Literary program for children replaces liquor store in the heart of SF's Tenderloin

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A book-reading by children launched the opening week of an unusual new store in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. 

Walk into the shop "King Carl's Emporium" under the sign of a large pufferfish and you're walking into a story.

"King Carl is a pufferfish, a traveling royal pufferfish, who opened a store in the Tenderloin and he sells the wares from his travels here," said Bita Nazarian, the Executive Director of 826 Valencia, a literary program for children that started in the Mission District and is expanding to a storefront and new tutoring center in the Tenderloin.

The fictional King Carl is never seen at the store. You'll only see his throne in an empty fish bowl and a note telling visitors where he is traveling. His spirit, however, sparks the imagination of children who pass through the doors.

"The idea of creating a space that inspires wonder and creativity and welcomes the imagination and sparks it, so that is really critical to what we do as an organization," Nazarian said.

The non-profit 826 Valencia began in 2002 as a pirate shop, since the location was in an area zoned for retail. The back of the shop served as a place where tutors could help local children. King Carl, the pufferfish, is a character in the Mission location's theater space.

At the new Tenderloin center, students Wednesday from the De Marillac Academy read their own poems and prose from books which the non-profit publishes.

"I hear gunshots and screaming. Conversations being held, buttons of a laptop, the dragging of a pencil, the screams of kids," said J.J. Aleman, a 13-year-old student who recited from his poem "Open Window" about living in the neighborhood.

The children spoke from the heart about their experiences.

"My name is the loud crashing waves that frighten sailors away. Yet my name soft. My name is a beautiful sunset. It is a piece of artwork from Paris," said Jelea Hale reading her poem "My Name is a Loud Thunderstorm."

"Our corner Golden Gate and Leavenworth is known as 'pill hill' due to pharmaceutical trafficking. And yet there are children all around this neighborhood," Navartian said, "Some 3,000 low-income children live in the neighborhood."

The new center used to be a corner liquor store. Now it's been transformed with wit and whimsy. Shelves are lined with treasure chests full of the children's stories.

"The stadium was quieter, the seats were colder, and the aroma of ballpark food didn't fill the air. There were hordes of reporters around star player Buster Posey. Finally it was my chance to interview him," read Ed Lawrence Hagape, 13, who shared his excitement being able to meet the Giants baseball team.

In many ways, the children's neighborhood is a world away from what other children see every day. Their poems and prose give them a way to voice their feelings.

"Help me, help me I am in need. Spare change? A man alone, with no one to support him," read Jose Jimenez, 13, from his poem about homelessness.

"I felt like I had to express that because that's a really big problem in our neighborhood," Jimenez explained.

Gloria Avila Tuz, 12, lives a few blocks away from the center. Her "Recipe for Fighting Racisim" piece became the title of the students' latest book Five Quarts of Kindness.

"Mix five quarts of kindess with four cups of hope," Gloria said reading her poem.

And hope, is what those organizers would like the center to cultivate in these children, so they can write their own happy endings.

"When you come across this, there's this support," Gloria said, "This happiness that changes the whole Tenderloin and it's just very nice."

The 826 Valencia  Project has inspired other centers nationwide in New York, Chicago, L.A., Boston, Washington DC and Ann Arbor.