You can’t swing a fountain pen in San Francisco without hitting a spot of literary significance. Who can say exactly what has drawn some of the world’s most famous writers—from Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett to the famous generation of beat writers and a host of contemporary writers like Daniel Handler and Dave Eggers? Writers flock to San Francisco, with notebooks or iBooks in hand. Here are some of the area’s favorite places for writers to pen their prose, mingle, read and let their hair down.
Cafés and writers have always been a natural fit. At CAFFE TRIESTE (various locations) there’s the instant access to caffeine, the well-worn chairs and the white noise of espresso machines and ambient conversation to allow writers to do their work in peace. Caffe Trieste, however, isn’t just another sterile, large-chain café—though there are five locations. The original café is located in the trendy North Beach neighborhood, where it debuted in 1956 thanks to Italian immigrant Giovanni “Papa” Giotta, now 87 yeas old. It’s also the café where a young Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather. Famous writers, actors, singers and artists have for years enjoyed the café’s cluttered, old-world ambiance—their framed photographs still hang on the walls. On any given day, a rush of writers, faces hidden behind laptops or cappuccinos, can be found here while the jukebox belts out opera classics. Giotta takes great pride in the café’s coffee, which is roasted according to Italian traditions. His motto: “Brew each cup like it’s for you.”
And be sure to check out the MAKE-OUT ROOM (3225 22nd St.). Maybe it’s the festive Mylar strips that hang from the ceiling like a party about to happen, the shiny diner-style booths or just the suggestive name of this popular bar that’s helped make it a favorite among writers—and not just for a casual get-together, but also for big literary events. One popular event, the “Progressive Reading Series,” founded by author and Salon columnist Stephen Elliott, takes place every election season. The series helps authors raise money through literary events to benefit progressive candidates on the third Saturday of every month. This series, which began January 19 and finishes on September 20, features Aimee Bender, Glen David Gold and Katie Crouch. Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, is part of this year’s series and says she loves reading at this venue. “Readings at the Make-Out Room are always packed,” Richmond says. “For me, it’s much easier to read to a crowded room than a small group. It doesn’t hurt that everyone in the audience is at least one cocktail into the evening. The proceeds go to a good cause, and you can say whatever you like.” (One caveat: the Make-Out Room is strictly a “21 and over” club.)
It’s almost criminal to visit San Francisco and not pay tribute to the history of the beat generation who gathered, howled and launched a ground-breaking genre of writing that continues to influence contemporary writers. At the epicenter of the beats’ favorite haunts, and still a favorite, is VESUVIO (255 Columbus Ave.), a café and bar with just the right degree of dark, moody ambiance to appeal to the most tortured of writers, but with a reputation for great food and beer, too. Paying homage to its Northern California roots, the bar features a menu of “eco-friendly” drinks made with organic alcohol. Stairs lead to a balcony-ensconced upper level where writers and artists alike scribble or sketch with a tall glass of Hefeweizen in hand. Downstairs, at bar level, patrons can eat and socialize at the same time (and often do). On its busiest nights, you’re lucky to get a table, but there’s always standing room.
Established in 1948 (then as a “saloon”), Vesuvio made its mark worldwide when beat poet Neal Cassady, the real-life counterpart to Jack Kerouac’s fictional Dean Moriarty in On the Road, stopped at the café for a drink. Cassady’s buddies, most notably Kerouac himself, claimed it as a regular hangout. Hollywood has also taken notice of Vesuvio. Movies starring Jennifer Lopez (Enough) and Ashley Judd (High Crimes and Blackout) were filmed here. And lit lovers and writers will be pleased to know that the café is also directly across the street from the infamous CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE (261 Columbus Ave.).
Under a dark green awning in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood sprouts an apple of a different kind, GREEN APPLE BOOKS (506 Clement St.). In the days of the ubiquitous, big-box, chain bookstore, the sheer number of independent bookstores still running in San Francisco is testament to the town’s literary nature. Yet Green Apple Books is consistently voted “the best bookstore in the Bay Area” above all others. The store is more than 40 years old and refers to itself as “a destination for bibliophiles.” What makes it a popular destination for writers? Who better than a creative type to appreciate its organic organization and the charm of its wildly stacked bookshelves. This is a bookstore that patrons refer to as a place to meander—because, with its influx of new and used books, its inventory changes daily. Kim Green, author of Paging Aphrodite and a San Francisco native, says of its funky charm: “Green Apple has that murky, labyrinthine quality that makes you believe some rare jewel meant for your eyes only lies buried in the stacks.”
Green Apple prides itself on its collection of new and used books, along with CDs and DVDs, and encourages people to come down any day of the week to buy, sell or trade. They also feature a regular warehouse clearance sale, called the “Apple Seed,” where they sell thousands of books at 50 to 75 percent off. And, if all that browsing makes you hungry, the bookstore is located in a neighborhood full of Asian markets and restaurants.
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