by Woody LaBounty
In 1965, a San Francisco Examiner series of articles called the Haight-Ashbury a “new paradise for beatniks, […] the City’s new bohemian quarter for serious writers, painters and musicians, civil rights workers, crusaders for all kinds of causes, homosexuals, lesbians, marijuana users, young working couples of artistic bent and the outer fringe of the bohemian fringe—the ‘hippies,’ the heads, the beatniks.”
New coffee houses on both sides of the Golden Gate Park panhandle opened and hosted discussions on political revolutions and sexual freedom. On Haight Street itself, bars like Romeo’s and the Golden Cask were meeting places for gay men and women. The local police captain asked they “be discreet and don’t dance.”
In April 1965, Peggy Caserta, a young lesbian from Louisiana, opened a clothing store, Mnasidika, at 1510 Haight (at the Doolan-Larson building now stewarded by SF Heritage). There she sold sandals, blouses, dresses, and, with the help of her seamstress mother, invented bell-bottom jeans.
While the character of the Haight-Ashbury and its businesses had already begun to shift, in 1966, two local boys were responsible for kicking that change into high gear. Brothers Ron and Jay Thelin opened a metaphysical book and trinket emporium at 1535 Haight Street on January 3, 1966. Inspired by the philosophies and writings of LSD-pioneer Timothy Leary, the Thelins named their business “The Psychedelic Shop.” Some now laud it as the America’s first head shop.
Author Charles Perry described the store’s merchandise as “everything an acidhead might be interested in. The stock changed all the time; they introduced Indian Paisley fabrics, dance posters, imported bells, paste-on ‘diffraction gratings’ that put a spot of prismatic color on your forehead or bamboo flute or whatever.” While the shop’s offerings tended to the dreamy and the metaphysical, the Thelins were fairly savvy in the ways of business—their father had previously been the manager of the Haight Street Woolworth’s store—and they anticipated what would be a Haight-Ashbury commercial renaissance.
On the heels of The Psychedelic Shop came “In Gear” at 1580 Haight, a clothing store featuring Mod fashions. Around the same time a block towards Masonic Avenue at 1452 Haight Street the Blushing Peony boutique opened. The old drugstore on Masonic and Haight turned into The Drogstore, a 24-hour café and bohemian hang-out. The I/Thou coffee house opened in the other direction at 1736 Haight Street and suddenly the neighborhood was exploding with businesses which more established merchants described as “aiming for the aimless—the long-haired hippies.”
The Haight Street business climate had been moribund before the arrival of these hip alternative-lifestyle businesses and their customers. The Haight Theater, once the pride of the commercial strip, closed in 1964, then tried to reopen with gay pornographic films (a change fought off by the neighbors). After being for a short time the home by an Assembly of God congregation, the theater was rented by a trio of young promoters with plans for rock concerts, dances, and repertory theater who rechristened the venerable, run-down movie house “The Straight Theater.”
New hippie stores filled formerly empty storefronts of the Haight-Ashbury throughout 1966, selling beads and boots, panchos and paisleys. The old Woolworth’s at 1542 Haight Street became The Print Mint, selling celebrity posters, art prints, political broadsides, and the incredibly popular rock concert compositions made for the Fillmore and Winterland halls. The avant-garde and political Diggers spun off from the Mime Troupe to make the neighborhood and Haight Street their proving ground for revolutionary and society-reforming experiments, theater, and protest. The world’s first “psychedelic newspaper,” The Oracle, began publishing and being distributed out of The Psychedelic Shop.
Poet Kenneth Rexroth had lived in the Haight since the 1950s. In his San Francisco Examiner column he shared positive dispatches on the changes taking place in the old blue-collar hood, while fellow Examiner writer Chas Cruttenden called the neighborhood “a sham bohemia with freeway phobia” and denigrated the new hip stores: “They sell paper backs, a few records, and a Hollywood set atmosphere. They adopt gimmick names to try to convince the brethren of their ‘hip’ nature.”
Rexroth predicted that the beard-and-sandals set would soon “be earning pots of money” from the hundreds of young people arriving in the Haight-Ashbury each week to check out what he described as “the headquarters for the New Youth, the New Left, the New Student, the New Bohemia, the New Negro, and several other New Categories.”
Crowds of hippies and hippie-gawkers eventually got so large and unmanageable on Haight Street that the city would reroute two Muni bus lines on weekends and holidays—this was about the same time that the Gray Line company inaugurated a Hippie bus tour of the neighborhood to take the Muni’s place.
The Haight-Ashbury was officially a scene and City government wasn’t thrilled. Charles Perry noted in his book, The Haight-Ashbury: A History that “the powers downtown lumped the [new] merchants with the revolutionists.” The local police captain worried aloud about drug use, free love, and runaways. Permits to transform the Haight Theatre to the Straight Theater became mysteriously difficult to obtain. The city’s Board of Appeals turned down an application to open a used bookstore on Haight Street with the explanation that it could bring in an “undesirable element.”
