The secret in the basement at Borderlands Books

Borderlands Books is a gem in the city: a bookstore and cafe that specializes in new and used science fiction, fantasy, and horror. If you’ve been around these parts 10 or more years, you might remember their sphinx kitties roaming the store, and a sign that told everyone when the cats were in.

Though there are plenty of spooky books on the shelves at Borderlands, the staff actually discovered something quite unsettling in real life, in the newly excavated basement of the bookstore. Some of you might remember that the Borderlands Cafe was a later addition to the shop, and during construction, co-founder Alan Beatts found something in the basement that sent the crew running.

Hear what happened in this week’s San Francisco Diaries episode (scroll down for transcript):
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Alan sends us this bonus photo of the basement. See the tree trunk on the right? It’s not going anywhere!

The bookstore also serves as an inspiration of a successful grassroots business: the beloved bookstore faced a likely closure a few years ago. Amazingly, and in true San Francisco fashion, they raised $2M via a grassroots campaign to buy a building on Haight Street, where they will relocate as soon as construction there is complete. Borderlands also has an ongoing sponsorship program that keeps their doors open.

This is definitely the preferred ending to You’ve Got Mail I’d been looking for.

Want to hear more great stories like these live on stage? Muni Diaries Live is back on Saturday, Nov. 3 at the Elbo Room. Help us give the Elbo Room a proper send-off! Tickets are on sale now.

Episode Transcript

Thanks to reader Chris L. for transcribing this episode!

In 2005, I got the opportunity to lease the commercial space next door to my bookstore on Valencia Street. The previous occupants of the space had not been paying their rent and had been a problem for the landlord and so they decided to evict them. And they…they were a little odd. They had this fly-by-night upholstery shop and it was never…there were no posted hours, and it was open infrequently and v ery unpredictably and people kind of came and went at all hours of the day and night. But, you know, it was the Mission, so whatever. But, once the tenants moved out, they left EVERYTHING behind. The basement was aisles of hip-high piles of damaged fabric, wood, and all kinds of junk. And they upstairs was in a similar condition.

So, when the tenants finally moved out, we got the keys. I and a gentleman who was working for me at the time named Francis. And we’re like, “Hey! Let’s go check the place out.”

So, we went in for the first time. And we kind of wander around upstairs. It was kind of this (?) of little rooms. And there was a plentitude of mattresses stacked in one corner, and that was a little odd. And then we went down in the basement and it was full of junk and things like that. But there were also two seperate rooms which were walled off in the middle area of the basement. One on the left and one on the right. The one on the right had been used as a sleeping room or something like that. And the one on the left had a padlock hasp with no padlock on it. And so we went over and we opened the door. And I looked in…

And I…it took a minute for me to process what I was seeing, because the room had been painted–walls and ceilings–a very rich sort of fire-engine red shade. There were these white diagrams painted on the walls. And I’m looking around and trying to figure it out. And there’s these empty rum bottles lying around, and candles, and there’s like a rams skull in one corner. And I think, “this is a little weird.”

And I turn to Francis to say, “Hey what do you think of this?” But he’s gone. He’d run back up the stairs. He’s just vanished. Hasn’t said a word. Just turned around and high-tailed it out of there.

So, I close the door and I go back upstairs and back to the bookstore. And Francis is at the bookstore, behind the counter. I’m like, “What happened?”

Francis grew up in Minneapolis. His grandmother came from New Orleans. And he was relatively familiar with, you know, North American Voodoo, and that kind of tradition. In fact, he had a number of what are called “Veves’, which are–for lack of a better term–deities. Actually, he had some tattooed on his arms. And he’s standing there, and he just looks at me and goes, “That is baaaad, bad news.”

And I’m like, “What do you mean, ‘bad news’?”

And he’s like, “So, you know, voodoo, and, and that kind of stuff?”

And I’m like, “Yeah, I know a little bit about it.”

He goes, “That is a Santeria temple. And Santeria is the less nice, less kind version of voodoo that’s practiced in Haiti.”

