Brett Walker’s new coffee shop George and Lennie isn’t located in the best part of town. A few storefronts down from the corner of Golden Gate and Hyde, in the heart of San Francisco’s infamous Tenderloin, the smartly furnished shop sits on a block best known for drug dealing and petty crime. This makes a visit to George and Lennie something of a unique coffee experience. For example, while researching this feature and within two minutes of my first trip to the shop, I find myself engaged in conversation with a local gentleman named Ivan about the squadron of cop cars flanking the US Post Office across the street.
“There’s a midget in there that deals crack,” Ivan tells me, “and there’s always a group of folks in there getting high and causing trouble.” I’ll take his word for it. Why beat around the bush? This neighborhood of San Francisco—statistically one of the city’s most dangerous and violent—is not where the average specialty coffee enthusiast, happy-go-lucky coffee tourist, or seeker of curated whitewashed cultural experiences dares to tread. And yet it is is exactly here that George and Lennie—named after the doomed characters in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—proudly sits, emitting its own idiosyncratic aura and serving a city in flux.
Walker didn’t intend to open a coffee shop. He was a longtime Four Barrel barista, recognizable by his prehistoric chest-length beard and blondish-red hair hanging down his back. A photographer by trade, Walker had used coffee as a means to produce and show his self portrait-heavy photographs around the city. When the group managing the building that George and Lennie now calls home approached him with the idea of opening a coffee shop, Walker had barely entertained the idea. “It wasn’t in the plans for years,” he says. “It just happened.” After his first meeting with the managers, Walker walked away with a key to the building. Five months later, he opened the doors of his very own coffee shop.
Walker admits he didn’t really know what he was doing when he decided to open the shop. “I didn’t approach this project with a specific finished product in mind. I had a vision, and I let that vision lead me.” The space feels both planned and unplanned: A sandwich board outside of the shop features the words “DRINK COFFEE!” slapped together with neon green electrician’s tape. The menu includes traditional coffee drinks (George and Lennie deploys a three-group La Marzocco Linea Classic), but also scrambled eggs. In one corner there’s a giant ruler leaning against the condiment table, a six-foot-long plot printer (which Walker uses to print his photos after-hours) slumbering next to it. There’s a lava lamp and antique studio lights, an Indian shrine, cacti and knit art; as you walk in, a wall of pictures taken by Walker at his weekly photo-and-coffee pop-ups around the city stare out at you, all of them posed within a fake camping setup in front of the bright green of a scrim.
“I view my pictures,” Walker says as he lines a cutting board with tissue-thin pieces of cheese and meat he’s just sliced, “as amalgamations of many different things, and I feel the same way about the coffee shop.” Walker is, currently, both the owner and sole employee George and Lennie, so the space has become a natural extension of his life, a combination of his various worlds. The end result, with that street scene pulsing outside, ends up feeling totally singular and utterly different than any other coffee shop in the city.
This is, in part, because many of Walker’s aesthetic choices were never intended to be permanent; they were merely temporary solutions that, after a while, simply stuck. Chief among them is the beautiful ash table, designed by Walker’s wife—furniture designer Katie Gong—that cuts across the middle of the space. Walker absconded with the table, which had been in the couple’s home, and set it up as a placeholder until the pair could build something new. “But now,” Walker says, “that table has become a really beautiful and unique addition to the space.” Walker jokingly describes the shop’s aesthetic as “mid-century Southwest,” but enjoys hearing customers say it’s like “being in someone’s living room.”
George and Lennie, full of houseplants and furniture that almost demands you interact with other customers, feels like a place you want to sit down in for a while. It is both a respite from and a new component part of the manic pace and harsh realities of this neighborhood. Don’t call this place an oasis—embrace the space’s contradictions and find your own place within them. There’s nowhere else like it.