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Bolinas? Baloney! 

The effort of one small town to remain untouched by time has bred enmity and disaffection as surely as it has produced anything else

Wednesday, Jul 12 1995

Page 5 of 7

"Wrong," Alex Horvath says. At 34, Horvath is an old-timer in town. "That's the Airplane House." The Jefferson Airplane, you see, occupied the house at one time. Let the neighborhood kids swim in the pool. "Everybody will continue to call it the Airplane House."

And there's Susie Tompkins' house, on the Star Route as you drive into town. Tompkins, who owns Esprit, paid $2.3 million in 1989 for 44 acres overlooking the Bolinas Lagoon, a primo piece of real estate that the Marin County Open Space District had coveted but, ultimately, could not afford.

On the property, Tompkins built a 6,000-square-foot house, according to local real estate agent Peter Harris. She was able to build the house despite the water moratorium because there were two existing water meters on the property, Utility District Manager Phil Buchanan says. Former BCPUD board member Paul Kayfetz offers a contradictory explanation for multimillionaire Tompkins' ability to build in a town that has shut out people like Charles Gilbert, the retired schoolteacher of handicapped adults: "It's one of the few places you can drill a well," Kayfetz says of the Tompkins property.

But whether it's due to a well or a water meter, the presence in Bolinas of a huge house owned by one of the Bay Area's wealthiest people has not gone unremarked. Some of the townspeople say Tompkins deserves credit for not building an ostentatious house on the property. Others bemoan the loss of open-space access to the 44-acre lot, the top of which affords a view of the town, the lagoon, and the ocean that few other spots in Bolinas can match. Tompkins, for her part, refuses comment through her spokesman, Danny Kraus. "At this point, she is not prepared to talk about Bolinas in an interview with any publication," Kraus says.

But if some Bolinians don't like all the newcomers in town, they won't have to go far to find people with whom to commiserate. Some of the people who complain about newcomers and their effect on the town were, not so long ago, newcomers themselves, arrivistes on the peninsula. In fact, at the point in the '70s that the town declared itself separate from -- and perhaps better than -- the rest of us, it was populated mainly by people who had lived there five years or less. And as everyone knows, sometimes it's the face in the mirror that you hate the most.

"They'd found Bolinas, and they wanted to keep it as it always was," says Louise Pepper. "Only they had no idea what it was like."

Before I tell you the history of the town, take a quick minute to dream it up for yourself. Let's see, Bolinas -- a small seaside fishing village? An Edward Hopper painting?

Nope. In the past, bucolic Bolinas was a shipbuilding, timber-stripping economic stronghold in Marin, a place besmeared with mud and money, founded by cattle rancher Gregorio Briones and populated by men's men's men, who drank their way over the mountains on muleback and stagecoach and foot, pistol-whipping each other for amusement when things got a little slow. The way the photographs housed in plastic sleeves in the Bolinas Historical Museum tell the story, Bolinas used to be full of rugged-looking pioneers who glared at the camera with the kind of enmity born only of hardship and rain. Then, after all the lumber was gone from the hillsides, hotels sprang up, serving overland travelers from San Rafael and the iron-stomached fun-seekers who braved the rough sea journey across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Bankers and bankers' wives moved in, too, buying the farmhouses hand-built by the hard-nosed pioneers and turning them into vacation homes. Throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, San Francisco newspapers ran lots of cheery stories and photo spreads about taking big old Pontiacs and Cadillacs out for spins through Marin and stumbling onto the pristine paradise of Bolinas, where the natives were friendly and eager to please. It wasn't until the '70s, as it happens, that Bolinians barricaded themselves away from the rest of the world, proclaimed their independence, and started changing things around.

Here's what Bolinas has today, downtown: a store, a bar, a hotel, a restaurant, a bakery, a library, a vacant lot where a restaurant burned down 20 years ago, a food co-op, a coin laundry, a post office, a hardware store, a lumber store, a liquor store, a secondhand store, two real estate offices, a curio shop, a gas station, an art gallery, a museum thrift store, a surf shop -- and a whole bunch of dogs. And barring the dogs, which are everywhere, the streets, midweek, are deserted.

Except, that is, for the people who never leave town. Whose combined presence, at times, makes an afternoon in Bolinas feel a little like a rush-hour ride on the New York City subway system, in terms of peace, quiet, and just plain pastoral pulchritude.

Alex Horvath, the bartender and near-native Bolinian, has a little dance he does with his hands to depict what happens to the outsiders who happen to stumble into Smiley's. Horvath is sitting across from me at lunch in Sausalito, the town Bolinas people like to use to scare each other into continuing to ward off tourists. When a new person comes into Smiley's, Horvath says, the bar regulars swoop in and circle around like birds over roadkill. He's illustrating this by flapping his thumbs and pinkies, making a raw kind of croaking noise between his teeth.

"It's always the same," Horvath says, flapping his pinkies and thumbs, bird wings, croaking. "They're like crows, circling around."

"Why is that?" I ask him. "Because they don't get out of town much?"
"They don't get out of town at all," Horvath says.

In Bolinas, I'm at lunch in the Shop, across from Smiley's, and a man I saw two days earlier on a wooden beach bench with a Budweiser at five minutes to 11 in the morning motions me to his table. "Come sit with us," Julian Fox calls out. "Or I'll come sit with you."

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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