239 Grant (1909-1921)

The main book room (two different photos stitched together)
The main book room, the “Gothic Cathedral” [two different photos stitched together] (Collection of Jean Rodgers)
Downtown San Francisco was rebuilt with remarkable speed. By 1909 both merchants and customers were returning in large numbers. Elder leased an entire building on Grant St. at Tillman Place—it was known as the “Paul Elder Building”—and rehired Bernard Maybeck to design the interior.

The main book room was very different from the Van Ness store: long, narrow and tall, with windows on just one side. Maybeck chose old-world motifs: Gothic arched ceiling and distinctive hand-carved screens. Against the grey stone walls, the ceiling was painted blue, with red accents. Maybeck ingeniously incorporated many furnishings from the rustic Van Ness store, such as the medieval chandeliers and heavy wooden bookcases.

The art room, on the 2nd floor
The art room, on the 2nd floor (Collection of Jean Rodgers)

The shop opened on 8 April 1909 to news coverage which praised the Old World architecture. The Publishers’ Weekly gushed “in such places clerics illuminated missals for the glory of God.” The San Francisco Chronicle said “while it is a store, it has about the same degree of commercial appearance as a Gothic cathedral.”

Elder occupied four of the six floors, and he sublet the others. The sumptuous art room was on the second floor, the ‘standard authors room’ in the basement. The Tomoye Press was on the 3rd floor, but there were no longer any presses: only John Henry Nash’s composing room. Nash contracted out all the printing to Stanley-Taylor Company, choosing instead, to his great success, to concentrate his time on design and typography.

The "standard authors" room, in the basement
The “standard authors” room, in the basement (Collection of Jean Rodgers)

I have in my collection a photograph of 233 Grant St. at Campton Place, probably taken in early 1908. An edge of the tall Shreve Building can be seen at left, and piles of rubble and construction materials off in the distance at right. A prominent sign on the second story window reads “Paul Elder Building,” so I understandably but incorrectly assumed that this was the Paul Elder Building. In fact, the Paul Elder Building was yet unbuilt, still just a hole in the ground immediately to the right of 233 Grant.

Within the next year or so, an identical twin building sprouted up next to 233 Grant. Ordinarily, one would expect that adjoining identical buildings would be constructed simultaneously, but that was not the case here. The most likely explanation is that the twin buildings were planned all along, but each was only constructed once funding appeared.

The children's book room, on the 2nd floor
The children’s book room, on the 2nd floor (Collection of Jean Rodgers)

In the end, Paul Elder was only at the Gothic Cathedral for twelve years. In 1921, he moved the bookstore around the corner to 239 Post, directly across the street from where the first bookstore had been, the one which burned in 1906.

Sometime between 1954 and 1961, a sixth floor was added to 239 Grant, and all the distinctive ribbing and cornices were removed. If you look at the two buildings today, you’d never guess that they were once identical twin sisters.

Tillman Place turned out to be a very fine place for bookstores. I find it altogether fitting that from 1956 to 1999, Charlotte Newbegin’s Tillman Place Bookshop was located just a dozen steps from where Paul Elder’s shop had been.

233 Grant, circa 1908
233 Grant as it nears completion, circa 1908. Despite the “Paul Elder Building” sign on the 2nd story window, this is not the Paul Elder Building. (Collection of David Mostardi.)
233 and 239 Grant in 1954
233 (left) and 239 Grant in 1954. Between 1909 and 1921, Paul Elder occupied the building on the right. (Photo courtesy San Francisco Public Library.)
233 and 239 Grant in 2023.
The two buildings today. In the late 1950s, a sixth floor was added to 239 Grant, and the distinctive ribbing was removed. You’d never know that these were once identical twin buildings. (Photo by David Mostardi, 2023)

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