A Self-Guided Tour of Saroyan’s San Francisco by Dori Myer
William Saroyan lived in San Francisco from 1926 through the 1940s and visited often after that. His mother and sister occupied the same house on 15th Avenue from 1939 until they died. The city has changed by leaps and bounds since those days, booming after World War II and then the tech industry takeover. Most of the locations in this tour have been torn down or renovated completely so that they don’t much appear as they did when Saroyan roamed the streets. However, there are a handful of remaining buildings, notably those where he lived.
Take a moment to appreciate the history of the city as much as the history of Saroyan himself, and consider what it might be like to tour his haunts with the man himself beside you.
In This Tour (From Southeast to West)
- Home, 1910, 11 Gaven St
- Postal Telegraph Branch Office, 1927, 405 Brannan St
- Home, ca. 1927, 123 Natoma St
- Breen’s, 1928-1940s, 71 Third St
- Postal Telegraph Office, 1927, 651 Market Street in the Palace Hotel
- Gelber-Lilienthal Book Shop, 1930s, 336 Sutter St
- John J. (Jack) Newbegin’s New and Rare Books, 1920s-40s, 358 Post St
- Omar Khayyam’s, 1938, 196 O’Farrell St
- Postal Telegraph Company, late 1920s, Powell St at Market St
- Turk street, east of Van Ness, 1920s-1940s, Alleyways (gambling), Menlo Club at 30 Turk Street (bar and gambling), Turk Street Poker Club, Joe Bailey’s (drinks and poker)
- Postal Telegraph Office, 1920s, Taylor St at Market St in the Golden Gate Theatre Building
- Crystal Palace Market, 1930s, 8th St and Market St
- Public Library Downtown, 1920s-1940s, 100 Larkin St
- Vanity Fair Florists, 1931, 556 Geary St
- Izzy’s on Pacific, 1937, 848 Pacific Ave
- Saroyan Place (formerly Adler place), dedicated in 1988
- William McDevitt’s Bookstore, 1930s, 2079 Sutter Str
- Home, 1928-1929, 2378 Sutter Street at Divisadero St
- Home, 1929, 1707-A Divisadero St
- Home, 1930-1939, 348 Carl St
- Public Library, Sunset Branch, 1930s, 18th Ave and Irving St
- Home, 1939-1946 (and occasionally beyond), 1821 15th Ave
- Home, 1946-1948, 2727 Taraval Ave
In 1910, the Saroyan family briefly lived in a building at this location. William was not yet 2, according to the census. His father, Armenak, worked as a preacher for the Salvation Army. This is not obvious from William’s writings, but the proof is in the census materials. It wasn’t long after this that Armenak farmed chickens in Campbell, died of a burst appendix, and was buried in San Jose. The children were then moved to the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland while their mother worked in San Francisco.
Postal Telegraph Branch Office, 1927, 405 Brannan St
In 1927, Saroyan was the manager of this Postal Telegraph Office, the youngest branch manager in the country. To him this meant that he was free to roam the streets of San Francisco during the day with no oversight. But being the boss didn’t suit him and he returned to clerking at other branches. This experience features heavily in the story, “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8” in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, “A Writer’s Declaration” in The Whole Voyald and Other Stories (p.8), and Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 23)
This isn’t mentioned often, but it was an early address for the Saroyans, before they lived on Carl St.
Mentioned in “A Writer’s Declaration,” The Whole Voyald and Other Stories (p. 8)
Breen’s, 1928-1940s, 71 Third St
Breen’s opened in 1925 and was a notable dive bar (and speakeasy during Prohibition) where Saroyan gambled in 1928 and beyond. After changing ownership multiple times, it was finally auctioned off in 1979, sold to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In 1949, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen described it: “You'll find bums and businessmen... newspapermen and socialites.” The Kentucky and the Barrell House were two nearby bars occasionally referenced as well. Saroyan mentions Breen’s in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 39), I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (p. 104), Obituaries (p. 149), and Births (p. 88)
In the late 1920s, Saroyan worked here as a counter clerk and teletype operator. This luxury hotel saw many famous patrons, whom Saroyan observed and wrote about sometimes.
This is mentioned in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 8) and “A Writer’s Declaration” in The Whole Voyald and Other Stories (p.8)
In 1937, Saroyan liked to visited the Gelber-Lilienthal Book Shop at 336 Sutter Street, a place for writers and literary types. The shop opened in 1924 by antiquarian Leon Gelber and businessman Theodore Max Lilienthal. Artist Valenti Angelo made the above woodcut of the location in the 1920s, when it had a high ceiling and a quaint Olde English appearance.
