A heartfelt work of staggering good

Times Staff Writer

It’s a clear, brisk night in Venice. Clear enough to see not just the stars but to see if they are aligned just right -- or so hopes Dave Eggers.

From his perch on the porch of a second-story loft at the home of screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the author can keep watch on both the skies and the goings-on below: the murmur of agents, journalists, musicians, activists, some cushy Hollywood money all huddled around the food and drink by the turquoise strip of a lap pool.

Eggers has landed in L.A. for a couple of sure-to-be-sleep-deprived days. Not for a reading or a panel discussion but to shake a few trees. For matters important enough to don a dark blazer over faded jeans and transform himself from idiosyncratic author-editor to passionate pitchman.

It’s been four years since his bestselling, genre-bending memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” put him -- albeit wincingly -- in the sharp literary spotlight that he’s tended to struggle against. But for all of his trepidation with being the official public face, on this night -- and for the hours to follow -- he throws himself into the task of asking for money. He’s earnest and eager to expound on a project clearly close to his heart.

He seems truly grateful. Hopeful. His 2-year-old writing/tutoring project, 826 Valencia, started out of a storefront at that address in San Francisco’s Mission district and has since spawned another, 826 NYC, in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. On what has become an increasingly full plate of projects -- heading the publishing concern McSweeney’s, teaching and carving out time for his own writing -- 826 Valencia has become Eggers’ primary engine. “My wife can tell when I’ve spent an afternoon tutoring,” he tells the crowd. “I’m buzzing for hours.”


It is that buzz that will carry him through the weekend as he lays the groundwork to launch an 826 program here in February. For this whirlwind couple of days, Eggers and 826 founding director Ninive Clements Calegari, a teacher, have come to spread the word about the center’s impact in the Bay Area and to drum up interest here.

All this announces a new phase for 826. Los Angeles and Chicago are setting up centers funded by and based on the 826 Valencia model. Across the country, in Ann Arbor, Mich., Seattle and Pittsfield, Mass., others with like-minded concerns have also begun drop-in programs based on the 826 template.

From the outset, the project’s goal has been to provide free one-on-one mentoring to students, ages 6 to 18, for a single spelling test or sharpening up an essay for a college application. The idea, stresses Eggers, is to offer teachers much-needed support.

More than 600 volunteers have taken part in San Francisco -- helping with homework, heading writing workshops, publishing quarterlies of the students’ work and hosting popular, paid adult workshops.

But what has also made the initial drop-in centers the talk of their respective towns is the clever storefront businesses they reside behind: Brooklyn’s Superhero Supply Co. and San Francisco’s Pirate Supply Store, both of which are tourists stops as well. “Where else can you get tutored on your college entrance essay and buy a glass eye?” Eggers deadpans.

It’s all about imagination and making “work” play.

While 826 L.A. is just easing out of the drawing board stages, a few major support beams are already in place: Pilar Perez, co-founder and editor at Perceval Press, will head 826 L.A. In January, the group will begin to convert a room at Venice’s Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) that will serve as 826’s initial drop-in space. There are plans to partner with the nonprofit L.A. Green Dot Charter schools in Inglewood, Venice and Boyle Heights to create designated in-house workspaces.

As always, the biggest issue with Los Angeles is that of size and sprawl. Trying to find a good storefront location will be the biggest challenge. “I want people to see 826 as part of their community,” says Eggers, “no matter where they live.”

For the last few months, he has been making trips to L.A. to suss things out. He and Perez have been meeting with local teachers, writers, activists, organizers, principals, politicians and artists about what the area’s needs are and what 826’s role in L.A. should be.

It’s important from the outset, says Perez, that 826 be seen as an outlet for all of Los Angeles, “That, like San Francisco, it reflects the mix of the city. I know that it can’t be quite the same since Los Angeles is so spread out and people will be driving distances, but it’s important that it becomes a unique destination that can serve all.”

They are still puzzling out the pieces of what the L.A. project will be. Eggers is thinking perhaps of a time-travel theme. “A duty-free shop for a time traveler of the future who might be traveling back in time and need to buy, say, a torch and a battle-ax without paying taxes on it.”

Perez says, with a chuckle, “Well, that’s open to discussion.” Right now, she’s thinking in more concrete terms. “We need tutors from all different communities, illustrators. People who can paint walls. Sew pillows. Help with the website, []. Little things that you don’t always think about.” She’d also like to raise about $100,000 in the next six months to get the spaces up and running.

The San Francisco nonprofit -- with five paid employees -- had operating costs last year of about $450,000 with funding coming from grants, fundraisers and some store revenue.

The son and brother of teachers, Eggers had long been toying with the notion of mentoring. When he was living in Brooklyn a few years back, he started brainstorming with teacher and writer friends, but it wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area that he was able to pull it all together.

“I had the concept, the people in mind. I knew I wanted Ninive, but she had moved to Mexico. But I knew I couldn’t do this without her.” (After persuading Calegari to return, Eggers was tipped off to a space in the Mission district -- a former storefront gym.

