case of Viracocha, located on the corner of Valencia and 21st Streets in the Mission.
A quick description of Viracocha is that it’s a retail space chock full of antique, vintage and handmade goods, but also a gallery, performance space, and curiosity shop.
Owner Jonathan Siegel opened the space over a year ago with the vision of it being a place for poets, artists and musicians to perform, but it’s also stocked with tangible items of beauty and interest. Initially Siegel started off selling pieces from his own vintage collection, but over the last year he’s added second-hand 20th century pieces and work from other local vendors and artists.
It’s all part of a place that’s been built from a community effort. The space itself was remodeled by Siegel and a group of friends and volunteers, and to this day a cast of several dozen volunteers still help run the space.
Aesthetically, Viracocha has a feeling of a cabin in the woods owned by your cool creative cousin. Everything in the store can be had for a price; If you desire it and have the money, you can take it home.
The walls are covered with recycled redwood siding from an old house. On my visit, I was greeted by live piano music instead of piped-in tunes. There’s also a black cat named Asha who prowls the store and gave me a start; I thought she was fake until she moved. Typewriters are a popular decoration/item for sale in Viracocha, so much so that the store offers typewriter repair in a tiny studio set over the front of the store.
Many of the one-of-a-kind light fixtures, like one fashioned out of a crab net, were created by artist Jimmy Sweetwater, who’s also known for his washboard and harmonica playing skills. One of the most striking pieces in the store is the pair of strangler fig tree trunks from Indonesia, illuminated from inside by lamps.
With the exception of the jewelry display cases and the clothing area, items are not placed by type, but rather mixed in together. Still everything feels like it’s in the right place. And the organic, flexible nature of the space makes it possible to swap in new items to replace those sold without interrupting the aesthetic or leaving empty spaces.
For example, a bright bold red tub pops out against the dark rustic wood interior. It’s filled with pillows and vintage children’s clothes like a red, blue, and white plaid jacket with a matching hat ($75) and a yellow, blue, orange, and white sweater vest ($55).
There’s a selection of dress patterns, many from McCall’s, and some are as old as 1907, but others are from 1920s, 1940s and 1950s ($2-$6). They’ll inspire you artistically, but also can be used for decoration and to make clothes, of course.
Next you might stumble upon a hand crocheted green hat with brown trim by Erin Weckerle ($72), a Philco radio ($250), and photos of scenes in Cuba, Spain and Nicaragua taken by Hanna Quevedo ($400), a white deer head ($400), and a deep reddish-brown leather and wood chair ($800).
Viracocha’s inventory also includes both reworked and original vintage clothing. For women, there’s a pink, yellow and gray plaid skirt, and a white coat decorated with blue flowers ($62). For men I spotted a plaid green shirt ($14) and slacks in the same color ($10), all in great condition.
There are a number of books throughout the store, like a 1913 edition of Jack London’s The Night Born ($8), and a set of Appleton’s Cyclopeaedia of American Biography ($70).
When the retail hours end, the evening entertainment begins, be it dance, poetry, music or lectures.
If you want to take some of your artistic experience home, the store also offers books and CDs from many of the local artists that perform at the venue, including Shovelman, Zoe Bokebinder, Michael Musika and Kelly McFarling ($10-$12).
Overall Viracocha has a really nice vibe (a phrase that I rarely use), a great staff, beautiful objects for view or sale, and the best thing is that the prices are more than reasonable. It’s the kind of place that’s so comfortable that you don’t want to leave.
So it’s a good thing then that there’s a separate lending library tucked in the back called Ourshelves where you can spend even more time browsing the collection of nearly 1,000 books. Headed by Kristina Kearns, members can check out books for a monthly fee of $10.
You’ll find a selection that Kearns describes as “all the best books in the library,”which means a lot of the great classics, like War and Peace, Lolita, and The Shipping News. Most of the books are donations that come from all kinds of sources, such as Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, Stanford University, and even Viracocha’s owner. There are also shelves curated by local authors and stocked with their favorites.
Soon Ourshelves will be opening a lending library at The Women’s Building and hopes to expand to other community centers serving seniors, youth and homeless throughout the city.