Over 22 Walgreens stores have closed in San Francisco over the past seven years. And their unpopulated interiors remain eerie fixtures around SF.
After the apocalypse, I always assumed there’d be cockroaches, Twinkies, and — inexplicably — a fully functioning Walgreens standing proudly amongst the scorched rubble, fluorescent lights glaring.
Under harsh lights, a bleary-eyed clerk would scan my M&Ms and shaving cream, after which I would leave the store, doors swishing open with their signature ding! I would make my way back out into the barren landscape, stepping around rogue Twinkies scuttling by (which had since evolved to grow legs). I’d resume my quiet life of moisture farming and hoarding whatever books survived the nuclear blast.
But alas. The year is 2023.
I’m walking down Clement Street in San Francisco, California. An Apocalypse of sorts has come and passed: we survived an orange despot, a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and historic Civil unrest—both warranted and unwarranted.
As I walk down my favorite eight-or-so blocks in San Francisco, I’m grateful for the businesses that survived. The music shop, Exploring Music, survived. Green Apple is still purveying knowledge. Toy Boat sails on under Captain Jane. 540 keeps slinging cocktails and beers with a roguish new do. Blue Danube, Burma Superstar, Genki all keep packin’ em in.
Our beloved business, by and large, made it through.
What still baffles and slightly alarms me is the Walgreens, all gutted, boarded up, and painted over. An empty husk. Better a corporate enterprise than a beloved Mom & Pop, but still. Something about a hollowed-out chain store is just… haunting.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. In 2022, Sfist noted the “ominous, empty voids” left behind by the 17 shuttered stores across San Francisco.
I always thought a store like Walgreens was recession-proof. Because rain or shine, pandemic or no, at some point or another everybody needs to make some random-ass purchase of essentials and misery-induced impulse buys: the mouthwash and bandaids and Diet Mountain Dew; the cheap alarm clock and Lemon Cookie Yankee Candle; the Swiffer Wet Jet replacement; the Neosporin and cough syrup and heavily discounted Russel Stover Easter candy.
Walgreens: it’s a public service.
The stores have been empty for a while. I don’t really like doing the math on how long. The last few years have been a time warp that somehow feels simultaneously like a decade and two weeks crammed into one. A weird time capsule of cognitive dissonance. It’s an uncanny reminder that I’ve been doing largely the same things, walking the same avenues, turning the same corners, for years.
It’s not all bad. Doing the same things, and walking the same paths, gives me comfort in a world that’s only getting stranger. It gives me a chance to shut my mind off so I can process things, imagine, and ultimately create.
Maybe it’s my preoccupation with abandoned things, lost things, or even rediscovered things, that makes my mind churn in this way. I see possibilities in the void; I see worlds hiding in the in-between. I see reminders that life is a continuum when we live every day with media that idealizes and hyper-fixates on the singular image, the singular moments in time—distorts them, mythologizes them, immortalizes them.
The last few years have been an experience of ambiguous loss. We’ve all lost something in this bizarre moment in human history: people we’ve loved, places we’ve loved, ideas we’ve loved. And there’s something about a blighted storefront that reminds us: everything is so fragile, so precious.
Maybe that’s why I go back to that apocalyptic image. There’s beauty in acceptance. There’s wisdom hiding in the loss that we have to open our minds to see.
Feature image: Courtesy of author
Christopher Keilman is a copywriter and fiction writer based in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He’s been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and similar publications, and is currently writing a novel. Support him at Patreon.com/ChrisKeilman.