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Browser Books begins a new era

Longtime employee Fred Martin at the front desk at Browser Books on Fillmore.

THESE STORIES  almost always turn out wrong: the beloved neighborhood small business — especially if it’s an independent bookstore — shuts down.

But not this time. Browser Books, at 2195 Fillmore, got a new lease on life October 1 when the owners of Green Apple Books took the keys.

Green Apple — the new and used bookseller on Clement Street, which added a second store five years ago on 9th Avenue — promises the Browser name and staff will stay the same and the changes will be gentle.

“We’re proud to help shepherd the beloved Browser Books into the future,” said Green Apple co-owner Pete Mulvihill. “We’re coming in confidently but humbly.”

Green Apple will bring an infusion of operating capital and bookselling backbone, but most of the initial changes will be behind the scenes.

“We do plan some gradual improvements,” Mulvihill said. “I hope that six months from now people will walk in and say, ‘I always loved this store, and it’s even better now.’ ”

Browser Books was rescued by its fans last spring when a GoFundMe campaign almost immediately raised $76,241 to pay the debts of longtime owner Stephen Damon, who has been battling a terminal illness.

That kept the books coming and provided time to work out a longer-term solution. Manager Jordan Pearson led the effort, aided by local entrepreneurs Richard and Ben Springwater.

Green Apple takes over the remaining seven years of Browser’s lease. Owners Kevin Ryan and Mulvihill will be in the store on Saturday, October 19, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a “Meet the New Owners” celebration and an unveiling of Browser’s new T-shirts and tote bags.

The ’89 quake in the Fillmore

St. Rose Academy, at Pine and Pierce, was torn down after the 1989 earthquake.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Fillmore and the rest of the Bay Area. The neighborhood was spared major damage, but felt the effects of the quake in ways large and small. The most visible local damage was at St. Dominic’s Church, where the top of the tower was lost and the historic home of St. Rose Academy was razed.  

St. Rose Academy, a Catholic high school for girls, was completed only a few months before the 1906 earthquake, but survived — only to be torn down after the 1989 earthquake when seismic concerns were raised.

Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian, San Francisco native and St. Rose graduate, class of ’81, observes: “The feeling at the start of the 1989-90 school year was that St. Rose was experiencing some uncertainty. This was spurred in part by St. Ignatius College Prep becoming coeducational a few years earlier and the desire of the Dominican order to focus its educational mission at other facilities in Marin. After the October ’89 earthquake, many St. Rose alumnae were none too pleased when the Dominican Sisters claimed the building could not be seismically retrofitted.”

Soon several alumnae formed Save St. Rose!, a group advocating not necessarily for continued educational use, but that a compatible new use could be found for the building, generating income to pay for the project. Partnering with San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the Save St. Rose! group put forward a study, confirmed that federal and state funds were available and presented preservation alternatives to the city Planning Commission and the community.  However, on June 26, 1991, the San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of a permit to demolish St. Rose. 

An earlier St. Dominic’s Church building was heavily damaged by the 1906 earthquake and later torn down and replaced by a new Gothic building in 1928. The highly decorative lantern that extended for decades from the top of its tower was damaged and removed after the ’89 quake. Flying buttresses were later added to strengthen the walls of the church and support its stained glass windows.

— Bridget Maley

The top of the tower at St. Dominic’s Church was damaged and removed.

READ MORE: Locals drew together after the quake at the Pacific Heights Bar & Grill, then a key community gathering place, which never recovered from the earthquake.

PacBag was the local gathering place

The PacBag reigned as the neighborhood’s living room for a decade.

By THOMAS REYNOLDS

Behind the crowds queueing up outside the hot new restaurant Noosh, on the corner of Fillmore and Pine, is a small brass plaque recalling an earlier incarnation of the space when it was home to the late and much-lamented Pacific Heights Bar & Grill.

The PacBag, as it was known, was a pioneering restaurant that reigned as the neighborhood’s living room for a decade.

“It was the neighborhood Cheers,” the bar on the television show where everybody knows your name, says Marilyn Fisher, a lawyer who lived nearby and was a regular.

“It was like Cheers,” agrees co-owner Susie Bashel. “People came in almost every day.”

Read more »

The lure of Fillmore Street

The home at 2561 Washington is between Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park.

REAL ESTATE | PATRICK BARBER

A PAIR OF recent home sales, both on Washington Street, highlight the fact that buyers are willing to sacrifice extra square footage for a highly walkable location.

The single-family homes at 2561 Washington Street and 3990 Washington Street each sold for $9.1 million during the second week of September. Though the two commanded an identical price, they differ greatly in size, with 3990 Washington boasting 10,000 square feet of living space — nearly double that of 2561 Washington, which clocks in at about 5,500 square feet. The smaller home changed hands in a brisk three days, while the larger took more than six months to sell.

