Drunk on Words at the Book Bar

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Writer Francisco X. Alarcon steps into the newest, tiniest, most mobile bar in the Mission, ready for a drink.

“You must be awfully thirsty after that reading,” says Michael Crane, one of three creators of the Book Bar.

A martini glass is out, but Crane fills it with water.

Alarcon laughs. He was hoping for a real drink, but the Book Bar, a library-meets-cocktail-lounge on a trailer, making its debut at Saturday night’s Lit Crawl, isn’t about alcohol.

“It’s all about drawing people in, teaching, entertaining and heightening awareness of the arts,” says artist Christopher Treggiari of the 8-by-5-foot installation that took him, Crane and James Gregg over two months to create.

It also tests a premise: Can the quirkiness of a book bar on wheels get pedestrians passing by to stop and turn a split second of interest into a minute or more of listening to literature?

The artists gently push their project from a curb on Valencia to Clarion Alley, the first stop on its three-sight tour. Through the evening, Lit Crawl will attract more than a thousand people, but there are hundreds of readings to choose from, and getting an audience to stop and linger is not always easy.

Nevertheless, Robin Ekiss, co-coordinator of Lit Crawl, thinks the bar has a good chance, because it’s in sync with the spirit of the Crawl. “One of the reasons we started this was to bring the culture of books and the culture of booze together,” she says. “It’s very San Francisco.”

A crowd begins to gather, and Ekiss watches as the artists unpack wine and martini glasses, a cocktail shaker and a stack of books, including “Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails” and “The Official Bartender’s and Party Guide.”

A man walking by stops. “The Divine Comedy,” “Too Much College,” “Persian and Japanese Literature” and other books are nailed randomly to the bar’s backdrop. “It looks like a science fair project,” he says.

Michelle Yovanovich, Crane’s wife, observes as her husband prepares to interview writer Skip Horack. “This has been pretty exciting watching them build this,” she says of the Book Bar. “It’s a labor of love for them.”

Horack reads from “The Rapture.” He wears a rust-colored, embroidered shirt and keeps his left hand in his jeans pocket. He describes one of his characters, a female exotic dancer from New Orleans. Behind him, pages from the wall of books flap in the wind.

When he’s done, Crane pours him a glass of water and begins the interview for the 15 people assembled around the moving stage. “I understand you spent some time as an attorney?”

“I’m a recovering attorney,” Horack replies to laughter. While practicing law in Louisiana, he was working on short stories. “Fiction is a lot about conflict, and the law is all about conflict,” he says.

By the time Horack is done, 25 people are leaning against the murals in the alley.

“Thanks for the water,” Horack says as he leaves the Book Bar.

“Hey, we aim to please,” Crane says.

Next, writer and stand-up comedian Tissa Hami reads from essays that will be part of a book on her Iranian-American upbringing.

“I understand you were voted one of the funniest female comedians by the San Francisco Chronicle,” Crane says when she’s finished.

“Yes, and I don’t know how it happened,” she replies. More laughter.

It’s time for the Book Bar to move on.

Jeff Klukowski, a friend of the artists, packs up the Honda EU inverter generator that keeps the lights and sound system going. Crane and the others ready the Book Bar, then wheel it back down the alley.  “Hot stuff, coming through,” Crane says.

The four-man crew hitches the Book Bar to a forest-green Ford Explorer waiting at the curb. Two of them jump in the car, and the other two ease the bar out into Valencia Street, toward Dog Eared Books.

It arrives to a common Mission dilemma — no open parking spots.

“If this is the worst thing that happens to us tonight, it’s a pretty darn good night,” Crane says.

A couple wanders up to the Book Bar and the man asks, “What is this?”

Crane tells him.

“So you just kind of drive around and…”

“Cause trouble? Yes. We figured the Mission was a natural place to do it.”

They linger for a few moments to check out the book titles on the wall.

“Hopefully we’ll be up and running soon, so come visit us,” Crane says.

Improvisation enters the equation. “Let’s just try that corner over there,” Treggiari says. They guide the Book Bar seven parking spots down the street. Cops arrive.

