Live From the Basement
By: Nicki Roddy, Designed by Anjel Van Slyke, Photos by Mat Rick
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
Having tour managed a long list of bands (including Deerhunter, Atlas Sound, Black Lips, and Thee Oh Sees), she is tangentially connected to just about everyone on Pitchfork’s crush list. So as I was looking her up to talk about her vintage store, Vacation, which opened in the Tenderloin last June, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the small cluster of friends I have who work in music happen to be mutual friends of hers.
This didn’t stop me from being nervous to meet her. Tour managers can be tough and guarded in a way you’d expect from someone whose job it is to sometimes boss around super cool musicians. Add to that the fact that Kristin uses Vacation to exhibit local art and put on free live shows with incredible bands in the store’s basement space every month, and I found myself swooning with equal parts admiration and intimidation before we’d even spoken.
We arrange to meet up at the store on a Saturday morning. That night, Ty Segall and Burnt Ones are scheduled to play a show to celebrate the closing of the monthlong “They Just Stood There” exhibit. A joint showing from artists William Keihn and Tim Presley, the exhibit has a distinct rock ’n’ roll sensibility. William’s work is a favorite for records and posters of Bay Area garage bands, and Tim is a prolific musician who collaborates with Ty Segall and is known for his own bands, White Fence, Darker My Love, and Strange Boys.
Sitting on the corner of Larkin and Ellis, Vacation is sandwiched between the Great American Music Hall, a venue beloved for its ornate décor and great sound, and the Phoenix Hotel, an infamous retro landmark and favorite temporary home to touring musicians. Vietnamese restaurants and liquor stores round out the rest of the neighboring storefronts, pulling together the perfect mix of glamour with Tenderloin grit.
Behind a towering pile of jackets and shirts stacked on a counter, Kristin peeks out in a black vintage T-shirt. She has a warm den mother vibe that makes me see why bands would want her with them out on the road; hardly the aloof indie insider I had created in my head.
Kristin tells me about being born and raised in Tampa Bay and packing up her Mitsubishi Mirage to move to Atlanta with $500, no job, and no place to live. She sought out like-minded music lovers, and her Atlanta house became a hub for young musicians trying to get their projects off the ground. “It was kind of a magical time,” she says wistfully. When her friends from Black Lips needed a ride for their tour, Kristin’s minivan secured her status as a new tour manager. She was simultaneously amassing a collection of vintage fashion finds, until the day she realized she had enough stuff to turn her shopping habit into a business.
“Some people can pick up a guitar and start playing. I can go into a thrift store and find the Yves Saint Laurent dress hiding in the corner,” she says. She opened Vacation in Atlanta in the beginning of 2007, signing the store’s lease while out on tour with Atlas Sound, and quickly established it as a vintage store and venue space. People could hang out there and gain access to local art and music not typically shown in Atlanta’s galleries and record stores.
After closing the shop in 2008 and moving to the Tenderloin, Kristin tour managed for a few years while waiting to find the right San Francisco space for Vacation’s West Coast rebirth. She describes her new clientele as music and art savvy with a little more disposable income than she was used to in Atlanta, but her mission to make cool shit accessible to the masses hasn’t changed. “The artwork is affordable, the clothes are affordable, and the shows will always be free,” she says. So far, the basement has seen the likes of Wounded Lion, DIIV, The Cairo Gang (the sideband of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Emmett Kelly), and The Fresh & Onlys.
I take a peek at the basement and try to picture Ty Segall, who performed on Conan and the Late Show with David Letterman a few months ago and headlined The Fillmore recently, playing a free show in this tiny room that can hold a max of 100 people squished together.
“The band knows the sound is going to suck and the audience knows it’s going to be crowded,” she says smiling. “But all of the best shows are always the basement shows.”
The Vacation goal: break down the barrier between the band and the audience. She tells me a story about being on tour with Deerhunter and Dan Deacon and how they agreed to a basement show after the Pitchfork Festival because some kid came up and asked. Note to self: Procure a basement immediately.
