Businesses at Famous North Beach Intersection Hope to Ride Out Hard Times

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Poet and City Lights Bookstore founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti once declared the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco’s North Beach the “center of the universe.” 

It’s now a universe of iconic bars and restaurants struggling alongside thousands of other businesses under quarantine orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. In North Beach, the economic downturn poses a threat to many of the businesses that celebrate the legacy of the Beat Poets, who once drank and caroused in their establishments generating stories — some real, some imagined — that powers neighborhood tourism today. 

“I’m very concerned about the whole neighborhood,” said Elly Simmons, owner of of Specs 12 Alder Museum and Cafe, a funky alleyway bar started by her late father Richard Simmons 52 years ago. “It’s a very important neighborhood in this country and the world for the culture.” 

In mid-March as the state imposed mandatory stay-at-home orders, Simmons was forced to temporarily lay off the bar’s staff and is struggling to cover the bills. A GoFundMe she launched has generated about $30,000, which she says isn’t even enough to cover a month’s expenses. 

“I’m not going to let this place die but we really need funds to reopen,” Simmons said, standing in the darkened bar filled with five decades of tchotchkes. 

Across the street, Vesuvio Cafe, a watering hole for poets like Jack Kerouac, also launched a GoFundMe to help out its bartenders and waitstaff. The campaign had raised more than $12,000. 

Across Jack Kerouac Alley from Vesuvio, the neighborhood’s cornerstone City Lights Bookstore raised nearly $470,000 in just five days — a sign of the store’s important place in the cultural firmament.

“If anybody deserves to come through it, it’s the link to the past,” said Jerry Cimino, owner of the nearby Beat Museum on Broadway. “Beat Generation values are San Francisco values — compassion, sympathy for your fellow man.” 

Life During Pandemic: Roads Empty, Tourist Spots Deserted, Schools Closed

Cimino’s business was also hoping to weather the storm with the doors closed and business trickling in through online book sales. In contrast to City Lights campaign, the Beat Museum’s GoFundMe raised a little less than $2,000 in just under a month. But Cimino said he and the neighborhood are thrilled at the success of City Lights’ crowdfunding. 

“The way I look at it, rising tides lift all ships," Cimino said.

Over the last half-century, Specs has served as a watering hole where people would gather for celebrations or to seek the camaraderie of others riding out hard times on a barstool.

Inside the darkened bar, Simmons herself now sat on a barstool, alone contemplating what might lie ahead, hoping the bar will survive and once again provide a place where people in a post-COVID-19 world can unite. 

“I hope we come back,” she said.  

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