The Beat Generation Bagel Shop That Didn’t Sell Bagels
By the late 1950s, even the newspaper reports out of San Francisco sounded like excerpts from Jack Kerouac novels. “In a sweaty, smoky room no bigger than most living rooms, we sat elbow to elbow, the faithful and the curious, hugging our espresso cups, nursing our beer, sipping our wine at tiny tables set on sawdust,” Associated Press reporter Saul Pett wrote in 1959. “The walls held signs and hand-printed notes heralding jazz sessions and poetry readings, a big Cub Scout pennant featuring the words, ‘Be Square,’ assorted posters and scrawled questions, commands and legends such as: ‘Juice from a sun-kissed albatross.’ ‘Did you dig Gig?’ ‘Have you seen the castrated angel?’ ‘Read the testament from the underground.’”
This particular testament from the underground was a description of Co-Existence Bagel Shop in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood that gained national attention as the home of the Beat movement. Along with Caffè Trieste and Coffee Gallery, as well as nightspots like The Place and The Cellar, this short-lived establishment at the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street became a headquarters for dissipated poets, student intellectuals, and artsy bums. It supplied everything a Beat could possibly need: caffeine, alcohol, chess, food. Francis J. Rigney and L. Douglas Smith, who make a sociological study of the place in their 1961 book The Real Bohemia, described it as “the brunch wagon for members of the community.” But the one item that probably wasn’t on its menu? Bagels.
As eclectic as its clientele, the Bagel Shop was a unique hybrid of stereotypical Beat coffeehouse and real Jewish deli—one whose “oddly delicious macaroni salad” the author Jim Harrison still remembered fondly decades later. “They had a cold counter and served sandwiches and coffee and beer and wine,” says Brandon Loberg of San Francisco’s Beat Museum. He could confirm that a photo exists of Bagel Shop owner Jay Hoppe sitting at a table in the shop with The Place proprietor Leo Krikorian, “both munching on bagels.”
It seems likely that the image was a bit of an in-joke, though. A Chicago Daily Tribune reporter noted in 1958 that Co-Existence “never sold a bagel in its history.” Charles Fracchia, the founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, often visited the cafe during his mid-’50s college days. “It was always crowded, lots of smoke,” Fracchia recalls. “Lots of whooping it up.” But he can’t remember ever seeing a bagel served either.
That’s not to say the bagel reference was necessarily beatnik nonsense. “The idea of the bagel, because it was Jewish, seemed vaguely incendiary, as did the idea of co-existence,” former US poet laureate Robert Hass told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. Loberg agrees that because “North Beach was Italian, it may have been seen as subversive to put ‘bagel’ in the title.”
Like many of his Beat-era neighbors, Hoppe essentially disappeared from the historical record when his cafe closed, so we may never know whether the Bagel Shop’s young proprietor intended its name to read as provocative or simply bizarre. But the place certainly became a target of the straight world’s ire in its final years, as the focal point of an SFPD initiative nicknamed the “beatnik patrol” and home base of the cops’ most enthusiastic antagonist: poet Bob Kaufman.
More than just a hangout for writers, the Bagel Shop was also a performance space that hosted open mics. “If you wanted to read a poem, and maybe have some guy with a saxophone playing in the background, that was all very much a part of the zeitgeist of the place,” Fracchia recalls. And for Kaufman, any afternoon at the Bagel Shop could become an open mic. His spontaneous readings grew so popular that fans sometimes camped out in hopes he’d drop by.
Kaufman is a fascinating figure too rarely mentioned among the marquee names of the Beat Generation. Born in 1925 to a black mother and a Jewish father, he was one of the few prominent writers of color in a circle that took much of its inspiration from African-American jazz musicians. Among Kaufman’s best-known works is “Bagel Shop Jazz,” which describes the cafe’s patrons—male and female, black and white, clad in turtlenecks and dark tights—as “Nightfall creatures, eating each other / Over a noisy cup of coffee.”
It wasn’t a lack of talent that kept Kaufman from becoming as famous as writers like Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In a posthumous profile for The American Poetry Review, his younger contemporary A. D. Winans called him “arguably the most intelligent of all the Beat poets and writers, including Ginsberg” —who happened to be one of Kaufman’s co-editors at the era-defining Beatitude magazine. As a radical in a scene full of largely apolitical individualists, he simply preferred the more democratic life of a street poet.
The beatnik patrol, led by Officer William Bigarani —who Loberg says “saw himself as being on the frontlines of a culture war”—gave Kaufman the opportunity to put his anti-authoritarian ideals into action. It’s not entirely clear why the cops devoted so much attention to Co-Existence Bagel Shop, but Loberg hypothesizes that “it had to do with the fact that it was open during the daytime, and that it was a very visible gathering place.” Fracchia recalls that a single vendetta could be enough to turn the SFPD against an establishment. “The police department, particularly in those days, was a very tight-knit operation,” he says. “If they had some sort of dislike for a place, that place would be targeted.”
Kaufman ended up in jail so often that the Bagel Shop put out a can to collect bail money for him. His most notorious face-off with Bigarani happened when the patrolman spotted a poem Kaufman had posted in the cafe’s window likening him to Adolf Hitler. As Loberg tells it, “He’s infuriated and marches into the Bagel Shop to tear the thing down, out of the window. As he’s doing so, he feels a warm sensation on his leg. He looks over and Bob Kaufman has his pants unzipped and he’s urinating on Bigarani’s leg.”
Not that Kaufman was the only person to get arrested at the Bagel Shop. In The Streets of San Francisco, his book on law enforcement in mid-century San Francisco, Christopher Lowen Agee tells the story of 20-year-old Wendy Murphy, whom Bigarani arrested outside the Bagel Shop in the wee hours of the morning. Her crime: walking around barefoot because her sandal had broken. If the cops couldn’t catch anyone committing a real crime, they could always fall back on a catch-all vagrancy charge. Even Hoppe himself ended up in custody during the spring of 1960, after an incident in which a neighborhood character known as “Mad Marie” clobbered him with a brick.
Six months later, on October 12, Hoppe shut down Co-Existence Bagel Shop. “I am tired of having to deal with a sick city administration and a psychopathic police department,” he declared. “I am tired of San Francisco and I never want to see it again.” But simple economics may have had as much to do with the cafe’s demise as Bigarani. In his guidebook The Beat Generation in San Francisco, Bill Morgan points out that patrons would occupy a table for hours after purchasing a single beverage and “the staff gave away too much potato salad.” By June 1961, the New Statesman noticed that the space had become a “sandals-and-jewelry shop.” Now the storefront at 1398 Grant Ave. houses a Chinese restaurant.
As it turns out, the demise of Co-Existence coincided with the waning of what is sometimes called the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Toward the end of the 1950s, the media got a hold of Beat culture. Beatnik poseurs started flocking to North Beach and crowding out the artists—a pattern that would repeat itself over and over in the decades that followed, from Haight-Ashbury to Williamsburg.
It may not have survived into the present, the way Caffè Trieste has, but Co-Existence Bagel Shop did live long enough to inspire a similar establishment thousands of miles away. In 1959, the AP reported that police in DC were blocking a 24-year-old “bearded beatnik” from opening a cafe called the Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Club, “patterned somewhat after the Co-Existence Bagel Shop.” Ultimately, the coffeehouse not only opened, but went down in history as the place where a teenage Jim Morrison gave his first public performance. And the funny thing is, the Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Club really did sell bagels.