Last September, Christopher’s Books, a Potrero Hill fixture at 1400 18th Street, marked its 25th anniversary with more than 50 guests, a taco truck, live music, bubbles, wine, and cookies. According to owner Tee Minot, who purchased the store from founder and store namesake Christopher Ellison in 1994, “Christopher’s Books is kind of an oasis of sorts. It is a quaint curated neighborhood bookstore…delivering an authentic customer experience.”
“They always have the best editions of books,” said Alex Khosh, who stopped by to browse. “I grew up in San Francisco. It’s been here since I’ve been here.”
“My nieces and nephews were fascinated by the fact that you could open up the closet to the bathroom and come in here,” said Patricia Carr, a regular customer who lived in an apartment behind the bookstore for 22 years. “It was convenient. I buy all my books here. I can always find something to read. I walk up to Tee and say, “I’m in the mood for a good thriller.” The staff knows their merchandise.”
Christopher’s offers a wide range of books, including new mysteries, San Francisco history, cultural studies, politics, photography, and visual culture. The store has a broad children’s selection that contains fairy and folktales, poetry, bilingual books, chapter books, and puzzles, toys, and games. According to Minot, Christopher’s offers a different experience than online retailers. “It’s a place where people can go and just hang out on Potrero Hill. You can browse here for hours. It’s also a place that people let their kids walk to for the first time. They know that it’s a safe place for them to be. There is a familiarity between the people who work here and the community,” she said.
Christopher’s has roughly a half-dozen part-time staff, many of whom live on the Hill. Her team helps choose the store’s selections, and, according to Minot, knows the customers. “There’s something intimate about it. I think that’s part of the reason it is done well. I’m an on-site owner. That can make all the difference in a small neighborhood shop,” she said.
Minot said that she and her team feature volumes that they believe are important to Potrero Hill, and to San Francisco. “I’ll order a book if I think it should be on the shelf, even if nobody buys it. Sometimes I’ll get a title that’s a mirror of what people are thinking about,” she said. Minot added that responsiveness is key to the store’s success. Christopher’s orders out-of-stock books twice weekly for same week delivery.
“I had my first job here at eight years old, alphabetizing books,” said Xander Walbridge, son of Leal Walbridge, a Christopher’s employee. “Now I come here and realize that it’s really curated. There’s a big personal aspect to it. I think most of the people who have been in the bookstore love that. It’s not just a bookstore. It’s a little gathering place at 18th and Missouri.”
According to Peter Linenthal, who owns the property, the wooden storefront started as a branch of Wulzen’s Pharmacy in 1905. It remained part of Wulzen’s into the 1930s. The space became The Potrero Pharmacy in the 1950s. The white wooden pull drawers on the store’s walls are remnants of its pharmacy days. “I left them because even though they stick, they look nice and the books fit well in them,” said Minot.
In the early 1970s, the pharmacy was converted into a second-hand shop, The Little Red Door Thrift Shop. “…a second-hand store of the Olivet Presbyterian Church, at Missouri and 19th, run by Lena Carmena,” said Linenthal. Carmena was Enola Maxwell’s – longtime director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House (Nabe) – mother. Enola, in turn, was former District 10 Sophie Maxwell’s mom. The Nabe’s current director, Edward Hatter, is Carmena’s great-grandson.
In 1975, Linenthal bought the property. His step-sister, Morissa McNie, turned the store into a recycling shop. “She called the center “Potter Lunch,” after an old sign I found…in the storefront,” said Linenthal.
In the 1980s, Mary Price Flowers rented the space. A curlicued, opera-derived Italian motto above the front window that reads, in part, “poor little flowers,” dates to this period.
In the mid-1980s, Ellison, then a Hill resident, decided the spot would be good for a bookstore. “There was a “For Lease” sign in the window in 1991. I talked to Peter, who was thrilled with the idea. We opened that June,” said Ellison.
Minot soon joined the effort. “I was hanging out in the neighborhood a lot, having breakfast at “Just For You Cafe,” which is now down on 22nd and Third,” she said. “I saw that Ellison had started a bookstore. We became pretty good friends. Within six months he approached me about becoming a partner. In the beginning, we were really the only two people working there. We were open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day,”
In 1992, Ellison returned to his homeland, New Zealand. Minot took over operations. Two years later she purchased the store. In 2005, Ellison moved to Mill Valley, and back to Christopher’s. He now has a once-a-month shift at the store.
“We haven’t changed a lot,” said Minot. “I think that’s part of the charm. We also don’t have a lot of staff turnover.” According to Minot, the most significant change is Christopher’s closes an hour earlier, at 9 p.m. “It seems like there were more people wandering around late at night 20 years ago. Now it’s a little bit quieter,” she said.
Christopher’s Books has been featured in a few movies. The most prominent was Sweet November (2001), a romantic drama starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron. “The movie was only filmed outside the store,” Minot said. “The film used a good portion of 18th Street. They turned Christopher’s into a used bookstore, filming a few scenes in front of it. Charlize Theron’s character lived upstairs from the bookstore. She never came inside during filming. Keanu Reeves would come in every time he had a break. He spent tons of money and bought really interesting books,” said Minot.
Despite the excitement that filming can bring, according to Minot her store has a much more important regular visitor: Joe Dolce, age 11, her youngest son and a part-time staff member. “I work here after school, helping to restock. It’s inspiring when there are a lot of people in here to buy books,” said Dolce.