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Storied: San Francisco

Jun 27, 2023

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:

  • Love Letters to The City (our show), Jan. 11 thru Feb. 14, 2020
  • first citywide shutdown, initially for two weeks, March 17
  • stay-at-home orders extended through May, March 31

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.

Check back next week for Part 3 and the conclusion of our episode on the new Babylon Burning.

We recorded Part 2 of this episode at Babylon Burning on Howard Street in SOMA in June 2023.

Photography by Jeff Hunt