Lost, in North Beach

Walking down Columbus Avenue in North Beach early last evening I was dismayed to see so many empty, boarded up storefronts. North Beach was the first neighborhood I grew to know when I moved to San Francisco in 2008. I lived in the soulless Golden Gateway apartments on Battery Street, and North Beach was a short walk away.

Nearly all my favorite shops and restaurants are gone, along with the people who owned them. A few favorites remain: Il Pollaio, with it’s grilled chicken and salad dinners, and Jimmy Schein in his antique print and frame shop on Upper Grant. City Lights Bookstore remains a beacon of literary civilization.

My friend Conor Fennessey abandoned his antique and design shop years ago, a victim of his own fate. Essentially a scoundrel and a thief—but oh what a charming scoundrel and thief!—Conor was blessed with exquisite taste mixed up with Irish wit and an unerring eye to detect an easy sucker to overpay for whatever he was selling.

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Nothing in Conor Fennessey Antiques was priced, and everything was expensive. It was commonly understood that Conor would size up a potential customer and price the desired object in question accordingly.

His Yelp reviews were awful. People would come into the shop and ask the price of let’s say a chair and Conor would off the top of his head say $5,500. When the astonished customer would respond with something like, “wow, that’s really expensive,” Conor would look them up and down behind his large black glasses and reply, “well, then I guess it’s not for you.”

Once, when foot traffic and sales were lagging, Conor decided to have a sale, and posted a sign in the front window announcing 20% Sale on Selected Items. As always, nothing in the large store was priced or otherwise marked. Customers would walk in and not seeing any evidence of a sale, ask politely, “which items are on sale?” If Conor suspected the person was merely a tourist walking up Columbus from Fisherman’s Wharf, he would tell them, “the sale is over.” If they looked more promising, he might ask, “what are you interested in?” Then the dance would begin. The customer would point to an item, and Conor would say, “oh, that’s not on sale today.” Or, he might say, “that’s $1,200” to which the customer would come back, “is that the 20% sale price?” and Conor would confirm ,”yes.” All pricing was entirely arbitrary. Inevitably, the customer would become annoyed and muttering some insult, leave the shop.

Eventually Conor’s shady financial dealings with consignees caught up with him and he had to close the store. Nothing was ever the same after that, and too few years later Conor died of a heart attack.

Conor was a special friend, one who showed me a side of San Francisco I would never have known—from the 21 Club bar in the Tenderloin where the Fijian owner would hand me my Diet Coke as cheerfully as serving up hard liquor to the drag queens, prostitutes, and the near homeless regular clientele, to his fancy Pacific Heights friends like Dede Wilsey.

Bill Haskell’s quirky French flea market shop Aria on Upper Grant is gone.

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Yone SF is gone—as one Yelp reviewer wrote: Yone is AMAZING!  Seriously, you rarely find places with as much character and uniqueness as this store.  Such a gem.  However, it is the kind of place you should only visit if you have a lot of time and are mentally prepared to fall into another world… totally fairy tale.

Rose Pistola—once the most famous Italian restaurant in the city—gone. So many others, too numerous to relate.

Washington Square is entirely closed and fenced for reconstruction that while not permanent gives the focal point of the neighborhood a desolate, unconstructed air.

I’m told it’s rising rents from greedy landlords, coupled with the length of time it takes to get permitted. The small independent shops can no longer make it.

I’ve been drawn to these tiny one-of-a-kind shops my entire life. And nearly all are gone, the most poignant, and painful, being my beloved Patina Antiques on Bleecker Street in the West Village in New York—gone now for decades.

The size of a shoebox, Patina Antiques was owned by a modest and quiet gay guy and his much younger handsome equally quiet lover. They specialized in small objects of unimaginable oddity and uniqueness.

Years after I left the Village—our apartment was on 5th Avenue at Ninth Street—I learned that the store was robbed and the young assistant murdered during the robbery. The day after, the owner shot himself in grief.

These losses weigh heavily on my heart, some, like Patina Antiques, because of the time in my life it occupied; and others, like Conor Fennessey, because of my friendship with him, and the time we together spent unearthing a city I didn’t know.

And one loss leads to another, the loss of my marriage with my wife weighing me down most recently, and sadly.  Inconstancy comes in many disguises.  When disguised as love, its appearance hurts the most.

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