In 1968, beloved bespectacled barkeep Richard 'Specs' Simmons bought a down-and-out North Beach watering hole and made it Specs'. Now the bar outlives its owner and namesake: Simmons died on Wednesday morning at 88 years old according to the Chronicle. He suffered from Parkinson's disease.
Dark and stuffed with the kinds of bizarre curiosities and ephemera even a hoarder might consider parting with, Specs' has always been a writerly destination along the lines of its neighbors Vesuvio Café and City Lights. The bar, officially called Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe for its address and oddities, had much to celebrate this year, feting its 48th anniversary this spring and — just last month, not long after Simmons' 88th birthday— enjoying recognition as one of the first businesses approved for "legacy" status. Thanks to Prop J, which passed last November, businesses 30 years or older can apply for grants for their full-time employees and grants to landlords who extend long-term leases to legacy businesses. Indeed, Specs' lease was recently renewed for 10 years, although rent was raised slightly.
Simmons was born in Boston where he grew up in a working-class Jewish family. He sailed to San Francisco aboard a merchant marine and became a bartender at Vesuvio's where he met his now late wife. According to a scholarly article about the song "MTA," which was popularized by the Kingston Trio, Simmons introduced the song to folk singer Will Holt, who in turn handed it to the Kingston Trio. It's rumored that somehow Simmons received royalties from this, with which he was able to open Specs.
“My father believed that a bar was a place where people could come and tell each other stories about their own lives. It was all about the human connection,” Elly Simmons, his daughter, told the Chronicle. Indeed, Simmons was a notorious raconteur who loved one story in particular, regarding a night sailing off the Golden Gate. When his sailboat capsized, he and his friends aboard were saved by another boat thanks to a solitary light they held above the water.
More comfortable rambling than a speechifying, when asked for his thoughts on his 82nd Birthday in 2010, "I don't have an effing thing to say about the occasion," Simmons reportedly grumbled according to the Chronicle. "I just can't wait for the sun to finally go down."
A memorial is expected to be held for Simmons, perhaps at 12 Adler, where FoundSF writes that the bar's artifacts include a stuffed mongoose in combat with a cobra, a petrified walrus penis the likes of which are more common in Alaska, and finally, in the back near the piano, a full-sized mummy case, its pharaonic face complete with glasses in Specs' likeness.