FIRST PERSON | Mark J. Mitchell
I moved to San Francisco in September 1978, following the woman who would become my wife, Joan Juster. She had gone ahead and found a studio apartment at California and Fillmore. The rent was a whopping $210 per month and the Murphy bed sagged as deeply as the Mariana Trench.
I spent two weeks looking for work and began to panic because the rent was due. I saw an ad for a Waldenbooks that was opening on Market Street, circled it, put the Chronicle in my pocket and started downtown.
On the way I stopped at the liquor store on the southeast corner of California and Fillmore, which was similar to one I had worked at earlier in Santa Cruz. I filled out an application and was quickly interviewed by the manager, Danny Kunihara. I never made it downtown to the bookstore; within the hour I was working for Max Cologna and Dan Grove. My pay was the minimum wage: $2.65 an hour. I stayed for 18 years.
Fillmore Street was different then. The Donut Hole held down the southwest corner at Fillmore and California. Uncle Vito’s served pizza on the northwest corner. Where the Elite Cafe now stands was the Asia Cafe, owned by the Chinese waiters who ran a betting parlor out of the back. Down the block were Connie’s, Sanchez’s Mexican restaurant and Leon’s Barbecue, along with Ron Hobbs’ bird store. Nate Thurman’s The Beginning was where Harry’s holds court now and the Goodwill Store took up the center of the block, with two unfinished lofts above occupied by art students.
September 1978 marked the beginning of major lessons in city life. I met Howard Oliver, a Bi-Rite alumnus who owned a watch repair shop in the space later taken over by Mrs. Dewson’s Hats at 2050 Fillmore. By November, Oliver and his wife had flown to Guyana with Congressman Leo Ryan, been shot at and learned that his children and grandchildren had drunk Flavor-Aid with Rev. Jim Jones. The next week, Dan White sneaked through a window into City Hall and murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
Bi-Rite was very much a neighborhood store. Max and Dan, who had owned the place since 1962, seemed to know everyone. Pretty soon I did too. People would drop by to chat. You could pick up beer and wine, or a half pint of whiskey, or serious cognac. We also carried chips, sodas, a few magazines and the daily papers. People would wait for the different editions of the Examiner to arrive — there were four daily editions then. At Bi-Rite we covered it all.
I studied wine under the great gurus Keat Lexa and Drew Reece, but my main contribution was to expand the beer selection. I wound up managing the store and making it a destination for beers and ales. We maintained a selection of more than 200 beers in an era before micro-brews; I had to work to find that many stouts and lagers. We got some magazine coverage, a plug or two in the Chronicle and the cover of a trade publication for that accomplishment.
I was privileged to work with some extraordinary young men. We were almost all young men then; a few women passed through briefly, but didn’t seem to stay. Many former staffers went on to bright careers as dentists, pharmacists and architects.
Bi-Rite was open until 2 a.m. every day. We often had long stretches without much to do. Dense, involved philosophical discussions took place. Customers would get pulled into them. They would stay for hours and come back the next night, backed up with new facts. Sometimes they would stay on after we closed. One Halloween, Larry Lipsett, a hot tub technician and son of the private eye Hal Lipsett, stayed and played his recording of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. As I recall, more than a few beers were consumed. Still, we never ignored the customer who wanted to pick up a bottle of bubbly.
Max and Dan also owned the laundromat next door, the Wash Palace. It served as a second agora for Fillmore Street. Barbara Conway ran the place, assisted by Gladys and Marge. They would keep tabs on the street, visit with customers doing their washing and sit and gossip and smoke cigarettes between washing, drying and folding. That was where we set up the neighborhood betting pool on who shot J.R. Marge won.
At Bi-Rite, Max was more of the public face of the store, while Dan tended to the book work in the upstairs office. The two partners fought the entire time I knew them. In spite of that, they ran a neighborhood establishment together for 30 years.
By 1992, though, the tension had become unbearable, and Dan bought out Max. Last time I saw Max he was happily living in retirement. The store declined. Too much had been spent on dissolving the partnership. The neighborhood was changing. Dan wound up giving up the corner to a little coffee business called Royal Ground and shrunk the store. The end came shortly after that in 1995.
Bi-Rite was a special store, and my university. I am a proud alum.