A few facts explain why a substantially smaller home sold for the same price as a much larger one — and did it so much faster. First, 2561 Washington Street, which had been in the same family for decades, features beautifully proportioned rooms and a desirable open floor plan. Also, the home needs work, which offers the new owners the opportunity to re-envision it to their tastes and specifications.

Finally, there is the classic real estate mantra of location, location, location. While 3990 Washington Street sits on the far edge of Presidio Heights, which would make it necessary for owners to drive frequently, 2561 Washington is barely half a block from Fillmore Street, an easy stroll to dozens of local restaurants, boutiques and services.

Reminders of a local pharmacy empire

The tiles from Shumate’s Pharmacy remain at Blue Bottle Coffee on Fillmore.

LOCAL HISTORY | Story & Photographs by JOAN HOCKADAY

On the southwest corner of Fillmore and Jackson, the modern new home of Blue Bottle Coffee serves long lines of coffee lovers from early morning through late afternoon. 

Customers enter by stepping over vintage black and white tiles that spell out Shumate’s — a reminder that this was once a Shumate’s Pharmacy, one of 30 that for a time were spread throughout the city.

Each of the Shumate family pharmacies was located on a visible corner site in the city beginning in 1900, when the state issued a business license to Dr. Thomas Shumate.

The first pharmacy was at the corner of Divisadero and Sutter, only three blocks from the Shumate family home on a large corner lot at Pine and Scott Streets. The restored Shumate home and garden still remain at 1901 Scott Street. Thomas Shumate’s son, Dr. Albert Shumate, lived there until his death in 1998 at age 94.

The firm grew quickly after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

“Father was only a struggling doctor, so to speak, a physician, and owned one drugstore,” Dr. Albert Shumate said in an oral history recorded in 1978 for the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. “The fire and earthquake in a way aided him. His store was not touched. Some of the drugstores downtown that were well established were destroyed. Some of them didn’t rebuild. Father said the earthquake really helped him financially because Divisadero Street, like Fillmore, became quite a center of the city after the earthquake.”

By 1933, the city directory listed 30 Shumate pharmacies on corners throughout the city, with a general office at 1640 Divisadero. All have since closed.

Recently two more new businesses have opened with vintage Shumate’s tiles intact.

Owner Claudio Villani at AltoVino at Mason and Pacific.

At the southeast corner of Mason and Pacific, along the cable car line, Italian wine connoisseur Claudio Villani recently purchased the corner site and christened his restaurant AltoVino. He soon connected the Shumate legacy in the tiles on his doorstep to his own mission. “We give you medicine and pleasure, too,” Villani said while watching cable cars grinding uphill outside his shop. “Food — that is medicine, and good and healthy, too.”

On the southwest corner of California Street and 23rd Avenue, another new eatery also retained the Shumate tiles on its doorstep.  

The entry tiles at Pearl 6101 at 6101 California Street.

Inside Pearl 6101 — the name a convenient reminder of the address at 6101 California Street — the decor is a throwback to the 1930s and 1940s. A wooden balcony remains from the original pharmacy.

“We designed it that way,” co-owner John Heffron said. As for saving the Shumate tiles, he says: “We liked it as a reminder of the history of San Francisco.”

Shumate’s Pharmacies listed in a 1933 city directory.

When Gorbachev stopped by Dino’s

Photograph of Fillmore & California by Daniel Bahmani

FLASHBACK | RICHARD SPRITZER

IT WAS ONLY a few months after the 1989 earthquake when Mikhail Gorbachev, still president of the still superpowerful Soviet Union, made a swing through San Francisco in early June of 1990.

It was a brief 22-hour stay, which included sleeping late on Monday morning, June 4. Gorbachev and his wife Raisa had flown in late the night before, after stops in Washington and Minneapolis, and stayed in the neighborhood at the Soviet consul general’s residence at 2820 Broadway. Gorbachev was behind schedule all day, but still feted like a visiting rock star in appearances at Stanford University and with the local business elite. The Gorbachevs even worked in a reunion with old friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“The Bay Area basked in the afterglow of a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “happy to show the world it has rebounded from last fall’s earthquake.”

Late in the afternoon, Gorbachev and his retinue headed back to the consul general’s mansion on Outer Broadway. Their motorcade of fierce-looking Zil limousines came barreling down the hill headed west on California Street toward Fillmore.

When he spotted a group of two dozen people waving on the corner, the procession came to a halt. Gorbachev bounded out of the big boxy Zil and started shaking hands like a veteran American pol. 

The Chronicle reported the next day: 

Gorbachev stopped only once to mingle with a crowd of ordinary people — at about 6:15 p.m. at California and Fillmore streets. He walked toward the people on the street, and they surged toward him. Others ran out of Dino’s pizza parlor, the corner liquor store and the neighborhood copy center.

