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Oakland's last remaining piano bar, The Alley, in danger of closing

Photo courtesy of The Alley/Facebook
By Jay Barmann - Published on December 22, 2020.

A beloved institution on Grand Avenue in Oakland, The Alley, a divey piano bar/restaurant which has been in operation some 90 years, is one of many bars and music venues around the Bay that have suffered with little or no revenue the past nine months. But now, things are coming to a head because the longtime owner of the bar also has upstairs tenants who are having trouble paying rent.

The Alley has been open since 1933 (at least officially — many would say that opening date suggests it might have been in operation during Prohibition), and it's been in Jackie Simpkins' family since 1950. Simpkins has run the bar since 2009, and she tells KRON4 that she's come to a crossroads in this pandemic, without the ability to make any money on to-go food or drinks.

“It means everything,” Simpkins tells the station. “It’s my life basically, I’ve poured so much into it.”

The Alley is the last remaining piano bar in Oakland, and until 2015 was well known as the performance venue of Rod Dibble — the octogenarian pianist who knew 4,000 songs by heart, and who presided over the piano there for 50 years. Dibble passed away in 2017, two years after a hip injury that made it almost impossible for him to maneuver behind the bar. But the place still retains an irresistible aura of long-gone booze dens and neighborhood piano bars that not every neighborhood was blessed with.

The Alley also figured centrally in the 2018 film Blindspotting, starring Daveed Diggs.

It's possible that The Alley could qualify for the $15 billion in new cultural grants being offered under the second federal stimulus package, geared specifically to venues and theaters that have lost the vast majority of their revenue due to pandemic lockdowns.

“We need some kind of help, small businesses. I don’t know what I’m going to do after this,” Simpkins told KRON4. “I’m so very close to closing it’s not funny.”

Simpkins cited not only the extended shutdown of the bar, but also the fact that the building has other tenants in apartments upstairs who have been unable to pay rent, causing her added financial strain. She has reportedly already received PPP loans to keep the business afloat.

A fan of the bar, Bryan Seet, has started a GoFundMe campaign for the bar, trying to raise $75,000 to get them through the next few months. "Though a dim light at the end of the tunnel is at last appearing with the recent release of a COVID vaccine, we anticipate it will be spring or summer before The Alley can safely and sustainably open its doors, especially given the super-spreader nature of one of its main draws — singing," Seet writes. "That’s a long five or six months — but it’s only five or six months! If we can get The Alley through this hardest time, we can keep it going into perpetuity and once again gather there for music and community like none other."

Also, Simpkins asks that people tune in for The Alley's Virtual Piano Bar nights and request songs — and donate. 

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