Some of the old guard of the Haight Street merchants encouraged the changes and the influx of business—after all, better hippies dancing at the Straight Theater than adult films there. And it was fun when Love Burgers organized a neighborhood Easter egg hunt. But others hardened over demonstrations and marches periodically closing the street. After San Francisco police killed a young black man in September 1966, the ensuing protest in the Haight-Ashbury saw 121 people arrested. Hippie calls for the “Death of Money” and young people living off society’s surplus rather than spending dollars at Haight Street businesses also irked many merchants.
Formal lines were drawn. When the Haight Street Merchants’ Association turned down The Psychedelic Shop’s application for membership, the Thelins and other “hip” business owners created their own association, Haight Independent Proprietors (HIP).
It certainly wasn’t easy being a HIP business. The traditional merchants, the police, and city government were at best unwelcoming. And even one’s “community,” such as the Diggers and the publishers of the free mimeographed sheets put out under the masthead “Communications Company” (com/co), routinely called the Thelins sell-outs and worse: “The HIP Merchants have lured a million children here recklessly & irresponsibly […] They walk in their own beauty down Haight Street & if they see the shit at all, they deplore it & say that Somebody should do something about it. Sometimes they complain about shoplifting.”
In early 1967 there were predictions as many as 100,000 people might travel to the Haight-Ashbury for a “Summer of Love” to “tune in and drop out of the blue onto Psychedelic Avenue with no glue—but plenty of pot.” News outlets around the world descended in anticipation. Hollywood began production of hippie exploitation films. The city’s Jefferson Airplane rocketed up the charts with psychedelic hits. Scott McKenzie’s song “San Francisco” instructed millions to come to the city to meet the “gentle people” here for the summer. Meanwhile, mayor John Shelley called for a formal policy of discouragement to the potential “vagrant presence” and on March 24, 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle’s over-the-masthead headline announced “The War on Hippies.” Retail spaces on Haight Street commanded record rents. Some 15 storefronts flipped just in April 1967, all youth-oriented businesses with names like Xanadu Clothes, the Bead Freak, and the Hobbit Hole. The hippie had apparently triumphed. San Francisco and the whole world awaited a mad mass of wanderers, seekers, runaways, and trippers coming to Haight Street.
Again, some of the non-hip business owners were unfazed. One shop-owner said he anticipated “amateur hippies on vacation from school. […] many of them with have a nice packet of travelers checks provided by mommy and daddy.”
In the end an estimated 75,000 people traveled to Haight-Ashbury for the 1967 Summer of Love. The swarms shuffling up and down Haight Street did not bring the Armageddon that some in city government feared, nor quite the Age of Aquarius many pilgrims sought. The businesses on Haight Street—hip and straight—reaped a mixed harvest of thousands of customers and the hourly potential of chaos, absurdist theater, freak-outs, political protests, or just a somewhat annoying guy with a guitar blocking the doorway.
The worldwide attention on the Summer of Love made Haight and Ashbury the most famous intersection name on the planet. Haight Street’s reputation as a destination of counterculture pilgrimage, a mecca for recreational drug aficionados and fans of graphic arts, a showplace of bohemian and psychedelic style, and a locus of experimental political and spiritual expression had been made. More than half-a-century later, tens of thousands visit the street each year seeking those experiences.
But in late 1967, the retreat of the Summer of Love tidal wave opened up the toughest decade the Upper Haight neighborhood and its businesses ever experienced.
Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press), 1984.
Michael Fallon, “A New Paradise for Beatniks,” San Francisco Examiner, September 5, 1965, pg. 5; “Bohemia’s New Haven,” San Francisco Examiner, September 7, 1965, pg. 1; Michael Fallon, “Haight Street Hippies: Are ‘Beats’ Good Business?,” San Francisco Examiner, September 8, 1965, pg. 11.
Kenneth Rexroth, “Heat on Haight-Ashbury,” San Francisco Examiner, October 11, 1965, pg. 37; “Pleasures, Dilemmas on Life’s Bill of Fare,” San Francisco Examiner, January 9, 1966, Section II, pg. 4.
“A Sham Bohemia…For Runaways,” San Francisco Examiner, March 16, 1966, pg. 3.
“The Hippy & Unhappy,” San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, April 2, 1967, This World section, pg. 5.
“Mayor Warns Hippies to Stay Out of Town,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1967, pg. 1.
Donald White, “The Monied Hippie Class,” San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, May 7, 1967, Section III, pg. 58.
Kate Daloz, “The Hippies Who Hated the Summer of Love,” Longreads, posted August 2017.