The Pitcher House was a line in the sand.
If you drove north on Pacific Coast Highway, it was one of the first businesses in Hermosa Beach, located in an old, slightly run-down bank building, making the place seem historic and mysterious at the same time. It was a reminder that Hermosa used to be a working-class town and a warning that you had only a few more miles until you hit the tonier Manhattan Beach.
In the late 1990s, the Pitcher House was full of middle-aged surfers who'd push through the bar's swinging doors and drink a few Buds while keeping their distance from the just-out-of-college crowd doing upside-down margaritas on the Strand, Hermosa's bright, main drag that was starting to look more and more like Manhattan.
They'd listen to their Dick Dale and nail their old license plates and business cards onto the wall along with the occasional bra while making fun of the occasional bourgeois interloper who ordered a shot of orange-flavored vodka, but they would buy him a beer afterward.
It was one of the first bars I visited after I turned 21 and was my first up-close experience with a dive and it made an impression. Whenever I came back home, I'd stop by the old place, have a few beers and pin my new card onto the wall.
The Pitcher House closed in 2007 and moved a few blocks away under a new name after the owner declined to make improvements the landlord wanted. It was replaced by some shiny new place called Saint Rocke. I griped to a friend that even though there were a few vintage bars left, including one across the street from the former Pitcher House, the old Hermosa Beach was dead. Whoever had pushed my beloved dive bar out had to be some soulless, corporate type.
"It's Allen Sanford," my friend said.
I hadn't spoken to Allen since middle school, when we'd played Little League together and he'd struck me out a few times. Despite that, I liked him, although we weren't close friends and hadn't kept in touch.
But he'd been to the Pitcher House in its heyday. We spoke over the phone and agreed to meet at Saint Rocke at 6:30 p.m. the next day, which happened to be opening night for the NFL.
Changes were evident. The old swinging doors at the front were gone. The new entrance was half a block to the north.
Allen and his partners had made the improvements that the Pitcher House owner had been unwilling to do. The back was bigger, there was a stage for musicians (Colin Hay was playing later). There was none of the raucous laughter or the crack of pool balls; the only sound was the staff setting up and a remixed Daft Punk song that surely would've been shouted down at the old Pitcher House.
A few friends met me and we watched the first half of the Packers-Saints game before Allen showed up, right on time.
After a round of handshakes, the first question was unavoidable: Why? Hadn't he liked the Pitcher House?
"Everyone did. I had my 16th birthday party there," said Allen, "party" being code for getting fake driver's licenses off Alvarado Street with your friends and then trying them out.
The renovations he'd made included not only preserving the original swinging doors — though they were now over the bar — but also not touching some paintings on the walls. "Anything old we tried to keep," he said.
By then the bar had filled up with a younger, well-dressed crowd, and it was clear Saint Rocke would do big business this night.
The Pitcher House's demise was inevitable, given the gradual change in Hermosa, which is now practically indistinguishable from Manhattan Beach.
We've all read the stories about smaller chains being swallowed up by bigger ones or homeowners selling their rights to developers. I spent one happy summer working at Either/Or Bookstore on Pier Avenue, Hermosa's main drag, reading Thom Jones story collections and wondering if every older white guy who came in might be the reclusive Thomas Pynchon, who was rumored to stop by.
A few summers later, the Either/Or was gone, replaced by a few gift stores and a Subway shop.
But the face of change had always been fuzzy — a corporate board or a stranger in a suit, not somebody who'd thrown a fastball by me when we were 12.
Had Allen ever felt, well, guilty?
He said that wasn't the right word because he hadn't pushed the original owner out. But he got my meaning.
"Look, I hate change, too," he said. "But I figured if it's going to be somebody taking over the Pitcher House, it might as well be me."
Allen was right; gentrification is inevitable, especially by the beach. When faced with the same situation as Allen, replace a beloved institution myself or leave it to strangers, I would've made a similar choice.
Yeah, Saint Rocke isn't as funky as the Pitcher House and would never match up to my memories, but it was a perfectly good place to watch the second half of the game.
But the sold-out Colin Hay show was about to start and there was no room, so the next stop was the new Pitcher House in the second floor of a strip mall a few blocks south.
It had taken the place of a pool hall I once liked.
Just another reminder that nothing stays the same.