“I love San Francisco cops,” Treggiari decides after they give him permission to park the bar that was built in his studio on Folsom Street.

The artists begin to set up shop. But there’s a new problem: uneven streets. A tilted bar means drinks spilling all over the place.

“You’re gonna have to level it out,” someone says.

“Maybe we can stick some books under there,” says another.

“Yeah — books are overrated,” Crane says.

Klukowski rigs up the generator and plugs in two spotlights. A “swag resin globe” from Crane’s “collection of cool things” hangs from the metal bars that support the structure. It’s getting dark now, and already a crowd has gathered.

“Without further ado, Julia, come on up,” says Treggiari. “Be the next contestant of the Book Bar.”

Author Julia Scheeres heads for the bar stool, and faces Crane. Behind him are three shelves of glasses and a shelf full of bottles, including a 2007 Chablis Grand Cru from France.

He pours her a glass of water. “It’s our first year, so we didn’t get a liquor license,” he says.

Scheeres talks about her book, a history of Jonestown.

She tells the audience that they have to read the book to find out which of the five people she follows into Jonestown lived. “Hopefully, by the end you have some kind of emotional attachment to my characters.”

After Crane’s questions, Scheeres turns the interview around. “Can I ask you something?” She wants to know his heritage, and he replies with a long list of places, including Sweden and Ireland.

“You’ve got it all,” she says. “Except cocktails for your readers.”

She jumps from the stage, off to do another reading.

Oscar Villalon replaces her, to read a friend’s piece about Florida’s balmy breezes and monsoons.

“Whhhhhoooooooooo!!,” two bikers scream as they pedal by.

Treggiari announces that they’re headed to the Blue Macaw next. Barry Lefsky, 57, in a stingy fedora with a feather sticking out of it, watches as the crew disassembles everything and hitches the Book Bar to the Explorer.

The breaking down and setting up takes much longer than the readings themselves, but the artists don’t seem to mind. And Lefsky is intrigued.

“I was across the street, and I said, ‘Wow, I gotta go see that,’” he says. “I was wondering how it worked. It didn’t really look like a bicycle-drag-along device.”

He too, is a writer. “I have all this stuff to write that wants to get published,” he says.

In front of the Blue Macaw on Mission Street, the artists pull up to a white “no parking passenger zone” curb. Clusters of people are smoking and talking under the neon Cocktail Time sign at Doc’s Clock next door.

Some are tempted by the quirky new bar on the block.

“Now that’s something you don’t see everyday,” says one young man with curly black hair.

As the artists set up, they hope for a repeat of the last stop. “I think we nailed it,” Treggiari says.

There are always challenges with public art, he says. So many issues you can’t predict. The wind. Dealing with people.

“But that’s what I love about it,” he says. “You get to connect with people.”

He says that those walking by the Book Bar, who may have little or no experience with writing or art, begin to relate to what’s going on.

“The conversation becomes, ‘What’s the writer’s process? What made this person write that? Now I understand what they’re saying, and that’s really beautiful.’”

There’s a reading going on inside the Blue Macaw. Treggiari is in no hurry. “Let’s wait and catch that crowd,” he says.

As they file out of the real bar, Treggiari corrals them to the roaming one. “More live readings, guys. Come gather.”

Justin Chin talks about performance art, and Colby Buzzell shares his goal of writing as much as possible, about as many things as possible.

Non-Lit Crawlers walking down Mission Street pause for a split second, and decide the bars can wait.

When the readings are over, the crowd cheers, and many linger until the trailer is hitched.

Crane promises alcohol to readers and audiences next year. “We made friends with the police at our last stop,” he says. “So we’re in.”

“Amazing,” Treggiari says. “People stopping, listening and engaging. That’s all you can ask for.”

He’ll wheel the Book Bar back to his studio for now, but the buzz doesn’t end here.

“It goes beyond Lit Quake,” he says of the Book Bar’s life. “It wants to go anywhere.”

Filed under: Art, Front Page

One Comment

  1. I absolutely LOVED having you in Clarion Alley before we started Phase 1 this year. You are welcome there next year, with or without drinks, ’cause in the Alley we love books, connection, community & pop- up readings. Bravo!

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