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Ahoy, Matey! Take a Gander at Ye Local Pirate Store

826 Valencia
826 Valencia

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At 3 p.m. on a random Wednesday afternoon, there's a gentleman singing sea shanties in the middle of 826 Valencia, San Francisco's "only independent pirate supply store." He's blocking our path to the Scurvy Begone display, so we take a moment to read the rules for the Fish Theater. "You may not ask your partner to marry you in the fish theater…Harmonicas will be confiscated…You may change into costume in the Fish Theater, but please put masks on outside."

It's these kinds of notes, peppered around the shop, that make 826 Valencia so utterly charming. The retail/community service hybrid —the store is really just a front for a student writing center— has captivated locals' imaginations for over a decade. And since Talk Like a Pirate Day is this week, we decide that it was high tide time we walked the plank into this San Francisco institution to give you a look at all the nooks and crannies.

The pirate shop was technically an afterthought to the space: In 2002, Nínive Calegari and Dave Eggers decided to create a writing lab that would support teachers and connect volunteers with the students who could use their help the most. But there was a teensy problem: The space they found in the Mission was zoned for retail. They had to open a store, so why not a pirate store?

That decision, combined with the organization's community-minded mission, lead to a place unhindered by traditional retail rules. Caroline Kangas, the store manager/art director/merchandiser/window dresser, tells us, "We drop mops on our customers and we approach our space from a different angle. That can be freeing in the kind of experiences we want our customers to have. And then we get to say that all of the proceeds go to supporting this awesome cause."

Bita Nazarian, 826 Valencia's Executive Director, says that those proceeds ultimately account for 10 percent of the program's operating budget, but notes that the store is "also a way to engage the community and spread the word of our work." Shoppers come for the pirate store and stay for the good deeds, which was all part of the master plan. "Our founders talk about it as a portal; it's a creative invitation. We encourage kids and adults to play as they walk through the pirate store," Nazarian explains.

And people are definitely accepting that invitation. Kangas laughed when we asked how many customers sing in the store. "About a quarter of our guests are true pirate afficionados; the rest are tourists and teachers and people who are in it for the non-profit side." Of course, there are also the return customers leading unsuspecting guests into traps like falling nets and mops. "A lot of times, people bring in their friends, and they're like, 'Come stand here…' The guests are always surprised," Kangas said.

Not that Caroline's immune to the traps. She admits, "Even I've been mopped recently, and it's always a surprise."
· 826 Valencia [Official Site]
· 826 Valencia Will Shiver the Tenderloin's Timbers in 2015 [Racked]
· Top Ten Pickup Lines for Use on International Talk Like a Pirate Day [Talk Like a Pirate]