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San Francisco bar's loss of lease strikes vein of outrage

The Gold Dust Lounge, nearly a century old, is slated to be replaced by a fashion chain store. Support has poured in for the brothers who have long run the bar. They refused to go and have filed suit.

March 25, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • A crowd fills the Gold Dust Lounge on a recent Sunday. The bar once counted Janis Joplin and Jack LaLanne as regulars.
A crowd fills the Gold Dust Lounge on a recent Sunday. The bar once counted… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Francisco — The ceiling is painted with cherubs and voluptuous nudes, the maroon carpet so worn that one customer fondly calls the Gold Dust Lounge "classy and dirty at the same time."

Located near tourist-heavy Union Square, the storefront has been a watering hole since 1918 — save for short interruptions during Prohibition and a brief interlude when it housed a flower shop. But the cocktail lounge that once counted Janis Joplin and Jack LaLanne as regulars is now in a fight for its existence — an ugly fight.

Jim and Tasios Bovis, who have run the place since 1966, were told earlier this month by the shopping district's biggest landlord that their lease had been terminated. Handlery Hotels Inc. wants to close the Gold Dust down to make room for the fashion retailer Express.

The Greek-born octogenarians countered by filing a financial elder abuse lawsuit that claims a termination clause was added deceptively to their lease.

More than 4,500 backers have convened on Facebook to come to their defense. One designed a "Save the Gold Dust" shirt. Another has written songs denouncing the eviction, and a historic preservation consultant is spearheading a long-shot effort to get the bar deemed a landmark.

Handlery has responded by hiring crisis PR man Sam Singer, whose acerbic zingers have prompted bar backers to liken him to Snidely Whiplash. (Example: "Just because Janis Joplin vomited there doesn't make it historic." )

Meanwhile, old-time politicians are taking sides.

Former Mayor Willie Brown, who frequented the Powell Street lounge with the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen for decades, is urging a compromise. "There are some things for which capitalists should make exceptions," he wrote in a recent newspaper column. "The Gold Dust is one of them."

Former San Francisco supervisor and state Sen. Quentin Kopp has lined up behind the landlord. If anyone knows the city's bars, he said, it's him, "and I never heard of the Gold Dust Lounge. There's nothing extraordinary about it."

As the battle drags on, local lawmakers are considering proposals that could lessen the squeeze on family-owned businesses in the cable car corridor.

It is a familiar conversation focused on what many see as the city's fading character.

"It's not just a bar closing down," supporter and singer-songwriter Catherine Hill intones in one of two tracks about the spot where tourists and locals mingle. "This kind of thing's been happening all over town/ our family business, closing its doors / so our landlord can make a bit more / leasing our place to a big box chain / making this neighborhood all look the same."

Jim Bovis, 80 and brother Tasios, 82, tell it this way:

Paul Handlery was in charge in 1966 when Jim, who had saved his money tending bar nearby, leased the space formerly run as Bustles & Beaus. Bing Crosby had been a silent partner in that burlesque venture, they said, and an MGM set designer had painted the florid ceiling and spiced up the decor with the Victorian bric-a-brac and brass chandeliers.

Tasios came to the Gold Dust in 1970. Big-faced and barrel-chested, he worked nights, while Jim, who is slight with a gentle disposition, took days. Handlery or his property manager would sit down and inform them of any lease changes, they said.

But with Handlery's health failing, he passed the torch to his son, Jon, in 2001. Lease responsibilities shifted to corporate Chief Executive Arthur John Pekrul.

After that, the Bovis brothers said, yearly renewals were delivered with no chitchat, just oral assurance that nothing material had changed.

Records show, however, that the termination clause became increasingly favorable to Handlery. By March 2011, an eviction — which once required 18 months' notice and was triggered only by a planned building demolition — could be accomplished in 90 days for any reason at all.

The call informing the Bovises that negotiations were underway with another tenant came from Perkul's office in November.

"We were shocked," Jim said from the bar, his eyes tearing as he recalled how Jon Handlery had grown up being welcomed into the Bovis family. "I said, 'Come talk to me.' After 47 years, I think I earned that. But they don't want to … listen to our side."

Singer is unmoved. "Seven years ago, the Bovises were informed by the Handlery family that there would be an early termination clause," he said. "The Gold Dust Lounge can survive and thrive. It just has to move to another location."

The brothers might have done just that after learning that their lease would be terminated, if not for the outpouring from regulars who decried losing their haven to a chain store with an outlet three blocks away. Some made special trips to pay respects — including a Dominican man who rerouted his return from Canada to experience the Gold Dust one more time.

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