826 Valencia product.

Sometimes the coolest things are not the big icons like the bridges and the buildings, but the efforts of people to do good and to do right. And we saw some of that today.

San Francisco is one of those places that’s on the very cutting edge of the world. Google and countless startups orbit the city. It’s the sort of place where there are billboards on the highways advertising for jobs in cool high-tech companies. It’s the sort of place where start-ups strut their stuff and trends take shape. And it is a town without big bookshops.

We have a 15-hour flight looming and so had been planning to buy some real books here in San Francisco. We generally buy books on Kindle or iBooks these days but we all had a small list of books not available electronically that we’d been saving up. So we rocked into town looking for a bookshop, and found that there were… none to be found.

Notice board at 826 Valencia.

Well that’s not, quite, true. There’s a bookshop sub-culture, but nothing mainstream. There are no big bookshops, simply none. We can only assume that online bookstores have completely out-competed them. There are a few small independent bookstores, hanging on and making a point of supporting each other; but clearly the book market here has shifted significantly over the last few years. We went to a speciality science fiction shop and listening to the conversations at the counter felt a little like becoming involved in a subversive movement. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing as I love small bookshops; but if you’re an international traveller of no fixed abode there’s also a place for big bookshops that’s sorely missed in San Francisco.

But cutting edges are always double-edges. There may be a lack of big bookshops but there is the Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia. Ever since we saw Dave Eggers amazing TED talk (which everyone really should watch; really, if I could persuade you to do anything, it would be to watch this talk), Jennifer and I’ve been keen to visit his flagship store. Today, as we searched for a bookshop, we got a chance to do so. The cool thing is that it’s a shop filled with amazing pirate gear; it is what every shop should be, an absolute adventure in its subject matter. The walls are filled with drawers of pirate-themed items, from cutlasses to manacles, and covered with witty posters. The goods are specifically created and range from peg-legs to eye-patches to “Blackbeard’s Beard Dye”.

Pirate essentials.

We walked in and our attention was captured by a display of small skulls behind magnifying glasses, as we peered at them a hidden trapdoor opened above our heads and a pile of mop-heads poured down upon us – we had been mopped. Upon closer examination, the display included rules about when the mops would and wouldn’t drop.

The boys dug for treasure in a huge vat filled with sand but could only keep their finds by bartering a joke, song or drawing with the pirate behind the counter (luckily they’d come prepared with pirate jokes). The front of house is just a complete and utter joy. There was a shelf of previously bartered drawings stretching back for years.

While the shop is cool, with capital letters all over it, the hidden agenda of behind-the-scenes courses to help kids with literacy surround the whole place with a golden glow. The entire idea from concept to execution is simply and totally stunning. It is really what all places should be – a brilliant combination of something that is individual, innovative, enchanting and in a thoroughly good cause.

I have no idea if the dynamics are even connected, let alone if they make the two things mutually exclusive, but if the trade-off is between huge bookshops and little themed stores with an agenda of teaching kids to read then there’s no question that that’s a good bit of barter.