Tony Ryan, devotee of North Beach poets and die-hard Bay Area radical, dies at 73


Tony Ryan never wrote poetry verses, but he never failed to hear someone else read one in North Beach, the San Francisco neighborhood that brought the Beat Scene to life.

Ryan saved his words for the after-parties, where he recounted his experiences as a Berkeley radical, People’s Park protester, Communist Party member and veteran of the Venceremos First Brigade, who defied the embargo on Cuban trips to cut sugar cane for Fidel Castro in 1969.

This work was unpaid, and neither was his paid work as an online bookseller, working from his personal collection of thousands of volumes.

Most evenings, Ryan sat at the end of the bar at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café, the famous meeting place in an alleyway on Columbus Avenue. If new customers came in, he would get up from his stool and walk around the photographs and artifacts hanging on the wall. He also picked up tables when there were a lot of people.

Ryan didn’t own the place or even work there, but he lived in an upstairs room in his later years. On December 21, he was found dead on his bed surrounded by books stacked up to the ceiling. The cause of death was heart disease, brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking and regular alcohol consumption, his brother Ben Ryan said. He was 73 years old.

“Tony’s life was very social. He lived in cafes, bookstores and water points, ”his brother said. “He was an intellectual passionate about all progressive movements. He was steadfast in his principles and has been an activist his entire life. A deep, deep activist.

Although Ryan was a figure of North Beach, for most of his life he couldn’t afford to live there. He moved between cheap apartments in Berkeley and Oakland, but every day he traveled to town by BART, never having obtained a driver’s license or owned a car. He would walk up from Montgomery Street station and start what has been called “Tony’s Triangle” by Agneta Falk, widow of San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman and close friend of Ryan’s. The specs didn’t open until late afternoon, so the triangle would start at Caffe Trieste and then Vesuvio Cafe.

“He walked from place to place, sometimes stopping to buy cigarettes in between,” Falk said. “I hope he went to eat somewhere too.” She couldn’t be sure because no one had ever seen Ryan eat along the way to the triangle’s final stop – Specs’s.

After a long night of intellectual talk fueled by vodka and soda, with rum and brandy for variety, he would somehow return to BART for the last train home. He made this journey until three years ago, when a fire destroyed the building where he lived. Ryan escaped with only his passport, filled with stamps for Havana, which he visited almost every year. He lost around 10,000 collectible books, brochures and posters from the 1960s.

“Everything he lived and worked for was gone,” said his brother, an artist and musician living in Santa Barbara. “He was devastated. “

After that loss, Ryan practically moved into Specs, taking a 10ft by 10ft single room with access to a downstairs kitchen that he never used, despite having an impressive collection of cookbooks on exotic kitchens there. ‘Latin America.

“Tony has always been interested in my life, and he was like that with everyone,” said Maralisa Simmons-Cook, who owns Specs’ with her mother, Elly Simmons.

“He was no poet, but he was one of the key players in preserving the spirit of North Beach. People come to places like Specs and Vesuvio to witness or soak up the art, politics and history of the city, and Tony was their guide.

Anthony Bourke Ryan was born on May 25, 1948 in Phoenix. His father, Bill Ryan, was a salesperson for Sears Roebuck who moved to Caracas, Venezuela, which had a profound impact on Tony, who was fluent in Spanish by the time the family returned to live in Fresno early on. from the 1950s.

From there, they moved to a ranch in Clovis, a farming and rodeo town where Tony was bullied in school because of his glasses and thin physique. This gave him great sympathy for the underclass and underdog, a prospect that solidified when the family attended a speech by Martin Luther King in Fresno State in 1964.

“Tony got involved in social justice early on and made my mother take him to an NAACP meeting,” said his other brother, Jordan Ryan, a retired United Nations official.

Ryan attended three different high schools, including the Woodside Priory, a notoriously rigid boarding school run by Hungarian monks in the Portola Valley. He once hitchhiked to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park to meet famous anti-war activist Ira Sandperl, who worked there.

Ryan returned to his dorm with an armful of Communist literature and began proselytizing, which was a major factor in getting him kicked out of the priory after less than a year, according to his brother Jordan. From there he was sent to live with an aunt in Cambridge, Mass. so he could attend the famous Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near Harvard Square.

By the time he graduated and returned to California to attend Sonoma State University, he was completely radicalized. He received his BA in Environmental Studies and completed it with a Diploma in Library Technology at City College San Francisco. He moved to Berkeley when he accepted a position as a clerk at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. He also hung around the information game tables set up in Sproul Plaza to recruit UC Berkeley undergraduates for the radical cause.

It was there that he met Steve Wasserman, then a teenager in Berkeley and now editor of Heyday, Berkeley’s nonprofit independent book publisher. Together, Ryan and Wasserman walked down Telegraph Avenue and attended the People’s Park Riots in the late 1960s.

“Tony was deeply political and also sensitive to the avant-garde stream of politicized poetry that swept through the Bay Area, forming an archipelago of progressivism and bohemianism,” said Wasserman. “Tony straddled the politician-hippie divide almost perfectly.”

Ryan built his book inventory by shopping among street vendors in Berkeley and San Francisco. If he saw something he liked, he would buy whatever the seller had. He never had a physical store, other than his apartment.

In November 1969, Ryan traveled to Cuba with about 200 idealistic Westerners who formed the Venceremos Brigade, traveling via Mexico to bypass the embargo.

From this first trip, Ryan promoted the Cuban revolution and became one of the main importers of Cuban literature. After the travel ban was lifted, Ryan began bringing Cuban poets to San Francisco. He was a grand champion of Nancy Morejón, whom he took to a reading at the Emerald Tablet on Fresno Street in 2014, with a reception afterwards at Specs’.

Ryan landed his only stable job in the late 1980s when he moved to Washington, DC to work at the Inter-American Development Bank, which works to reduce poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. It lasted nearly a decade, said Jordan Ryan, before mingling in management and stepping down.

“It was Tony until the end,” Jordan said. “He was engaged, intense, relentless and principled. “

But not without humor. Among the things he liked to laugh at was himself. For his 70th birthday at Specs’, he asked his old friend Jessica Loos to roast it. He even volunteered to provide her with notes if she ran out of materials. She declined her offer, already having too much to do.

“Tony was more of a caricature of himself than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Loos, who has been on the scene for over 20 years. “It was a pain in the ass, but memorable.”

A memorial service was planned for Ryan’s birthday in May, which would be held at Specs. Survivors include brothers Jordan Ryan of Atlanta, Ben Ryan of Santa Barbara and sister Sally Ryan of Atlanta.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwhitingsf


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