Thursday, December 29, 2005

House of Shields

In this post, I’m returning to the topic of San Francisco locations used in Candy from Strangers. This time around I’ll be talking about the House of Shields, the venerable old bar I selected as the setting for the first chapter, but to give you some motivation for that decision, let me quote from an article I wrote for Mystery Readers Journal:

As must be obvious from the foregoing, August Riordan is a creature of fiction. However, shortly after The Immortal Game came out, I was contacted by a flesh and blood private eye—we'll call him Sam—who was absolutely convinced that August Riordan was based on him. And after I met Sam for a drink, he almost convinced me.

Like August, Sam lives in San Francisco and plays jazz bass on a semi-professional basis. And like August in The Immortal Game, he had played in the loft of an Italian restaurant on 11th Street called Undici. Unfortunately, Undici has since burned down, but Sam was sure I'd seen him play there since I noted in the book that there wasn't sufficient room in the loft for a string bass and August had to fall back on his electric: something Sam had also discovered.

The kicker came when Sam explained that his firm had been hired for an undercover assignment with a small Internet start-up where I worked. Unbeknownst to me, the firm had been bought in to provide security during the termination interview for an employee who had a volatile temper and a history of violence.

In the end, I convinced Sam that August was not based on him, but he and I have kept in contact. I served as the co-president of the Northern California Chapter of Sisters in Crime last year, and I invited him to speak about his experiences as a private eye at one of our events. I've also gone to his shows, and I confess that I set the first chapter of my next book, Candy from Strangers, in the House of Shields bar on New Montgomery primarily because I saw him play there. But that, perhaps, is as it should be: art imitating life, rather the other way around.

History

The history of the House of Shields is a bit murky, but as near as I can make out from the various sources I consulted, it was opened in 1910 (some accounts say 1908) by a man named Eddie Shields. (Other accounts explain the Shields name by saying the establishment was opened by an Irishman who liked to collect shields.) Its trademark wooden bar was originally intended to go in the Pied Piper room of the famous Palace Hotel across the street, but was apparently sold to Shields when installation of Maxfield Parrish’s seven-by-sixteen foot painting of the Pied Piper did not leave enough room for the bar. (I’m a little skeptical about this last bit because as you can see from this virtual tour of the Pied Piper room in the Palace, the bar they have now is plenty damn big too.)

Appearance

“Time Stands Still at the House of Shields” says the headline of a yellowed clipping from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe that is displayed in the window, and this is certainly true at least as far as the décor. The tile floor, heavy wood paneling, game trophies, carved wooden booths and Victorian statuary—to say nothing of the aforementioned bar—all belong to a turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century aesthetic. In fact, the saloon was the last in San Francisco to place stools along the brass foot rail (in 1986), displacing some spittoons in the process. And if that doesn’t invest the place with enough of a storied past for you, the basement, which houses a private dining room and wine cellar, was once a speakeasy.

I took these photographs of the interior during “operating hours” as part of my research for Candy from Strangers. Hopefully they capture some of House of Shield’s old-timey charm and atmosphere.



Ownership

The bar has gone through a several changes of ownership in recent years, and at one time was even padlocked by the sheriff because of over-due taxes and other debts. The current owner is Schlomo Rabinowitz, who, as you’ll see for the link I provided to his blog, is a video blogger and is taking the bar in some new directions, hosting fashion and art shows, edgier live music acts and DJ’s and even Internet-related events like The Web 1.0 Summit, a tongue and cheek celebration of technologies and business plans from the dot bomb era. (“We will meet to discuss line breaks, spacer gifs, and the ability to launch links in a new browser window.”) (Hey, wait a minute; I’m still using spacer gifs!)

Since Candy from Strangers has been over three years in the making, Schlomo’s purchase of the bar and the changes he has made to its “business model” happened well after I selected it as the setting for the opening scene of the book, but I find it somehow appropriate that a novel that has Internet video and blogging as key themes starts out in a bar that is managed by someone who is very involved in both. I haven’t contacted him yet, but I had thought about having a launch party for the book in the bar, and it now seems like an even better idea.

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