Excellent Anachronism at Schmidt’s Tobacco and Trading

Fondly known as The Pub, the Solano Avenue tobacconist is a homey place where regulars stay for hours.

The Pub’s official name is Schmidt’s Tobacco and Trading, but nobody ever calls it that. To the regulars — and they are legion, many reportedly coming in every day — it’s simply The Pub, which is sort of wonderful in its definitiveness: The Pub; you only need one.

The Pub sits in a white house on a quiet stretch of Solano Avenue just west of the Albany-Berkeley border, and it is basically your living room, but better. Once a house and never really remodeled, it’s composed of a succession of smaller rooms rather than one big one, each with worn hardwood floors and comfy furniture and nice natural light and excellent knicknackery: Chinese lanterns above the tobacco bar, faded paintings of wind-whipped ships near the bathrooms, most of origin unknown to anyone who works there. Also like a house: Credit cards aren’t accepted, and there’s no website. There’s also no hard liquor, just a bunch of beers and wines, and, as its name indicates, The Pub is also a tobacconist, offering, at any given time, about a dozen varieties foreign and domestic, as well as pipes, rolling papers, cigars, and the like, sitting in a glass case as if sent here from another time — one none of us can necessarily remember, but which all of our grandfathers can, when things were built to last and it was perfectly acceptable to sit down at a bar with a big pipeful of tobacco and a Guinness after a long day. Out front, there’s a tree-shaded, bulb-lit patio for smoking, and another, smaller one out back, all of them possessing of their own aging furniture and hodgepodgey wall art: It should come as no surprise that this used to be an antique store, and that the people who come tend to stay for hours.

Humans-wise, it’s also hodgepodgey, and also in that distinctly organic-feeling way: On any given evening near the bookcase in the front room, maybe there’ll be two or three people quietly reading, curled up close on worn velvet chairs, or a multigenerational group playing a spirited game of Monopoly over foamy beers, or a knitting club having its monthly meeting, all tiny sweaters and clacking needles and tinkling laughter. And, at the other side of the room, near a grandfather clock that looks as though it could stop working and/or topple over at any minute, a pair of guys — the kind of guys that seem to exist only in Berkeley, or, technically, Albany, white-bearded and sweatpanted — discuss economic policy; next to them, someone with the right idea annotates a beat-up copy of The Canterbury Tales between big gulps of wine. The place is designed to be this way, according to a fastidious and cheerful barkeep, to be “a friendly kind of place, a chatting kind of place, very in touch with the 20th-century pub aesthetic”: There’s no wi-fi, as a matter of principle (and despite the fact that this would be a pretty wonderful place to bring a computer and try to be productive, fueled by tobacco and booze); the tables are meant to be shared.

The bartender says she worked at lots of other places and has never found one with such a strong community. They do each other favors, the barkeep says without elaboration, and when they’re on vacation they write in, their postcards now squeezed two or three or four to a pushpin on a back wall — each with their own non sequitur or story to tell, their sloping script and decidedly analog medium already feeling like another artifact of a recently bygone era. “Holy shit! I am in Paris!,” marvels Anna on the one with a surreally grandiose Eiffel Tower. S. writes from Astoria, Oregon with news that this town, despite being the purported setting of the movie The Goonies, looks nothing like the film. Someone with terrible penmanship offers to pick up some “collectibles for the Pub” from Arizona; another declares Ireland to be “beautiful” and “wet.” Baveet, meanwhile, writes from Egypt: “Camel milk: It ain’t no Guinness.” Indeed.


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