By Lindsay Adams
Photo: William “Mac” McElroy owns the Aquarius Barber Shop on Haight Street, which is accompanied by O’Looney’s Market in a short list of businesses that have seen the scene change through time. The patient father and grandfather moved to San Francisco more than 50 years ago, opening his shop when he saw the chance.
“A lot has changed,” said Nikki Cooper, owner of Two Jack’s Nik’s Place restaurant, 401 Haight St., as she smiled softly with faraway eyes while looking at the black and white photographs on the darkly painted walls that surround her. It’s past the lunch rush and too early for the dinner crowd, so the Lower Haight restaurant is empty. There is a certain hush about the place, yet the snapshots on the walls radiate with life. Groups of people – some smiling and some serious, some squeezed into booths and some standing with arms around one another – all stare back intently. They are in the same room, stuck in moments 40 years in the past
“They’re all of family,” Cooper continues, nodding to the pictures.
Originally called Two Jack’s Seafood, the restaurant first opened in 1977. Cooper’s parents, Stephen and Almeta Perry, owned Two Jack’s Liquor Store on the opposite corner. Cooper’s mother, Almeta, wanted to expand the business and preserve fish frys, a popular tradition in African-American culture so the restaurant was born.
Perry’s original 1977 menu, which features all fish options, along with a couple of side choices, still hangs - a large, wooden sign -above the restaurant’s counter.
As a child, Cooper would go to her parents’ businesses after school every day.
“There was a real rich community-feel,” she said in recollection about the Lower Haight District.“There was a lot of black-owned businesses. You could hear music from people’s homes playing out in the street. I would catch the bus and go visit customers at their homes. It was a strong community.” Another Lower Haight businessman with a long memory is William “Mac” McElroy, owner of the Aquarius Barber Shop, located about a block down the street from Two Jack’s Nik’s Place. He still remembers most of the businesses that existed in those days.
Mac’s shop is large, but cozy, lined with worn brown, black and red chairs. There is a faint smell of leather and the wood-paneled walls of the shop soften the harsh glare from the sun that cuts through the glass front door.
According to McElroy, the neighborhood meat market with a neon sign used to be a Bank of America, and next door on the corner was a Rexall Drugstore. A once black-owned liquor store is now a freshly painted CVS Pharmacy, and the cafe directly across the street from Aquarius had been a Chinese-owned cleaners.
During the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, the predominantly black-owned businesses in the Lower Haight thrived. About a decade earlier, in the ‘50s, most of white residents moved out into the suburbs of the City. Following their exit, black residents began to move into the neighborhood and formed a community.
Over time, the vibe continued to change. With the ‘80s and ‘90s came drugs, prostitution and rent price increases, which made it hard on businesses in the area, McElroy said.
Then, it became fashionable to live in city downtown once again.
“Prices went up and everybody came back from the suburbs. Rent used to be $150, $175 a month,” explains McElroy. “Then it shot up.” Still, Two Jack’s Seafood and Aquarius Barber Shop maintained their presence.
In 2006, Cooper took over the restaurant, revising the name to Two Jack’s Nik’s Place. Having learned to cook from her mother, grandmother and aunts, she expanded the menu to include more variety, adding her own favorite dishes and flavors. Today, many of the original customers, considered family by Cooper, still return, boasting about memories of her as a little girl running around with her mother.
McElroy still tends to many of his original customers, as well, although hair trends have changed a great deal. Back then, he styled a lot of perms and afros, while today, fades and close trims are more popular. Still, the reviews from his clients remain the same – he’s an excellent barber.
As a tribute to her own loyal patrons and as a way of giving back to her community, Cooper highlights the original New Jack’s 1977 menu on Throwback Thursdays and Secret Saturdays. Every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., diners are treated to chose items from the original menu at their original 1977 prices. The same special is available on one Saturday a month, deemed Secret Saturday, in which customers are given a secret password on the restaurant’s Facebook page or webpage to unlock the 1977 menu prices.
Both Cooper and McElroy acknowledge the fact that their businesses are one of few in the Lower Haight that have survived since the ’60s and ’70s. They stand like two proud and dusty soldiers among quirky boutiques and hipster bars, remnants of a much different time.
“San Francisco is always evolving. I’ve seen it change from the old days of the beatnicks, then the hippies, all the way up to now,” McElroy said. “It doesn’t remain the same.” Despite the constant changes, community support for McElroy and Cooper remain.
“I’m so full of gratitude for this neighborhood and its continued respect and support,” she professes.“I’m blessed to be here. We have an amazing staff that works hard. I’m grateful beyond measure.”