Lurking somewhere deep in my gray matter is a dim recollection of a wonderful children’s picture book in which, over the decades, a little house perched in a capacious field first sees bigger houses built next to it, then soot-belching factories, then finally hulking office towers. Yet, the plucky house endures.
I’m not sure what the book’s moral, if any, was supposed to be. Persistence, perhaps? Longevity? The downside of progress?
Whatever the message, I was reminded of the book when I stumbled upon a curious sight at Jack London Square. There, in the shadow of a six-story steel-and-concrete office park, surrounded by parking lots, anchored yachts and upscale, small-plate eateries, sits a warped-wooden, ramshackle bar called Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.
It’s as out of place as an Amish housewife partying at the Kardashian mansion. Some might call it an eyesore, a blot on a commercial and tourist complex struggling for relevance and economic survival. Me? I call it the best thing about Jack London Square.
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As Billy Wells, the affable bartender, so correctly notes, “There probably wouldn’t be a Jack London Square without this place.”
Built 130 years ago on wooden pilings over the coastal mudflats at the west end of Webster Street by a Philadelphia transplant named Johnny Heinold, the saloon became a second home to young Jack London in the 1890s, or so legend has it. They say London did his homework at the tables made from abandoned whaling ships and hit up Johnny for the $10 it took to enroll at UC Berkeley. Over the years, London used Heinold’s as a writer’s retreat, penning parts of “The Sea Wolf” and notes for “Call of the Wild” from a bar stool while listening to sailors embroider stories from the high seas. A framed photo of young Jack, circa age 12, with elbow propped on the bar counter and a mischievous smile on his face, adorns Heinold’s walls papered with memorabilia.
Naturally, the joint has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, which means that developers with big ideas can’t swing the wrecking ball. Which is why Heinold’s stands out so starkly in the modern square. If you were to employ time-lapse photography, as they do with blooming flowers, you’d see the squat, listing Heinold’s remain rooted in place while the surrounding area morphs from coal storage bins and horse stables to shanty dwelling for Chinese immigrants to motels and cafes and nightclubs to the square’s current incarnation as a wannabe gleaming commercial and retail hub.
Stepping foot inside the bar – careful of that 8-inch gap, courtesy of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake – is a trip back in time, but there’s nothing artificial about the experience, no forced nostalgia other than the T-shirts they sell for $20. You learn from the sign out front that “First and Last Chance” is a reference to sailors’ first chance to drink when they get off the ship and last chance before heading back to sea.
The first thing you notice is the downward sloping wooden floor, also a result of the 1906 quake. Old-timers say it helped business, enabling sailors to tumble in and then have to fight their way up-slope to crawl out. Then you feel the cozy, not cloistered, feel of the room, just 18 by 22 feet.
Once your eyes adjust to the dimness, even at midday, you pick up on the truly antique features: overhead gas lamps, still operational (Billy the bartender lights one to demonstrate), a mirror behind the bar that is 105 years old, a mounted deer’s head from the 1890s, the original wood stove, a scorched ceiling (caused by creosote leeching out of the old wood and smoke from the stove) with money tacked up with sailors’ names scrawled on them. Near the back corner is a giant clock, stopped all these years with the hands at 5:12 – the exact time (a.m.) of the ’06 quake.
The only damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is a long crack running horizontally across the floor, amazing considering the bar’s age and decrepitude.
“We were still open that day,” Billy the bartender said. “We’ve never been closed up.”
And Heinold’s never will, if owner Carol Brookman, 82, has any say about it. She bought the place from the widow of George Heinold, Johnny’s son, in 1984. At the time, Brookman said, Heinold’s had fallen on hard times, as had Jack London Square itself. But Carol has poured considerable money into keeping the bar the same but adding modern touches like a fully stocked bar (man does not live by beer and martinis alone, apparently) and returning a neighborhood feel to the place.
“This where I had my first drink at 21,” she said, “a vodka martini. I loved the place, but I knew it was having trouble. The two fellas running the place for Mrs. Heinold – she never came down – were just ruining it. It was terrible. It was a real dive. They were feeding 16-year-old girls drinks. So when I heard she was wanting to sell, I jumped. There’s no other bar in the entire world that I would’ve been interested in.”
Brookman doesn’t look as if she was sent by central casting. She has a business degree, dresses in a smart pantsuit and wears bifocals on a glittery chain while peering at her computer in her cramped office in the back. She says she works every day to keep Heinold’s afloat; she even tended bar for the first 10 years of her ownership.
Business, she says, has never been better. Heinold’s gets an interesting mix of local regulars and tourists, as well as “people who haven’t been here in 50 years and want to see if we’re still around,” Billy the bartender said.
“The great thing is,” Brookman added, “you never know who’s going to walk in the front door. Could be actors, politicians, ballplayers. Everybody.”
Everyone from Clark Gable to President William Howard Taft has bellied up to the bar. Shirley Temple made an appearance, though it’s doubtful she ordered a Shirley Temple. Lots of stories, some true, make the rounds from Brookman and longtime barflies. Brookman recalls that most stars didn’t get special treatment. A story Brookman likes to tell is the time John Wayne sat at a table near the front, and waiter Charley Fitzgibbon apparently didn’t recognize the famous actor. The waiter greeted the Duke by saying, “Hey, mister, you must be somebody important because you’ve got a face like a hubcap.”
She laughed when asked if she ever gets tired telling the same Heinold’s stories over and over.
“Not at all,” she said. “That’s what this place is here for.”