Broadway’s Beat Museum Seeks to expand minds and exhibition space, and add a café
Strolling up Broadway from the Embarcadero after the Women’s March early this year, I was flushed with refreshed empowerment, purpose, and a sense of unity, having just tramped from City Hall to the Ferry Building with four of my favorite THD ladies—and almost 100,000 other shining and fearless San Franciscans. As I approached Columbus, I felt myself at a nexus of creativity and resistance: squinting, I could make out City Lights; one of the anti-Trump signs constantly emblazoned in happy-face yellow on Tony Serra Law Offices’ building; and beyond it, The Beat Museum. All this coalesced in a single, gilded vista of how our heritage could also be The Future.
Wistfully, I recalled one of my favorite opening lines in American literature, from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.” I’ve only lived here twelve years, but I sometimes catch myself not really looking around anymore, often distracted by the daily havoc. How easy it can be, in these days of socio-political inanity, to take for granted these landmarks we walk among in our beloved North Beach! When was the last time I’d been to, say, The Beat Museum? What’s really happening there? I wondered.
As it turns out, a great deal indeed. I stopped in soon afterward to chat with founder and director Jerry Cimino and some of the fine folks behind the counter so stacked with books they might as well just build the counter out of books. Jerry began The Beat Museum in 2003in Monterey, moving it to Broadway between the Peter Macchiarini Steps and Columbus Avenue in 2006 because, in his words, “It soon became apparent that the true home to any museum honoring and archiving the Beat Generation would be here in North Beach.”
Fifteen years later, The Beat Museum is scheduled for earthquake retrofitting, and Jerry sees this necessary construction as ideal timing to redesign and expand the Museum’s physical vision. The plans include a mezzanine on all sides that would dramatically increase exhibition space, while keeping the overall layout open and light. He shows me renderings of a proposed front side-walk café, an heir apparent to the café culture that was so emblematic of the Beats. I can’t help but marvel at what an indoor-outdoor counterculture café would do to enhance the aforementioned vista of Broadway and Columbus. Imagine being able to buy a first edition or reissue, tuck in with a cappuccino or cabernet, and take in the breezy crossroads that, even before Haight-Ashbury, was the cornerstone of San Francisco Resistance. I leave wanting to see this project happen for the neighborhood’s sake.
I decide to go back for an in-depth tour of the museum itself. A natural, affable docent, Jerry leads me into the exhibitions at the rear and upstairs, far behind what you can see from the entry’s book and gift shops. As he presents Gary Snyder’s original sketchbooks, he explains that the Museum frequently becomes the home to archives and curiosities such as clothing and motorcycles, as well as original papers, writing, letters, and art. Innumerable boxes are opened to confirm his claims: The Museum has been entrusted with relics so rare and valuable—and voluminous—that, as Jerry says, “If we had five times the space, we could fill it!” I leave wanting to see this project happen for the archives’ sake.
The next time I visit The Beat Museum, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has happened, and since there’s no café to repair to yet, Jerry invites me upstairs into the museum, where we talk sotho-voce in overstuffed couches as visitors meander by. In spite of the tragedy, we’re both energized by the students’ powerful responses (so much so that Emma Gonzales has been featured in the video on their Patreon page). “I was wondering when this generation was going to reclaim its power,” he says. We trace them back to the protesters of the Gulf and Vietnam Wars, Feminism, the Hippies, and so forth. “But every generation, every revolution comes back to the Beats,” Jerry says. I leave wanting to see this project happen for the kids’—the Future’s—sake.
The Museum’s landlord, the Chinatown Community Development Center, will be footing the bill for the retrofit, but the Museum itself is writing the checks for any tenant improvements, which is why they’ve launched a Patreon page to invite the participation of investors at all levels, especially what they call potential “Beat Angels.” Jerry notes that, historically, museums need serious benefactors to survive, and so far they’ve been getting by on some individual donations, a rather modest museum admission (Jerry offers an “or-your-money-back” guarantee of satisfaction), and gift and book sales, but those barely keep the lights on as-is. He’s hoping that folks who see the value—the necessary and timely message—of the Beat Generation will understand the even greater value it can bestow upon emerging generations.
As our beloved neighbor and Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it, “Everything the Beats stood for was the opposite of the dominant culture today.” And that’s reason enough for me to open my eyes, look around, and remain resolutely up-Beat.
Located at 540 Broadway, The Beat Museum is host to a variety of free literary and musical events—often featuring THD community members—and is open for browsing, exhibits, and tours from 10 am to 7 pm daily. Please check out their full roster at https://www.kerouac.com, and by all means, head over to their Patreon page.
This article is published in the print edition of The Semaphore: A Publication of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Issue 221, Spring 2018, and is republished here with permission.