This is mentioned in Letters from Rue Taitbout (p. 125) and Obituaries (p. 5)
John J. Newbegin’s New and Rare Books, 1920s-40s, 358 Post St
Newbegin’s, opening in 1906, was all class. It sold Grabhorn Press books as well as signed first editions of contemporary authors Ambrose Bierce and HL Mencken, both of whom influenced Saroyan (and Saroyan went on to work with the Grabhorn Press frequently). This would have been a place Saroyan frequented, even though it also attracted socialites
Omar Khayyam’s, 1938, 196 O’Farrell St
Omar Khayyam’s Middle Eastern restaurant was owned by George Mardikian, who featured prominently in William’s life. They first knew each other in Fresno, when Mardikian had a lunch counter. In 1938 Mardikian moved to San Francisco and opened his basement restaurant, which featured middle eastern and Armenian food. Mardikian was an evangelist for convincing Armenians to move to the United States and sponsored many of them financially. During some of William’s worst bouts of gambling, Mardikian lent him money. Though they had a long history together, theirs was a fraught friendship embroiled in money exchange. In the mid-1980s, a fire destroyed the restaurant. Saroyan talked up this restaurant in the book Let’s Have Fun in San Francisco from 1939, as well as in a preface to Mardikian’s cookbook (which Saroyan was not paid for, a sore spot to him).
In the late 1920s, Saroyan worked here as a counter clerk and teletype operator.
This is mentioned in “A Writer’s Declaration” in The Whole Voyald and Other Stories (p. 8)
This part of Turk street is in the Tenderloin District, always considered one of the city’s sketchier locales where gamblers, prostitutes, and thieves roamed the streets. This was also a fun place for a young man to go. In the early 1930s, Saroyan spent much of his time on Turk Street. It looks too different today to even compare, but some of the alleyways remain, where you can imagine illegal gambling houses might pop up. This is featured in the story, “The Turk Street Gamblers,” in the collection I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (p. 77), Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever (pgs. 66, 73, 172), Chance Meetings (p. 76), and Obituaries (p. 82)
In the late 1920s, Saroyan worked here as a counter clerk and teletype operator.
This is discussed in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 8), “A Writer’s Declaration” in The Whole Voyald and Other Stories (p. 8)
Saroyan tells us that this was a favorite haunt of his in the 1930s, a large city-center market spanning many blocks. It was based on the markets of London. Across the street from The Orpheum Theater, it was a hub of activity that allowed Saroyan to observe his fellow man. This is mentioned in I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (p. 104).
The downtown branch (opened in 1888) is the crown jewel of the San Francisco Library system. Today, the downtown library holds a History Center, which includes Saroyan in its Biography Collection. He rode the streetcar or walked to this location.
This is mentioned in I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (p. 104): “In the public library I examined only those books which could not be borrowed, the books of Art in the Reference Room; and the books of Patents, for there is nothing so instructive as man's foolish inventions, along with their preposterous illustrations.”
Vanity Fair Florists, 1931, 556 Geary St
Where this parking garage stands now, William and his uncle Mihran ran Vanity Fair Florists briefly in 1931. Not much is known about it, but Forever Saroyan has an extensive collection of sketches drawn on Vanity Fair stationery from William’s time there. Mentioned in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 66).
Around 1937, Saroyan frequented Izzy’s Saloon. It was owed by Portuguese immigrant Isadore Gomez, and Saroyan wrote in his journals, “Izzy Gomez's was something else. Unique. Sui generis. It really was as portrayed in The Time of Your Life, except that it was also a hangout for hard-boiled, sophisticated newspapermen...They gave the place a rowdy, slightly underworld character of half-suppressed brawl...For meals, Izzy served thick, luscious steaks, French fries, and salads. He gave a considerable number of meals and liquor out free, not just to starving artists, but to people he liked.” The bar was demolished in 1952. It is mentioned in I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure (p. 108), Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout (pgs. 127, 143), and is the inspiration for Nick’s in The Time of Your Life.
San Francisco is full of small alleyways, like any city. This was once called Adler Place, but in 1988, San Francisco literary icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti successfully convinced the city to rename this alleyway near his bookstore, City Lights. Ferlinghetti was a friend to Saroyan and was also part of the Beat Generation with his buddy and Saroyan aficionado, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac wrote about Saroyan’s influence on his own writing. At the same dedication event, Ferlinghetti announced the renaming of the alley across the street to Jack Kerouac Alley.
