Photography by Michelle Kilfeather
Welcome to the penultimate episode of Season 5!
We're revisiting our 2018 podcast with Babylon Burning's Mike Lynch in Part 1.
When COVID hit, in March 2020, Babylon Burning kept working.
In Part 2 of our episode on San Francisco's oldest screenprinting ship and their new location on Howard Street, we talk with owners Mike Lynch and Judy Tam-Lynch about the several years of hardship that lead to their new location. It started with the worldwide shutdown back in 2020.
They were lucky enough to already have orders from essential businesses around The City. Two that Mike cites are Cheese Plus and Balboa Theater. Then they started to pick up schools around town. And then, the City and County of San Francisco. And so on, and so on.
We rewind slightly to establish the COVID timeline for Babylon Burning:
Around the time that PPP loans started to disburse, they had been coasting in low gear, doing just enough business to pay their employees and their landlord. Those loans saved them, just barely.
Winter 2020 brought more shutdowns and hardship, but they weathered the storm. Vaccines started rolling out, and that provided another upswing. Toward the summer of 2021, they started doing outdoor shows and other events on Bluxome Street (Jeff went to one of these and they were awesome). These street parties made it feel like they had turned a corner.
The new clients—essential, small SF businesses and schools—came back for more. Thanks to the boom in business, they were able to retain or replace their staff, some of whom have been with Babylon Burning for more than 15 years. And the printing veterans are able to teach the rookies.
They were coasting along, recovering from the deepest impacts of the pandemic. And then, on December 4, 2022, a whole new tragedy struck. Early that morning, Bay Alarm called Mike. "You have an active fire at your shop. It's pretty bad." (Coincidentally, there had been a small arson fire outside the shop door about three months earlier, which prompted Mike and his crew to check up on their fire insurance.)
Mike raced down 280. As he approached the Sixth Street off-ramp, he could see the fire. It was bad. Really bad. As he turned the corner onto Bluxome, the small street was lit up with flashing SFFD lights. He was brought to tears seeing it all. The fire had run through the upper levels of the building and its roof. The fire department used 500,000 gallons of water to extinguish the flames.
Mike ends Part 2 with a vivid description of firefighters' efforts atop ladders to put the fire out while also risking the entire roof's collapse.
In Part 3, we pick up where we left off in Part 2, with Mike's story of arriving at Bluxome Street early in the morning on Dec. 4, 2022. His San Francisco legacy business, Babylon Burning, was on fire.
Mike recounts the SFFD firefighters taking care when breaking into the 63 Bluxome art gallery doors that led to Babylon Burning. It was Mike, his wife Judy, and his brother, Clam's, gallery, and it was special. Firefighters also saved finished orders that were just inside the doorway to the screenprinting shop. Some fire had trickled in, on the ceiling and in the back of the shop. But most of the damage came from water, as is the case in most fires.
They saved as much as they could and got to work getting that stuff to storage. Rains were on the way. But their friends, Balboa Theater owner Adam Bergeron and his wife, told them it was time to go home and sleep. They took their friends' advice, but Judy was already at work looking for a new spot.
They lucked out getting an insurance broker that Mike had an immediate connection with. Judy liked him, too. Meanwhile, the task of salvaging what there was to salvage and getting it into storage began in earnest. The heavy rains didn't stop them. The work was under way.
Once they got the main business computer out and back to their coworker, Seth's, apartment, they could really get things going again. Friends with much smaller shops offered their spaces. They now credit their team, their friends, and the community with helping them keep the big ship going. They also got a lot of help from the folks at San Francisco's Legacy Business Program.
Judy was working with the realtor and they began looking at spots around SoMA. They brought the broker to the old Babylon site so he could get an idea of who they were and what they were looking for. They ran through a checklist of things they needed—enough power, gas, walls that could be fashioned into a gallery. After only three weeks, they found 939 Howard Street.
It seemed too big at first. And the landlord's construction crews stored equipment there, so it was hella cluttered. But they liked the front room and could already envision a gallery there. There was a strange middle area that intrigued them. And the back provided ample space for their new shop. Mike and Judy brought Seth to see the space, and it lifted him out of a funk he'd been in since the fire.
They knew that they had to show some big-time love to everyone who got them out of the wilderness and into this new phase. In late-May, they threw a party with music, art, a taco truck, and filled with members of the community who love Babylon Burning. Jeff was there. It was magic.
Now that they're operational, they're planning more events, including a July 29 benefit for The Stud collective, as that group continues the search for a new permanent home. Follow Babylon Burning to stay up to date. And please consider them for any screenprinting needs you might have. Also follow Gallery 939 for updates on art shows and other events.
We recorded Part 1 of this podcast at Babylon Burning in the South of Market in August 2018.
We recorded Parts 2 and 3 at Babylon Burning on Howard Street in SOMA in June 2023.