Bookin' It to the Bar

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"Reading is for dorks," the bouncer tells me as a group of 20-somethings approaches the bar. "What do you guys think about reading in bars?" he asks them. "Fuck that," says the first one. "Depends what time of day it is," the second says. The third is too flustered to respond, producing from his pocket a temporary paper ID in addition to his long-expired license. The doorman scrutinizes the document, eventually letting him enter.

I’m standing outside Hobson's Choice, a rum-punch bar in the Haight that happens to have a great reading loft on the second floor: comfy chairs, relative quiet, good light. Several other bars around the city are also good for reading: Hotel Utah, with its northwest facing windows; the often-quiet lounge at Empress of China, with its stellar view of North Beach; and 21 Club, which offers both anonymity and a front-row view of bizarre Tenderloin theater.

But the bouncer at Hobson’s Choice doesn't actually think reading is for dorks; he's mocking the type of person who can't understand why anyone would read at a bar – those who might actually believe that reading is for dorks. And as I’ve recently discovered while searching for a good watering hole in which to read and imbibe, there are plenty of people who disapprove of the practice.

"WTF?" writes one commenter in a Yelp thread from 2010 titled "Reading at bars????" Bars aren’t libraries, he continues, adding that Bukowski himself would never have done such a thing. In a 2008 post, another Yelper writes, "If you ever see me reading anything other than a menu at the bar, please slap the piss out of me." Duly noted.

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These sentiments are hardly rare. Even Vesuvio, on Jack Kerouac Alley in North Beach, which sits below the office of late author Richard Brautigan, isn't a safe haven: Mark Petrus, a bartender at the Gold Cane (an excellent place to read if you can snag the big table next to the window in front), recalls two women scoffing at him as he read alone in the Beat-era bar, home to more than a few poetry readings itself. Up the street at the swanky martini spot Tony Nik's, I ask bartender Sebastian Scala for his thoughts on the subject. "I have a strong opinion," says the no-nonsense barman. "You've got your home and you can read there. You're taking a roster spot when you read at my bar. People engage here."

While I understand his point, I don't think it holds water (or wine, as the case may be). Jeff Burkhart, for example, could tell you that reading has facilitated some of his best barroom interactions. Jeff is the author of the recently published Twenty Years Behind Bars, a book of riotous stories he's collected during his time tending the stick at Lark Creek Steak downtown and several other Bay Area restaurants – and if it weren't for book-reading bar goers, he might never have been published. The Marin resident tells me about a husband-wife duo who regularly came to one of the bars where he worked. Nearly every night, the couple sat at the bar to read, each with their own book. One evening as they pored away, Jeff asked them what they were reading, eventually learning they were book publishers. To date, they've published 13 of his projects.

Jeff tells me of another serendipitous encounter. A man was reading and scribbling notes at the bar when Jeff engaged him in conversation. Fred said he was an author and mentioned that he had written 14 works of fiction and nonfiction as well as articles for National Geographic, the New York Times, and other publications of their pedigree. "I thought for sure he was exaggerating," Jeff says. A week later, a package full of signed and personalized tomes by none other than Fred Turner arrived at the bar with Jeff's name on them.

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Reading at bars has also proven a boon to more than a few people’s love lives. San Francisco poet and bartender Jason Morris keeps a small note inside of his wallet that, not long ago, a mysterious woman left for his friend at a bar in Brooklyn. Setting his book on a table, Jason’s friend got up to use the bathroom. When he returned, there was a note inside his book: "Men who read in bars make women swoon," the backside of a matchbook read. He never found out who the mystery woman was, but I presume reading in bars has become a staple of his game ever since.

Read the “right” thing at the bar and you might just get a freebie out of it. Nicole McFeely, a bartender at Club Deluxe and a contributor at Litseen (an aggregator and promoter of San Francisco literary events), tells me her favorite reading bar is the Little Shamrock – in part, no doubt, because recently, as she sat at the bar turning the pages of a book by Henry Miller, the bar’s owner bought her a shot of Jameson as a tip of his hat to her good taste. Done up in orange-and-green stained-glass chandeliers and soccer flags, and appointed with past-prime living room chairs and couches, this Inner Sunset spot – not too bright, not too dark – makes a fine place to crack a book.

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Not surprisingly, all of these bars exude a certain something that's conducive to reading. After all, you won't find anyone elbowing their way through a dark, crowded, loud bar to devour an Agatha Christie novel. A place like Specs’, recently profiled in The Bold Italic by one Broke-Ass Stuart, is the kind of place you go to read. "We applaud that," Specs’ bartender Michael Crim tells me. Sure, it's a bit dim, but the sense of bohemian San Francisco history here is palpable, with the out-of-tune piano in back and decades of collected odds and ends on display. It just feels right. Plus, as Stuart noted, San Francisco's Poet Laureate, Jack Hirschman, pops in each Wednesday.

At least one bar in the city, however, has led me astray. With a name like Two Sisters Bar and Books, an establishment should at least be bright enough for its patrons to peruse said books. Walking into the microbus-size restaurant and bar in Hayes Valley, I see a man, table for one, with a book propped up on a stand. It's so dark he's using a reading light. As he leaves, I ask him if he reads here often. He doesn't, he says, but he likes to read at Pause Wine Bar just down the street.

"People who engage in solitary activity are viewed with lots of suspicion," he says when I ask him why people might take issue with bar readers. "But I can't read anywhere else. I need the background noise and the activity. Bars are hubs." This from a guy who hasn't had a drink in 25 years.

The British humorist Kingsley Amis touches on this idea of bars as hubs – the central gathering grounds for a community – in his hilariously wry handbook On Drink. Amis bemoans the modern bar and its all-too-loud music, which, he argues, serves only to distract patrons from doing what bars were made for: drinking and chatting.

Even in 1972, when the book was published, Amis was onto something. And his words resonate even more in an era when many bars are pumped full of television, and precious elbow space is crowded with video games. And then there’s the almighty cell phone. Most drinkers are at least as interested in their iPhones as they are in their companions, yet – perhaps against the odds – our local watering holes are still hubs. People still pull up a stool to escape, hook up, break up, watch sports, get loaded, chat with friends, mope, play cards, write, and, of course, read. Some of them might even be reading on the same device they use to text and surf the Web (though sloshing a few drops of your cocktail on an iPad has much graver consequences than spilling on a paperback).

Besides, in order for bar reading to pose any kind of legitimate threat to our social fabric, many more people would have to do it. And as long as the “reading is for dorks” crowd exists, I think we’ll be safe from the tyranny of book-toting tipplers.

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Some of my favorite bars to read in, and the spots that make them prime, include: the front window at 21 Club, the lounge at Empress of China, the front table at the Gold Cane, the lofted lounge at Hobson’s Choice, a window seat at Hotel Utah Saloon, the couches at the Little Shamrock, the wooden bench at Specs’, and the balcony at Vesuvio. Of course, I rarely wait until midnight to crack a book; most of these spots make good reading nooks because, during the day, natural light is plentiful and crowds are minimal.

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Published on November 20, 2012, 2012

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