When Hans Heller bought the Willow Den bar nine years ago, he couldn't wait to serve his first drink.
Truth be told, Heller didn't wait.
His liquor license wasn't completely official when Heller welcomed in his first customer.
"We were just hours away and I said, 'We can't take your money but why don't we put it over the bar as a souvenir?'" Heller said.
The first customer's money was then tacked to the ceiling above the bar's cash register. It wasn't the last.
"Traditions make bars successful," Heller said. "The dollar bills just became a great organic tradition that took off."
Over the years thousands of customers have tacked or taped dollar bills all over the ceiling and walls of Heller's bar.
As the currency slowly changed the decor of the bar, though, something else was changing at Willow Den. Heller says his attempt to drum up late night business ended up drawing in a rough crowd.
Late night visits by the San Jose Police became common occurrences as fights broke out among patrons. Twice, in the time Heller has owned the bar, people have been stabbed outside.
Heller came to realize that the last fall that the bar he had long dreamed of owning, wasn't the kind of place he'd want to hang out.
"We had to make a change," Heller said. "It had not become what we intended originally and not what the community welcomed."
So, Heller changed the name of the bar (it's now Willow Den Public House), the look (new signage outside), and the feel of the place (a DJ replaced by live music).
But what better way, Heller decided, to make a clean break with the past, than with a clean ceiling and a charitable contribution.
This past Saturday, Heller and a crew of regulars spent hours carefully removing all the dollars bills, one by one, from the ceiling and walls of the bar.
When all the money was collected, Heller was going to donate it to Free Wheelchair Mission, a charity that provides wheelchairs to poor people around the world. Heller was inspired to donate to them after his father suffered a stroke and relied on a wheelchair to get around.
So, how much was up there?
"I was way off," Heller laughed. "I guessed $1,800."
It was more than three times that amount. When all the bills were counted, Heller had $6,000. In addition, he and a friend had both offered to match the total, so close to $20,000 is going to the charity.
It is a very big donation to a charity and, Heller hopes, a clear signal to his community that his neighborhood bar is hoping to be a better neighbor.