Heart of the City Archives

Self-portrait of Mister SF at Sears.









The final flapjack for auld lang syne
by Hank Donat

Just in time for Christmas came word that Sears Fine Food on Powell Street would close this week after 65 years in business as San Francisco's world famous stop for Swedish pancakes.

Located at 439 Powell since 1964, Sears closed Monday, just days after the financially beleaguered owners, the Boyajian family, went public with plans to shut down. (The original location is 529 Powell Street. Today it's the Tempura House restaurant.)

Almost as soon as locals heard of the planned closure, ghost stories of breakfast past ran like syrup. As Sears was a hot spot for both the rich and famous and the poor and obscure alike, many reminiscences of Sears include celebrity sightings.

The best I could offer was that I sat next to one of the Baldwin brothers once in 1989, though it was a lesser Baldwin. I think it was the one who went on to play Barney Rubble in the Flintstones sequel. I saw Anthony Hopkins in line once as well. The Hannibal actor blended into the familiar crowd that spilled out onto the sidewalk on weekends but wasnÕt enough to keep Sears afloat.

Having documented several departing San Francisco institutions over the years I've been known to use the phrase, "this one hurts." Doing so always incites someone to remind me that they all hurt. It hurts each time the city becomes less the city in our memories.

Many still remember Sears' beloved maitre d', Sidney Amber. When he died in 1995 at age of 109, Mr. Amber had gained acclaim as the oldest San Franciscan, making numerous appearances on national television including Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show.

Before he went to work at Sears, Mr. Amber had retired several times. Among his careers were stints as an amateur boxer, a tuxedo salesman, sign painter, display artist and manager, retail wrapper, graphic artist, and shopkeeper.

There might not be a better role model than Sidney Amber for someone who adapted to the changing city. Born in 1886, he was already 50 when Herb Caen, whom he nearly outlived, arrived in San Francisco in 1936!

Perhaps like the Boyajian family, math gives me a headache.

More horror by the numbers! In June, 2002, the 711 Club, 711 Market Street, closed after a lifetime as one of the city's best dive bars. It had its roots in an era when Market Street was brimming with gin joints and nightclubs.

At the dawn of 2004, the remodeled 711 Market Street is poised to open as a 7-Eleven convenience store.

In a city where chain stores are as welcome as malignant tumors, even the crack addicts were surprised when a 7-Eleven opened on Market Street near Sixth last January.

Paul's Place, 38 First Street, was the city's last self-identified sailorsÕ bar. It closed last week on Christmas Eve.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Today's publication date is the day before New Year's Eve. My own year-end look at 2003 plays in my mind like a flip-book of San Francisco, where world events like war and mundane things like paperclips and parking spaces go by so fast they make a picture of a city, an inexplicable outpost by a bay, a mirage.

Anti-war demonstrations and tulips in the spring... friendships won and lost... cioppino at the Old Clam House on Bayshore... Green Street mortuary band... Chinese dragons... kids and dogs... drag queens and kings... an Ocean Beach bonfire... socialites and heavyweights, Arnie...

Gavin Newsom or Matt Gonzalez? Who cares; just don't close my laundromat, my burger joint, or my coffeehouse. New Asian Art Museum, new Jewish Community Center, new police chief... Ciao Florence Deli, Royal Theatre, Compass Rose; hello 12:01 on the Ferry Building clock.

The freeway is down; stocks are up... Earthquakes, Litquake... The wicked Donna Sachet, "Wicked," BART to SFO... Vice mayor, whaaaaat?

Corporate gay parade, wild parrots, street fair fish and chips, movie stars, sales clerks, jasmine, orange blossoms and everywhere you look homeless, homeless, homeless...

Comedy in the Park, Conservatory of Flowers, Chris Daly, ground breakings, ribbon cuttings, pink slips and the Pink Section, Blue Angels (good riddance), Lois Lane, Edwin Heaven writes like hell...

Mayor Willie Brown and top cop Alex Fagan, in a last hurrah together, ushered in the Young Black Stallion at the Metreon's IMAX Theatre as a benefit for 600 young San Franciscans.

Eddie MullerÕs Film Noir Festival at the Castro Theatre reintroduced audiences to some of the best cinematic documents of the city including "Woman on the Run" from 1950.

The Zaricor Flag collection at the Presidio was an unprecedented exhibit of historic American flags.

The Wright BrothersÕ flying machine came to the Presidio in 2003, too!

Should all these things be left behind? Darned if I know. I'm just a San Franciscan who "forgot to remember to forget," as the old song goes. I'm just a hill dweller with a taste for VictorÕs Pizza and yesterday. That is, until I remember Sidney Amber.

I met Mr. Amber many times in the 1980s. Then he had already lived in San Francisco throughout no end of changes for an entire century. He knew that all these things for which we mourn, while at the core of our memories, are only on the surface of real life. What makes San Francisco unique and inviting is something else. It's something that endures.

Let's all remember Mr. Amber and shout, "Onward!" at midnight on New Year's Eve. If not, start searching for a golden cave somewhere under the Golden Gate.

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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