Vacation is joining a long tradition of hidden gem venues in San Francisco (both past and present) like Li Po Cocktail Lounge, Thrillhouse Records, and the Cinecave at Lost Weekend Video. Kristin seems happy to be lumped in with such a rich history of unique venues, but the more palpable connection she feels is with the people she meets at Vacation.
“I feel a sense of community from the respect that hundreds of people who come here for shows give towards the store,” she explains. “People are really respectful of what we’re providing for them.” I imagine this must be similar to how I feel when I throw a house party and my friends take care of my place and put their beer bottles directly into the recycling.
I ask if she’s still tour managing and she compares Vacation to a newborn in need of constant attention, explaining why she’s happily put traveling on hold for the moment. “I’ve been touring heavily since 2006. This is the longest I’ve been home in five years.”
It’s got to help that Kristin simply loves the Tenderloin. “This is not a professionally started or run store by any means,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t be able to have a basement with free shows and the amount of space for such affordable rent in any other neighborhood.” She’s hoping thatVacation might encourage other people to reconsider the Tenderloin for its central location, affordable rent rates, and enthusiastic young residents who are always eager to find more reasons to not have to go to the Mission for everything.
As much as Vacation is making an impact on San Francisco, the city’s tech industry is impacting Kristin, too. She’s become a web and social media junkie, currently beta testing an online platform called Shopseen that she’s developing with Vacation partner Adeel Ahmad, aimed at making it easier for small businesses to sell across multiple online and social media channels. “I had an Internet idea and now we’re making it happen,” she says laughing and shaking her head a bit. “It’s very San Francisco.”
Later that night, I’m back at Vacation with a few friends and two tall cans of Bud Light in my purse. It’s been drizzling, leaving Larkin Street slick and shiny under the streetlights. A group of 20-somethings cluster around the storefront smoking, and inside the store people mill around, shopping and looking at the artwork.
We head down to the basement. A few people are standing in the middle of the room drinking beers, while others leaf through the rack of $5 sale clothing that lines one of the walls. Burnt Ones begins playing and the room is quickly packed and steamy with body heat. Someone turns off the lights so that it’s pitch black except for a milk crate of Christmas lights. We post up on the side of the room near the back, because while I find this type of crammed venue exhilarating, it’s also a bit claustrophobic.
Ty is next up, seated on a white folding chair in front of an American flag. Known for his thrashing, two-minute garage punk anthems, he takes us all off guard with a beautiful collection of piercing acoustic songs that ring through the room with startling vulnerability. The set is perfect, matching the intimate vibe of the cozy basement, and it ends entirely too soon.
As the room begins to empty, Ty heads back upstairs, acknowledging the enthusiastic crowd complimenting him on his way. The whole night feels like a celebration not only of a singular show or an art exhibit, but also the excitement that happens when people who love something come together to share it.
After the performance, it hits me how important a place like Vacation is. Kristin has created a space for exploration and connection. Whether she’s exposing others to art, music, or vintage clothing, she has the ability to make stuff that feels out of reach accessible to anyone.
Vacation encourages you to listen to a local band you may not have heard of, buy a piece of art when you’ve never been able to afford being a collector, or just look really amazing in an old mohair and cable knit sweater pulled off her racks.
Want to know the next time Vacation is having your favorite band play in the basement? Keep track of new show dates for music and art exhibits through the official Vacation website or through the shop’s Facebook page. The store is located at 651 Larkin St., and is open Wednesday–Sunday, noon till 8 p.m.
Editor's note: Here's the bad news. Vacation experienced a terrible flood since Nikki last went to Kristin's space. And the good news? The shop is back in business as of Friday, March 22, with a new art and music show in the works! There's an opening party Friday night for photos and drawings by Mike Donovan (Sic Alps) starting at 9 p.m. with music from Mike as well as Noel Harmonson and Phil Manley Life Coach.
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