Bill McDevitt was an eccentric bookstore owner whose shop opened in 1918. McDevitt was a Socialist leader, which might have appealed to Saroyan’s ideology at the time, though Saroyan was never an activist.
This is mentioned in Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever (p. 65): “Bill McDevitt owned a big shambling cluttered bookstore in San Francisco on Sutter Street above Fillmore, and I used to go in there and browse, because print and publication, paper and binding, title page and margin, and all the rest of the business and reality of language in action has always seemed near to where I ought to be, something like my home, and my way.”
Home, 1928-1929, 2378 Sutter St at Divisadero St
William lived here with his family in 1928/29. He returned to this flat after a disappointing first trip to New York in 1928. From here, he could see the nurses working at the hospital across the street and fantasized about marrying one.
This is mentioned in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 3)
William’s mother didn’t like the climb to the third floor in the Sutter Street apartment, so they moved to this location, a block away, in 1929. Their stay here was very brief before they settled at 348 Carl Street.
Mentioned in Places Where I’ve Done Time (Chapter 58) and Obituaries (p. 240)
After living in various San Francisco apartments with his mother and siblings in the 1920s, Saroyan landed at Carl Street, where he wrote The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. The family lived here in a second floor flat from about 1930-1939. From this location, he could walk to the Sunset Library or go farther to the downtown public library. This is where he became a literary sensation. This apartment is mentioned all over Saroyan’s memoirs and in stories. To start, it is name checked in “70,000 Assyrians” in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.
Public Library, Sunset Branch, 1930s, 18th Ave and Irving St
Saroyan always loved the public library wherever he lived. In San Francisco, he would walk to the Sunset Branch on 18th Ave and Irving (opened in 1918). Saroyan would sit in the library for hours reading books, periodicals, magazines, anything that would educate and inspire him. This location is mentioned in Not Dying (p. 101).
With money from his writing success, William purchased this row house for his family, where his mother, Takoohi, and sister, Cosette, lived until their deaths. They began living here in 1939. William lived here on and off for decades, with a basement studio to do his writing. This was his home base whenever he returned to San Francisco. The house is still owned and occupied by William’s relatives and has a view of the Pacific Ocean. This residence is mentioned all over Saroyan’s memoirs, but you can start with Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever (p. 201).
Home, 1946-1948, 2727 Taraval Ave
This row house was newly built when William, Carol, and the kids purchased it in 1946. He based the upstairs room which he used as his writing space in his 1963 book Boys and Girls Together.
"The upper flat was a shambles, but it always was. It smelled of stale cigarettes because he smoked so much whenever he worked or tried to. It smelled of not being lived in, too, and of fog and book. Books he hadn't had a chance to look into yet, some of them on hand for months, not even unwrapped yet, piled on the floor and on the furniture. There were stacks of magazines mixed in with the books, and manuscripts, pebbles and twigs and roots and branches of trees washed smooth and clean by the sea that he kept bringing home all the time."
It was considered remote in San Francisco, far from the hustle and bustle, out on “The Avenues” of the Sunset District. They spent time here and also in New York during the period they owned it – until 1948. Carol felt isolated in San Francisco, with no local friends, so the family kept a flat in New York so they could both be satisfied. Deeply in debt in 1948, William had borrowed money from George Mardikian and sold this house to him on September 6, 1948 for $22,000 to pay debts. In addition to Boys and Girls Together, the house is mentioned in Sons Come and Go… (p. 78, 176) and “Palo” in The Whole Voyald and Other Stories.
Paul Elder’s Bookstore, 239 Post St
It was a special bookstore in that it held an art gallery and lecture hall within it. Elder made high art of book selling. In 1934 Elder invited Saroyan to read from his breakout hit book and Saroyan frequented the exciting space.
Ocean Beach for walks, 1930s-1940s
Saroyan was known for his long walks from his house on 15th Avenue to the beach some 30 blocks away. Some of these walks he spent alone, others he spent with family and friends. The sculptor Beniamino Bufano is one notable walking partner, as well as the artist Hilaire Hiler. This is described in the 1939 travel guide, Let’s Have Fun in San Francisco. Saroyan would often pick up attractive beach rocks and display them in his home.
Optional near SF
Former Tanforan Race Track (1150 El Camino Real, San Bruno) – betting on horses
Former Bay Meadows Race Track (380 E 28th Ave, San Mateo) – betting on horses
Golden Gate Fields (1100 Eastshore Hwy, Berkeley) – still open – betting on horses
Fred Finch Orphanage (3800 Coolidge Ave, Oakland, CA 94602) – 1911-1916 home