Sam McManis

Discoveries: Beat generation lives in San Francisco museum

SAN FRANCISCO – I sported no requisite pointy Van Dyke beard; no facial hair at all, in fact. I was bereft of a beret, left my cool shades in the car's glove compartment and wore running shoes instead of authentic huarache sandals.

No, daddy-o, I'm not Beat – neo- or otherwise.

But that did not disqualify me from admittance to the Beat Museum, a way-cool, two-story North Beach edifice cater-corner from the iconic City Lights bookstore, that depicts a period of San Francisco history when hipsters (or should it be hepcats?) walked the earth.

You remember the Beats, right? It was that literary cabal featuring Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and the like, who boldly ventured forth into the underbelly of '50s America. Forerunners of the '60s hippies, Beats espoused free love, free-verse poetry (bongo drums not included) and free association prose when Haight-Ashbury flower children were still in diapers and playing with blocks.

For a mere $8, even the squarest of conformists like me can get a taste of the Beat ethos and come away with a newfound respect for this "lost generation" that, in retrospect, seemed almost presciently ahead of its time.

As Jerry Cimino, the tight-black-T-shirt-wearing museum founder, mused as we sat on authentic '50s style Beat easy chairs, "I wanted to push the values of the Beat generation, which I consider tolerance, compassion and sympathy for your fellow man. Their motto seems to be, 'We don't care who you are, what you look like or what you're into. As long as you're not hurting anyone else, come join our party.' "

To punctuate his point, Cimino, 59, greeted each museumgoer who sauntered by. To a 20-something with a full beard and San Francisco Giants hat, he said, "You digging this, brother? We can put you on our mailing list. Won't spam you." To a middle-aged woman with a fanny pack and gleaming white tennis shoes, he said, "Let me know if I can help explain anything to you."

Cimino was born too late to be a Beat, of course. But he says chronological age shouldn't matter; being Beat is a state of mind. It's not a religion (though several Beats were drawn to Buddhism), it's more a way of seeing the world.

"Everything people today see as normal – or progressive, I guess – such as racial equality, gender equality, gay and lesbian rights, even environmentalism, was of huge concern of the beats," he said. "I was a history major in college and recognize how the '50s changed things. There wouldn't have been a 1967 if there hadn't been a 1957."

Part ambassador, part avid collector, Cimino opened the museum 10 years ago in Monterey, where his wife, Estelles, ran a bookstore-coffeehouse. But he always knew the venue had to be in North Beach, the nexus of the culture back in the day.

So, in 2006, they moved the entire collection – every swirling abstract and quirky Dadaist painting, every scrawled manuscript and weathered black-and-white photograph – to a 5,000- square-foot space that includes a small movie theater showing Beat documentaries and big displays showing off Kerouac's famous checkered wool jacket, Neal Cassady's zebra-striped "referee shirt" and an organ that Ginsberg used to play.

Lest the Beat museum take itself too seriously and descend into pomposity, there also are kitschy items. Example: a 1965 National Enquirer cover with the blaring headline, "Barbra Streisand Moans: I WAS HAPPIER AS A BEATNIK."

Much of the collection comes from Cimino, but lately he's seen a spike of donations from outsiders. It could be related to the 2012 film "On the Road." In fact, the beat-up 1949 Packard – a reproduction of Cassady's classic car – on display near the gift shop was donated by the director of "On the Road," Walter Salles.

"Once we put it out there, people just started bringing us stuff," Cimino said. "It's really kind of a Beat way of doing it. Stuff just shows up in the mail. Guy walked in one day and handed us Kerouac's jacket he purchased at auction. A lot of the stuff came from people in North Beach, saying, like, 'Hey, (Gregory) Corso once owned this."

Aging Beats, such as City Lights founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his 90s, still pop in. (But he takes umbrage if you call him a Beat, Cimino said, "He says, 'I was a Bohemian who published the Beats.' ")

Offspring of the Beats, such as Cassady's son, occasionally show up to see how the museum is progressing.

Celebrity sightings are the norm. Kristen Stewart, one of the stars of "On The Road," has visited. The other day, Cimino said, Owen Wilson dropped by and got behind the wheel of the Packard. Cult movie director John Waters is a regular. And there are Beat devotees you wouldn't expect, such as former wrestler-cum-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Eccentric magician Penn Jillette was so impressed by the museum that he wrote about it in his latest book. Not only that, Jillette stripped and posed naked before the photo of Ginsberg and Corso.

"He really dug what Ginsberg said about how the poet 'stands naked in front of the world,' " said Cimino, who posted the naked Jillette photo on the store's blog.

And taped on the checkout counter of the gift shop is an autograph Jillette left behind, bearing this inscription: "For a Beat fan, beatnik, peacnik, old hippie capitalist guy like me, this is the only museum that matters."


The museum at 540 Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach area is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Cost is $8 for adults; $5 for students and seniors. More information:

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.