Collector Arnie Gordon Remembers Oakland Through Ashtrays

He pays tribute to the heady days of Oakland nightlife, which were on par and perhaps even dwarfed the current renaissance in Uptown, in an awe-inspiring ashtray collection.


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Arnie Gordon shows off his collection of 112 ashtrays and other memorabilia from defunct Oakland bars in his shop, A.J.’s Attic.

Photo by Stephen Texeira

To gaze upon Arnie Gordon’s collection of 112 ashtrays from defunct Oakland bars is to step into a smoke-filled tavern on Broadway, with Cal Tjader playing vibes in the backroom, 65-cent beers on tap, and Kenny Stabler holding court until 4 a.m.

“Those were amazing times,” said Gordon, 73, an antiques dealer who owned the Alley Cat bar at Jack London Square in the 1960s and ’70s. “People were friendly. Drinks were cheap. There was so much great live music, all kinds of after-hours places. ... We’d drink, we’d eat, we’d bowl, we’d have fun, and then sleep all day. I’m not sure how we lived through it, but I guess we did.”

Gordon’s tribute to those heady days of Oakland nightlife, which were on par and perhaps even dwarfed the current renaissance in Uptown, is his awe-inspiring ashtray collection. Each ashtray is more than just a receptacle for soot; it’s a reminder of a great night out, an old friend, a time when NFL stars drank with the fans, and Stan Kenton played until dawn.

“I’ve been to every one of these places. And probably used some of these very ashtrays,” he said. “For me, this is about memories.”

Gordon’s collection includes metal “tri-lobe” ashtrays from Heinold’s in the 1930s (accompanied by an unopened, front-strike Heinhold’s matchbook), glass ashtrays from places like the Psycho at Third and Broadway and Dahlke’s hofbrau next to the police station, and elegant souvenir ashtrays from places like the Hotel Leamington, complete with the old phone exchange.

His favorite is from the Bow & Bell at Jack London Square, which was co-owned by Jackie Jensen, an Oakland native who went on to baseball stardom with Cal and the Boston Red Sox. The ashtray features a golden likeness of Jensen swinging a bat.

Gordon’s ashtray fascination started about seven years ago, when was looking for something new to collect (his previous obsessions include slot machines and neon signs). Ashtrays piqued his interest because they’re small, sturdy, not overly pricey, and pretty much obsolete, since smoking is now banned just about everywhere.

He scours Craigslist, eBay, and antique shops, but he’s not an absolutist: He’s branched out to menus and matchbooks, as well, amassing a staggering collection of mementoes from bygone Oakland establishments. Among the highlights is a menu from the Sea Wolf, an elegant 1940s restaurant where one could buy a dozen oysters for $1, a porterhouse steak for $2.75, and a bottle of Wente Brothers Chablis for $3.25.

A fixation on historic Oakland nightlife is completely understandable, said Naomi Schiff, a board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance. The city has long been a haven of good food, music, and booze.

“Since World War II, waves of people in their 20s and 30s have come here, often for jobs,” she said. “So you get a critical mass of young people who don’t have kids, and the houses are too small to host big parties. So people go out. There have always been great bars and restaurants but also tons of movie theaters. Almost every neighborhood had something.”

Gordon’s collection is on display at his shop, A.J.’s Attic in Castro Valley. It’s for sale, although he is insisting that the collection stay intact and he has decidedly mixed feelings about parting with it. 

“I love it and I’ll hate to see it go, but you can’t keep everything,” he said with a sigh. “Eventually you have to make room for new things.”

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