Author Rachel Khong saw a need for a collaborative gathering space for women… so she opened one herself.
Rachel Khong, bestselling author of Goodbye, Vitamin, did most of her writing in coffee shops (writing at home, she says, was difficult because she was constantly distracted by chores and home projects that needed to be completed. We can relate!). While she loved cafés or writing at her rustic A-frame cabin in Russian River, they weren't quite what she needed. Instead of going on a coffee shop world tour to find the perfect spot, she embarked on a more ambitious project: opening a collaborative creative space in San Francisco called The Ruby.
I spoke to Khong about what she looks for in a writing space, and how the two-floored, light filled, converted winery in the Mission District of San Francisco ended up being her dream location.
When did you realize that you wanted to try to open a creative co-working space?
I had been working on it for over a year. I was leaving my full time job, as an editor at Lucky Peach, and making the switch over to freelance writing, focusing more on my fiction, and doing that from a rotation of cafes. The cafes weren't quite what I was looking for—there's no sense of community.
What inspired The Ruby?
It is inspired by a lot of other models, including this place called The Makeshift Society in San Francisco, which was a thousand-foot space in Hayes Valley (it closed in 2016). I had visited that space before and thought it was so cool, and figured I could create a similar space specifically for women. I was thinking a lot about the groups that I was finding time to hang out with, and those were groups of women that would meet for a really specific purpose—my book club, my maa-jhong club— feeling really uplifted after I had had one of these hang outs.
How about the name? Where does "The Ruby" come from?
For months I had no idea what I'd call it, and was calling it "Lady Space." But when my friends Chris and Jami had a daughter last November, they called her Ruby and that name struck a chord. Rubies are my birthstone. I looked more into rubies and loved the idea of a space called "The Ruby" and members called Rubies, because rubies are strong: as resilient as sapphires and only a little bit softer than diamonds. Almost all rubies have flaws, and that's what makes them interesting: we wear ours proudly.
What spoke to you about the space you ended up with?
When I stepped into the space that we're now in, I immediately felt like it was perfect because it has a really open feeling. It's rustic. There's a lot of history to it. A hundred years ago it used to be a winery.
There are so many textures and surfaces to the space—was that a major draw?
Absolutely. It's an old building that survived San Francisco's earthquake, and has so much history to it. I wasn't not thinking about the apocalypse.
What type of workspace were you trying to cultivate? I imagine it's difficult to create a space that would ideally cater to multiple personalities and working styles.
We wanted to have a space that felt like a home and not like a really standard office. We wanted a space that had some private rooms for phone calls and things but also big open space for when you wanted to be social. Our space is very specifically for people who can get work got in an environment that isn't super-controlled. Every day, there is something new or there's a new mix of people. Part of the point is to see people and have conversations.
This is a space specifically for female creatives. How are you catering to that population?
One idea I had for this space—and one that we're going to do in the spring—is a "writers' and makers' retreat" over the course of the weekend. We provide all of your meals and help with arranging childcare if you need it, so you can just come to the space to write and get a lot of work done over the weekend. I love going out to writers' retreats. Those are great spaces in which to be in a totally quiet environment and get a lot of work done, but that's a luxury that's not always available, especially if you are a mom. We wanted to think of ways to fix that problem, and having people come here to have their needs taken care of… that's something I'm really excited about.
You mentioned wanting this space to feel more like a home than an office. Is there any inspiration you borrowed from your own home?
One reason I did really feel magnetized to this space is that there's a huge wood staircase right in the middle of it. I own an A-frame cabin up north by the Russian River, which is about an hour and a half from my home in San Francisco. It's this little cabin that I fixed up a few years ago. It had been a grow house—it was a huge mess—and I had to fix everything up and furnish it and build a lot of new things. That was one inspiration for this space. The [two] spaces do feel similar in their weirdness; they aren't conventional white-walled.
[Another] part of that similarity between this place and my cabin is that there is a woodstove right in the middle of it. It feels old-timey and cabin-y and I really love it. [A major "must" for this space, according to Khong, was the need for a kitchen, and The Ruby does indeed provide food and drink for all its members from female chefs.]
Obviously this isn't a space for cubicles and desks. What's your favorite piece of furniture or décor in the space?
This leather couch that's right in the middle. That's a couch from Article...I saw the couch online and thought it would be perfect for the space. But it was almost $2,000 and we're a very scrappy organization; we're entirely member-funded. We reached out to Article to ask if they could collaborate with us on furnishing the space, and as a result we were able to get the perfect sofa for the space. We really love it. It's so beautiful.
Talk to me about the bathroom. That space feels like it was totally reinvented for the space—it's so colorful and fun. I love the wallpaper!
[The color is] Mochachino. I painted it that pink and the floor a foresty green. I ripped out the cabinets, painted, and added the wallpaper. [The wallpaper] is called Ms. Treat from Grow House Grow's Naturalist collection — an artist named Katie Deedy, who is based in Brooklyn, makes these beautiful "narrative-inspired" wallpapers and this one is named after Mary Treat.
I know you'll be having tons of writers and artists come through this space—is there any talk of using artwork made in The Ruby to decorate the space in the future?
Yes, this is happening! We have framed photos by members Aya Brackett and Andria Lo coming this week. And upstairs in our writers loft, we have pencil drawings and botanical arrangements by member Anastasia Tumanova. We're also working on getting some big paintings from friend of The Ruby, Naomi Clark, to the space. [The geometric rug is also a donation from a member].
Speaking of The Ruby's future: How do you hope that The Ruby helps you personally in your creative journey and your future work?
On a very basic level want to finish my next book here. It hasn't been open for very long, but it has been really wonderful getting to know other writers in the areas, other photographers and artists, and I do think that a lot of creativity happens when you're talking to people. It's something that's really easy for me to forget. If I'm in that mindset of "I need to be by myself to crank this all out,"—I think that's often a less-creative place to be. There needs to be balance—of solitary time, and time for dialogue and exchange of ideas. Hopefully those two things come together.