And I sort of looked at him blankly, and he’s like, “I’m not going back down there.”

So, I decided it was time to get some kind of an idea of what the deal is with this place. So, I went down, and I went in, and I looked around: rum bottles, half-burned out cigars, ram skull…and in one corner, there was this section of quite a large tree trunk. If I had touched it, I could have barely got my arms around it. It was about five feet tall, and sitting in one corner. So, I took some pictures and I went back up to the store.

Several days later, Francis came back in, and I said, “Okay so, you know, the internet has told me what many of these symbols mean, but…what’s up with the tree trunk?”

And Francis kind of shakes his head and says, “That’s the spirit house. That’s the center-point of the ‘shrine'” [for lack of a better term].

And I, again, looked at him kind of blankly, and he’s like, “Ok, Alan, you know how in a Catholic church, they’ve got the big cross, back at the back of the church?”


“That’s the equivalent of…that.”

“Oh. What do we do with it?”

“I don’t know, man. I…like I said: I’m not going back down there,” says Francis.

So, I decided to ask some friends of mine in the spiritual community in San Francisco–of which I had a few–and sort ask around, like, does anyone know anything about this stuff? And one friend of mine introduced me to someone else who was very familiar with Santeria, and they were like, “They really should not have left that. You don’t just leave that. And you especially don’t leave the tree trunk, the spirit house. You don’t leave that behind. You have to do something with it. And, it’s probably going to be very unlucky for them that they left it behind.”

And, so I asked, “Well, what do I do about it?”

And, the person I was talking to sort of shook their head and said, “Don’t do anything about it. Because, if you get yourself involved in it, then the back luck is going to be on you, too. So, just leave it alone.”

But we had to do something about it. It was in the middle of the basement! We had to do plumbing, we had to get various construction work done. And so, I contacted the landlord. And the agreement that I had made with the landlord was that he was responsible for clearing out the basement, and I was responsible for clearing out the upstairs. And I said that I’ll do the upstairs first, so there’s no obstruction to getting the basement clear.

So, I got in touch with the landlord and told him that I got the upstairs done, we need to get the basement clear. So, he hired some guys, down on Cesar Chavez, you know, day laborers. And they all came in, and they were going to basement, and hauling stuff out, hauling stuff out, hauling stuff out. And they’re working right next to the bookstore, so I’m kind of popping in, see how things were going.

And then I pop over, and they’re gone. The front half of the basement has been cleared, the door to the Santeria room is open, and they’re not there anymore, and they’re not working anymore. So, I called the landlord and I said, “Your guys left! The job’s not finished.”

And the landlord said, “I’ll call ’em, and I’ll call you back.” And then he called me back and said, “Yeah, they said they got tired of working on that job. I’ll get some other guys.”

And so, he hired another set of laborers. Non-Hispanic laborers. And they came in and they just didn’t care, they tore everything out. They knocked the walls out, they tore everything away. But, they insisted that the tree trunk was too heavy to move. These were four big, big, big guys. And they said, “No, it’s too heavy to take up the stairs. We tried lifting it. Just too much to deal with.”

And I sort of looked at them and I said, “Ok guys, but, it has to come out of there.”

“Well, find somebody else.”

So, I decided that I didn’t want to deal with that problem. And so we did all of the construction work with the tree trunk, the spirit house from the temple, still in the basement of the cafe. And we just worked around it. We covered it over with a tarp, so it didn’t get damaged or anything like that. And just worked around it. Because, I try to respect other people’s faiths. That’s not one that I particularly (?)…but if someone had left a crucifix in the bottom of my cafe, I wouldn’t have hauled it out to a dumpster, and so I’m not going to do that with a symbol like this either.

So, it’s still in the basement at my cafe. Um, 13 years later. And I have no intention of doing anything with it or to it. It can stay there as long as it stays there. But, I’ve managed to keep myself away from any of the bad luck that might possibly be associated with that entire situation. So, there’s still the spirit house from a Santeria temple in the basement at Borderlands Cafe. And it still has the same tarp on it.

Photo by Ian Irving

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