November 23, 2010

Who Says Pirates Have to Have Poor Grammar? ~ Chloe Chatenever

Dave Eggers has done a lot of cool sh*t. Co-founding San Francisco’s only independent pirate supply store is definitely the coolest.

Eggers’s Wikipedia page reads as a veritable laundry list of groundbreaking literary accomplishments: he has authored multiple prize-winning books including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, founded the independent publishing house McSweeney’s in San Francisco, earned a TED prize in 2008, and was named one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World” by Utne Reader Magazine. The list goes on…

But the impact he has had on the writing community far exceeds a handful of masterfully written books and prestigious awards.

In 2002, Eggers (along with teacher Nínive Calegari) founded the 826 Valencia tutoring center in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Originally, Eggers planned to use the space as a home base for McSweeney’s publishing house, which would also double as a writing tutoring center for San Francisco’s public school students ages 6 through 18.

But these plans came to a crashing halt when Eggers was informed that the rooms he had rented were only zoned for retail; he would either have to find something to sell, or find another space.

So began the 826 Valencia Tutoring Center…and Pirate Supply Store.

Given San Francisco’s extensive coastline and abundant marine traffic, opening a pirate supply store in the City on the Bay was really a shrewd business move (if there was anywhere a pirate would be likely to drop anchor and come ashore to resupply, it would probably be San Francisco).

I was lucky enough to visit the store a few months ago. Stocked from floor to ceiling with every conceivable (and some not so conceivable) item that seafarers might find themselves needing, the pirate supply store quickly topped my list of places everyone should visit at least once before they die. I stopped in for a quick visit and ended up spending a whole afternoon (and quite a few dubloons) there.  I walked out with a tin of Mermaid Bait and Repellant, a bottle of Scurvy Begone, a handful of pirate dice and a brand new teal eyepatch. All packed neatly into my new 826 Valencia skull-and-crossbones tote bag.

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes

Of course, I didn’t make these purchases out of necessity (I have always found mermaids to be quite friendly and my old eyepatch still has at least a couple good years left in her). What I really wanted was to take a piece of 826 with me when I left. There was something about the place that really enchanted me…

I spent my years in college working as a writing tutor, and during that time I became intimately acquainted with the difficulties of teaching students how to write. Most students think of writing as something they are predisposed to fail at. I can’t tell you how many times students told me that they were “science-minded” and expected me to accept that as justification for their general apathy towards their writing courses. Somewhere along the way, students stopped seeing writing as a valuable part of their education and started treating it as just another pre-requisite that they had to get out of the way. And from what I can tell, there aren’t very many people who are trying to change their minds.

But Dave Eggers and his band of pirate suppliers at 826 Valencia have managed to create a space where the written word has value.  From the gallery of signs that adorns the store’s walls (with titles ranging from the “Code of the Store” to “Uses for Lard”) right down to the T-shirts embellished with swashbuckling phrases (my favorite reads “Beards Are the New Black”), the overwhelming message that the store asserts on its visitors is that language can be an arena for play.

826 has created an inspiring model for teaching that reunites writing and whimsy, and educators across the country have followed suit—826 National now has six other chapters:

Eggers and his work with 826 have even inspired those overseas to pick up the tutoring torch; writer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) founded the Ministry of Stories in London, which offers tutoring services to English students. Naturally, The Ministry of Stories is also home to Hoxton Street Monster Supplies—Bespoke and Everyday Items for the Living, Dead and Undead.

Hear Eggers tell the 826 story in his 2008 TED Prize acceptance speech:

And visit the author’s wish blog to get some of the details on the recent developments in 826 Tutoring Centers nationwide.

Chloe Chatenever lives in Boulder, CO where she is interning with elephantjournal.com and Sweet Letter Press. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she earned her Bachelor’s in Modern Literary Studies. She likes to spend her free time traveling, singing in her car, and playing board games. She also thinks penguins are pretty cool.

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