This brick building near the Northside’s waterfront was originally a chocolate factory established by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli. When the factory relocated, visionary real estate owners bought the site and transformed it into a place with unique shops and restaurants. The city declared Ghirardelli Square an official city landmark in 1965 and it was later granted National Historic Register status.
My aunts were my regular babysitters in the early-mid 1970s and we often walked over to Ghiradelli Square. At that time, street musicians and artists flocked to Ghiradelli Square and the surrounding streets in far greater numbers than today. One memorable character was the man who strummed his guitar and called out sassy improvised rhymes and comments. He actually still performs on the corner of Beach and Larkin, and thanks to the interwebs, I now know him to be Norbert Yancey, aka “The Rhyme guy”, a multi-lingual musical talent with a colorful history and a background as a longshoreman and a martial arts instructor. (He even has his own Yelp presence!)
One of my favorite reasons for a journey here was a stop at Jeffrey’s Toy’s, tucked away in the courtyard level. During my recent visit, I discovered that access to the courtyard is much more restricted due to the Fairmont Luxury Suites housed in the building. Once I figured out how to get into the courtyard from Polk or Beach Street, I remembered the excitement of heading towards the toy store. They eventually outgrew the space around the time I was outgrowing the allure of regular toy store excursions. In the 1980s Jeffery’s moved to a much larger space downtown on Market Street. The recent news that Jeffrey’s was now forced to close its doors due to rising rent filled me with sad nostalgia more than the myriad of other changes assailing the city. (Word is that they hope to find a new retail location—fingers crossed.)
One of the other places I went regularly in the Square was not frequented by kids my age. The Wine Cellar was a bar/restaurant and live music venue and since they served food, my aunts could take me with them when they went to see bands play there. I was less enthusiastic about these evening trips than I was about going to the toy store, but they enticed me with the promise of one of the menu’s desserts—a hefty slice of devil’s food chocolate cake from Just Desserts—another local San Francisco establishment. The frosting was thick and dense and the cake itself not overly sweet. The sugar rush from the cake carried me through most of the band’s set while my aunts boogied down to the music.
I think this early exposure conditioned me for appreciating live music night life. Going out to shows is still one of my favorite social activities. But just like in those early days, if the conditions aren’t right I turn into turn into a pumpkin early and want to head home to bed.
[Note: This article provides interesting background on street performers and permitting in the Ghiradelli Square/Fisherman’s Wharf area. On my recent visit to Ghiradelli Square to take these photos, I was glad to see that Mr. Yancy was still in his same spot, playing and snapping out rhymes.]