Problem Library: The Weirdest, Coolest Space You’ve Never Heard Of
Problem library has been confusing Inner Sunset residents since it opened in November 2015. People tend to walk in, make a bewildered face, poke at a few objects and then walk out. Unlike internet porn, it’s only open on the weekends from 11-7. It also tends to defy categorization. Is it a store, a gallery, a hipster clubhouse, some kind of workshop? There are often tools spread out and in use, as the proprietors are constantly upgrading and improving the space. There is sawdust and mystery in the air. Those who are brave and curious enough to walk in will find shelves feature plenty of interesting objects that might be for sale, but they aren’t in multitudes or set-up in bins or commercial displays. They sit like show and tell trophies just waiting to be seen, appreciated and discovered. This is a church dedicated to thoughtful consumerism.
The book selection best demonstrates the “problem” that is Problem Library. Each one is covered in smooth brown paper obscuring the cover art and title from immediate view, which tends to piss most people off. Turns out not having the option to judge a book by its cover is actually quite annoying. I asked founder Grayson Stebbins what the big idea was with the dressed up books.
It started with a problem in his apartment, when he began to feel overwhelmed by his book shelves and the visual cacophony of book covers assaulting his designer sensibilities. The books he hadn’t read were especially rude, screaming at him to read them now or else. “Covers are very visually noisy and loud. I really wanted to mute them.” So Stebbins started covering the books in simple brown paper, solving the problem for himself, but creating a new one for people who wander into Problem Library and can’t figure out why the books are covered. One of the goals is to encourage people to pick up a random book and discover what’s inside. A sort of curiosity catalyst. Its also a fun way to throw people off their consumerist habits. The opposite of 1-click shopping.
You don’t need a cart or basket when you shop at Problem Library, because instead of binging on all the things, you are encouraged to find one or two things that pique your curiosity, wonder or display the kind of excellent design where function meets eye candy. “We’re trying to find objects that people can relate to because we’re human, not because we’re fashionable We try to seek design that is timeless,” says Stebbins.
While online shopping is all about the quick, quick churn and burn of instant gratification, experiencing Problem Library takes time. I’ve never stopped by when I didn’t have at least a 30 minute brain massaging conversation with one of the proprietors. On my first visit Stebbins blew my mind hole with his counter-intuitive view of problems. He is of the opinion that instead of pushing away our problems, we should choose to get to know them, develop a relationship with them and do our best to snuggle up to them. He doesn’t think you can solve a problem until you’ve made friends with it. “There are few immutable laws of life and one is that you can never get rid of all your problems, so you might as well get comfortable with them.” As someone who ignores problems as a vocation and hobby this was a revolutionary view. That was a seriously hmmmful afternoon.
Stebbins has always been a dreamer and considerer of things from odd angles. Since he was a teenager has wanted to create a space for artists, designers and other “nerdy” types who share his vision and care deeply and dorkily about a few things to come together. Though he works in high tech to support the space he’s definitely low mech on the weekends and is strongly influenced by ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ Stebbins loves old fashioned mechanics, tinkering and trying to figure out how things work, even buying an old pickup truck for the shop to force himself to learn how to fix it. “I don’t really identify with new trucks,” he said, in my favorite odd quote of the day.
Stebbins runs the shop with artist Blake Conway who also helps explain, stock and curate the space. Nine months ago Conway wandered into to Problem Library, asked how he could help and never left; solving the problem of what to do when Stebbins needs to go away for the weekend. He’s currently curating Problem Library’s biggest, space transforming art show yet to display Meredith Brion’s all encompassing textiles. Conway’s grooving on collaborations with Stebbins and the continued evolution of the space as well as connecting with the community and getting into the supportive Sunset arts scene. He loves to talk about how things work and the lost art of seduction, while standing beside classic pin-up girl prints. Watch out ladies he actually listens and has bedroom eyes.
Problem Library is always changing and the boys are not in a huge rush to figure it out and slap a label on it. They like to talk about unpopular things like patience, process and the magic of uncertainty. “It’s okay to look at things with a really long term perspective. Let it unfold and not rush it,” said Conway. Indeed, do not look out for a Problem Library IPO (an IPA is probably more likely) though sustainability is a goal, getting rich is not a priority. “This whole space is about creating a refuge. It’s my excuse to have a clubhouse for myself all the time. There’s nothing you’re going to gain except the enjoyment of this work and sharing it with others.” says Stebbins, who loves to talk about tools, craftsmanship, humans relationship to the material world and quality. Nothing for sale at Problem Library is for one time use (except maybe the chocolate). They hope you develop a relationship with a special object and you too get to live happily ever after for a good long time. “Quality is something that serves your soul and spirit. If it’s not nourishing it’s not a good investment,” says Stebbins.
So what the hell is Problem Library? Its most definitely the type of place that cynical people like to say doesn’t exist in San Francisco anymore. My favorite description of the PL so far is a “persistence passion project” and running a close second is, “its an experiment, a secret garden, a clubhouse open to the public.” Perhaps Stebbins said it best when talking about what a library is in general, “It’s a collection of knowledge and stuff that should be honored. There’s a knowledge sharing aspect to what we’re doing and we learn from the people who come in here all the time.”
Oh it actually is a gallery too and they’re having an opening this weekend with an all vinyl DJ set, drinks and eyeball treats. You should totally check it out. And don’t miss Western Relics across the street. They sell vinyl records and hipster street cred.