“It had rubber floors. That horrible acoustic tile,” he recalls. “When we started tearing the tile down, there were these exposed beams, a skylight that was covered up. I thought -- ‘It looks like the hull of a ship.’ ” The landlord had only one caveat: “He insisted, ‘You gotta sell something.’ ”

He didn’t say that it couldn’t be eye patches or pirate shirts, planks sold by the foot -- or McSweeney’s titles, for that matter.

“Really, I didn’t have a fascination with pirates before this. We just got obsessed. We figured it could be a gateway. ‘Come and play in the store. And then see what we’re doing behind.’ ”

While the commitment of money is imperative, the commitment of time from a wide cross-section of tutors is just as crucial. It doesn’t seem that they’ll be wanting. By the looks of the 50 or so who turned up at the volunteer meet-and-greet the morning after the L.A. fundraiser (some of them arriving more than half an hour before the appointed time), it quickly became clear that Eggers’ juice counts for much.

The introductions reveal people with a range of skill sets -- a Russian speaker, a PowerTools software expert, a graphic designer, an avid baker. “Really, I just want to give back.” “Me? I guess I’m just a compulsive helper.”


Making a story

Meanwhile, on a bright Tuesday morning in the San Francisco Mission district, hidden behind racks of pirate shirts, skull and crossbones flags, glass eyes and about half a dozen peg legs, the third-grade students of Lafayette Elementary have arranged themselves in perfect rows in the 826 workspace.

For this “Storytelling & Bookmaking” session, the students are at work on a story. Lights dimmed, with an illustrator and a typist and tutor overseeing things, the class hashes out the details -- much the way a group of writers might coax out a script. They’ve decided on a protagonist, Trouble. He has two best friends, Scoop and Magnetic Carrot. They all live in a town called Lava City. “Where all the restaurants [serve] only hot sauce to drink.”

The class works out a cliffhanger, then students individually complete the story. The final project will be a bound chapbook for each that will include a cover illustration, an author photo on the back (there are Polaroid cameras and elaborate plumed pirate hats to pose in), and a space for a bio and blurbs from classmates.

Once they’re finished, like other writers, they await word. They cluster around a tall wooden ladder that leads to some mysterious somewhere upstairs where “Mr. Blue,” the unseen, demanding publisher, grumbles and shouts as he calls each by name, reading snatches of their work. They stare up at the mysterious hole, biting their fingernails, tipped toward the disembodied voice. A loud thud periodically can be heard. “The stamp of approval,” says Susan Tu, one of the 826 coordinators. “And it is an actual stamp. They all get one.”

“Why won’t Mr. Blue come down and talk to us?” asks one of the braver souls.

“Mr. Blue is very busy and he is very grumpy and he doesn’t like to come down here,” improvs one of the tutors. “Plus, he’s blue. And that’s very embarrassing.”

In its initial phase, the SPARC space in Venice will operate much like this, as a drop-in center offering after-school tutorials and evening workshops. Last year, says Calegari, 826 Valencia provided about 6,000 tutoring sessions, which, given the fluctuation of single visits and repeat attendance, means 2,000 to 3,000 kids annually.

Though the center itself is open to kids all over the Bay Area whatever their background, the in-school project allows them to focus their attention on those most in need. “We’ve targeted schools in neighborhoods with kids from families in the lower-income bracket, because they tend to be the ones who need the most help.”

Bita Nazarian, who serves as instructional reform facilitator at San Francisco’s 826 partner campus, Everett Middle School, has seen a change since the program set up shop on campus.

In the year and a half that 826 has been involved, the school’s Academic Performance Index -- testing information used by the state -- has exceeded the target set by state officials. “Most of the movement was in the language arts in the bottom levels of the scale,” Nazarian says. “I think part of it was our strong seventh-grade teachers, but I think 826 Valencia really helped. It was the only writing intervention we had.”


A wacky workspace

A tick or so after 3 o’clock, the 826 room swarms to life. Kids with backpacks and roller bags charge in with their BigGrab Cheetos and their orange sodas. The walls are ringed with nautical knickknacks and an unusual sort of inspirational text: proof pages from the manuscripts of working authors, including Amy Tan, Michael Chabon or Eggers himself, filled with their editing scrawls and cross-outs.

Out come papers and pens. There is the essay for English. The spelling test for Friday. Mothers sit on the bench near the front door reading or chatting in English and Spanish.

Upstairs, knee to knee, Perez and Calegari run through checklists and funding statements as the staff buzzes below, grabbing supplies out of bins marked “scratch paper” and “rubber bands” next to others labeled “Inner Demons” or “Supplies for mischief or hooliganism.”

Calegari says she is hopeful about the L.A. project not so much because of the fundraiser fete, but more for the Saturday session with tutors.

“I was totally inspired. I felt like it could happen.” It was more than just their numbers, she says. “It was their skills. It’s what they will be able to bring to the project.”