“Usually you don’t have occasion to see somebody so important so close,” said Felix Nager, who works at the copy center. “He’s like a normal man.”

Norm Newman, a 30-year-old ex-U.S. Marine, was so overcome he screamed, “I love you, Gorby!” Later, after he had shaken Gorbachev’s hand, he said, “What I did for 10 years in the Marines was completely opposite to what that man stands for. But he’s opening the doors. He’s a very likeable guy.”

Dino Stavrikikis, who owns the pizza shop, said Gorbachev was the most famous man he had ever met — and he’s met Ronnie Lott, the famous 49er, Sleepy Floyd, the basketball player, and Jerry Brown, the politician. 
“I would have liked it if he would have come in for a piece of pizza,” Dino said.

Inevitably, there were T-shirts for sale all over the city. At Broadway and Divisadero, two blocks from the Soviet consular residence, shirts portrayed Gorbachev as Bart Simpson, with the words “Radical Dude” underneath.

Not far from the Soviet consular residence where the Gorbachevs made their headquarters, a large house displayed a pre-revolutionary Russian flag and a picture of the last czar.

Although Gorbachev and his wife went separate ways for most of the day, they met again at 6:33 p.m. at the consular residence on Broadway.

The stop at Dino’s had lasted only a few minutes. The return to 2820 Broadway didn’t last much longer. A visit to the Golden Gate Bridge was called off because of the tight schedule.

“I always wanted to come here,” Gorbachev told reporters as his motorcade started to leave for the airport. “You’re very fortunate to live here. President Bush should tax the people for living in such a beautiful place.”

Honoring Japantown’s founders

The new Zen garden at Cottage Row and Sutter Street.

NEARLY FOUR YEARS after it was first proposed, a new garden honoring the founders of Japantown will be dedicated this weekend at the foot of Cottage Row, near Fillmore and Sutter.

It began as a celebration of the creation of Japantown in 1906 after the earthquake and fire. Cottage Row was occupied primarily by the first, or Issei, generation of Japanese-Americans in the early 20th century, making it an apt location. But some neighbors objected, and the garden became the topic of contentious community meetings.

The idea prevailed. On August 19, master Japanese gardener Shigeru Namba began arranging a truckload of stones according to traditional Zen principles intended to inspire peace and tranquility.

The garden will be dedicated on September 21 at 6:30 p.m., with neighbors invited to attach multicolored origami cranes — a symbol of peace — to bamboo sticks in the garden.

EARLIER: “Zen garden back on again

MY FILLMORE

Like any street in any great city, Fillmore is always changing, always dying, always being awakened

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez on Fillmore Street by Frank Wing

By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Growing old on Fillmore Street has taught me how much a city can change, how much I have changed — and how a city continues despite it all. 

Lately, if I have any sort of errand on Fillmore, I will most often take a digressive route. I leave my apartment on Clay Street, climb the Aztec steps into Alta Plaza, then circle around Pacific Heights. I climb back up the hill on Pierce. 

So much of my life has been consumed by exercise. When I could still jog, I used to run through Pacific Heights on my way to the Presidio. The great houses were blurred landmarks in those days. 

Now, exercise offers more of an opportunity to pause. I have favorite houses. Many mansions have had their facades lifted. After being swathed in netting or shrink-wrapped in white plastic for months, even years, exteriors are revealed to the street in pristine turn-of-the-century clarity. I have long admired the novels of American wealth — Wharton, James, Fitzgerald — and the interior secrets they revealed. Walking along Vallejo or up Steiner, however pleasant, is not like reading novels. There is no discernible narrative. 

I know the Getty house. I know the confectionary palace where Danielle Steel lives. I can tell when Nancy Pelosi is in town from the assembly of black security cars. I know the Whittier mansion, which was briefly the consulate of the Third Reich. I even know where a bitten Apple executive lives. I never see anyone in a window. 

I do see Mexican construction workers feverishly employed, or lounging in the manner of Manet, following their noonday meals. The sidewalks are empty except for the occasional Filipina housekeeper walking a joyless dog. 

Read more »

Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

Saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the Fillmore street fair in 1992.

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.

Green Apple buys Browser Books

Browser Books has been a fixture at 2195 Fillmore for decades.

THE DEAL IS DONE: Green Apple Books — the new and used bookseller on Clement Street, which added a second store five years ago on 9th Avenue — has bought Browser Books on Fillmore Street.

Green Apple will take over on October 1, but promises that the name and the staff will stay the same.

“We’re proud to help shepherd the beloved Browser Books into the future,” said Green Apple co-owner Pete Mulvihill. “Thanks to Browser’s 43-year successful run on Fillmore Street, a reasonable landlord and lease, an enthusiastic and well-read staff, a loyal customer base and a successful GoFundMe campaign [in 2018], the store is healthy.”

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