Autos and Booze: The SF Mission Bartender with a Car Passion

Design by Claudia Escobar

This is one of several profiles of the people who make the Mission District what it is today. They are part of our My Mission Zine. You can buy a copy here.  If you have trouble, just send us an email at info@missionlocal.com. 

With his trimmed, biker-style goatee and collection of tattoos, Shea Shawnson, 39, looks like he’d be at home behind a bar or under the hood of a vintage car.

And that makes sense, because he’s made a living at both.

Now one of the managers at the Mission District’s Elixir Bar, Shawnson dreams of the day when he can get back to restoring classic rides. But first he’ll probably have to leave this city, whose local character and cost of living is a far cry from the San Francisco where he grew up.

“That’s the sad part. I’m pretty sure that my apartment now is the last apartment I’ll keep.”

His most recent car was a root beer-colored ’41 Chevy Master Deluxe, at least technically — after working on it for a decade, it was made of more modified parts than original ones, he said. “When I started, it was just a shell. A buddy of mine had found it in a field somewhere.”

But apartments with garages were out of Shawnson’s price range, so he parked the car on the street every night. On many mornings, he was greeted with new dings and dents. “I was like, this is ridiculous. It’s not fair for me to own this car if I can’t take care of it.”

Shawnson’s infatuation with cars began while he was an elementary school student at Thomas Edison Charter Academy, across the street from his home in the Mission District. Every day after class, the adults walked the students to nearby Jamestown Community Center to play sports or work on crafts projects until their parents came home from work. There, Shawnson assembled his first car: a miniature Hot Wheels.

He practically grew up in a garage. During the week, his stepfather and step-uncles built cars to race on the weekends along the Great Highway. He would paint his Hot Wheels while he waited for requests from the grease-covered men, handing them tools when they called out.

When he was 14 years old and still too young to drive, his parents bought him his first real car. It was a 1964 Plymouth Barracuda, and it didn’t run. “They said, ‘You’ve got two years to fix it.’ ” And he did.

Later, he opened an auto restoration shop in Richmond, California. He loved the work, but hated constantly hounding his clients to pay up. The commercial rent was expensive, and thieves cleaned him out once. The shop became more of a burden than anything else.

He started bartending at Elixir to offset his costs. He eventually gave up on the shop and put all his equipment in storage.

Shawnson’s approachable, patient air — perhaps the product of about ten years spent pouring drinks at Elixir — has put him on a first-name basis with about two dozen regular customers. Many others, from bygone years, pop in to see him when their travels take them through the city. And people often stop Shawnson to chat while he’s out and about in the Mission District.

“In other neighborhoods, people are more closed off. That’s not the kind of place I’d want to live in,” he said.

But the newer residents seem to care less about “picking up trash in front of their apartment building, or having a conversation at the stop light while you’re waiting to cross,” he said. “With this gentrification, the people coming into the Mission don’t have any investment.”

Shawnson might end up in Panama, Mexico or Hawaii, he said, where he’ll get a big garage and start restoring cars again.

He already has his next car in mind: a 1969 El Camino.




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