When Tom Madonna left the San Francisco finance world to start a bar in 2006, he needed a change.
“It didn’t fit my values. When you watch people in a high stress sales environment talking about selling risky annuities to retired ladies, you can’t feel good about that,” he says.
Friday, April 1 marks his 10th anniversary running Shotwell’s on 20th and Shotwell streets.
The plan, originally, was to abscond to Downtown L.A. Instead he bought a sports bar in San Francisco that earlier owners had dedicated to the A’s and draped from front to back in green and old television screens.
“Everything that’s not wood was painted A’s green, on the inside and the outside, from the men’s restroom to the outside of the building,” Madonna recalls. “The two guys that owned this bar were from Modesto, big A’s fans. It was a clubhouse for them.”
But it wasn’t the décor that appealed to Madonna. The space – not just the business – was for sale, offering some long-term business security.
At the time he was thinking about the future, but over the years, Madonna has uncovered the bar’s rich history as well.
As it turns out, the A’s rendition was only the latest in a series of bars that began in 1891 as a grocery saloon. Like many saloons of its era, it served multiple purposes. The outlines of two large doorways on either side of the corner building can still be seen, though they’re no longer in use – they once served as delivery portals for the grocery saloon.
For many years the establishment, then owned by Henry Schlichtmann, swung back and forth between being a saloon and a grocery. After the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city, a new policy prohibited mixed-use businesses and limited the number of saloons in town. So Schlichtmann went for the saloon license and scrapped the grocery gig. He purchased an enormous wooden back bar from New England and had it shipped over.
Its style establishes its age, Madonna explains. Nowadays, he says, he sees a lot of Art Deco back bars – holdovers from an era when that style became popular. Older back bars are harder to find because their kind died out with Prohibition that ran from 1920 to 1933.
So how did the saloon and its back bar make it through? By 1909, Schlichtmann had sold the bar to C. Mich McCribbin (while himself starting another neighborhood bar you may have heard of called The Uptown).
McCribbin got through Prohibition by simply converting back into a grocery store. The infrastructure was there, and the back bar and bar remained, though put to non-alcohol-serving uses.
After Prohibition, McCribbin returned the bar to its beer parlor use and became a neighborhood staple.
“He was the guy that cashed your checks,” says Madonna. “You would have an account with your neighbors, come in once a month for your bar tab, and it was a real community place.”
When McCribbin died in 1976, the saloon closed down. It was later reanimated as a lively Latino bar with scantily clad waitresses called El Trobol, then as Shotwell 59 after a British motorcycle club, and as one in a series of Thieves Taverns throughout the city, before Madonna came across it in 2006 year as the A’s sports bar.
At some point in its history, the bar also acquired a mysterious memento. A constellation of six small holes, perhaps from bullets, peppers the front of the bar somewhere around shin height. Madonna likes to imagine they were the result of a disgruntled husband confronting a bartender about an affair with his wife.
But what Madonna seems to value most about the bar isn’t its storied furnishings or its multifaceted character. In remembering its former owner McCribbin, Madonna gets nostalgic about the way people used to think about neighborhood bars.
“I really think one of the biggest changes in San Francisco is, you had a history of a working class area where you came home to your neighborhood and go to your corner bar, where the bartender knew everyone inside,” he says. “It was a resource for you. To get a job, to get a roommate, everything.”
A good bartender, he insists, can still do just that. New in town and single? Madonna might know a regular who’s looking to meet someone. Need a place to stay? Ask your bartender if he’s heard of anyone renting out a room. Or just see who your neighbors are.
“That’s why bartending is one of the best jobs. Because I meet people all the time from different spectrums and I learn things all the time,” he says.
Future married couples have met at the bar, and some were even wed there. Madonna remembers one woman who recently came in to tell him she made partner at her law firm. Even techies come by and discuss – what else – work.
But in order for the neighborhood bar as a concept to thrive, as with all business, the neighborhood has to support it. And times are different now, Madonna says.
“Back in the day, your friends would say, ‘You’re single, you need to go out!’ No one says that because now if you’re single it’s, why aren’t you on Tinder?” he says. “You used to go to the bar because you want to know what your friends are doing. Now you look on Facebook.”
What he hopes will make a resurgence is a shift in the way the new generation of recent arrivals to the city perceive their local watering holes and eateries.
“They look at restaurants and bars as something very separate from where they live, what’s on trend what’s the latest,” he said, “when they really should look for bars and restaurants as a connection to the history, a connection to their community, a connect to their neighbors.”