While San Francisco is often recognized as Northern California’s best literary landmark, and for good reason, it’s best not to forget that Oakland too is steeped in literary history. I mean, come on, we’ve got an entire section of town devoted to Jack London!
To celebrate Oakland’s rich literary landscape, we’ve constructed a Literary Bike Tour of Oakland, perfect for readerly and writerly riders. And it’ll take less than an hour to complete!
Rather than starting with Jack London Square, we suggest beginning this tour at Jack London’s actual residence, in Piedmont, California. London and his wife Bessie moved to this residence in 1901, and it was here that the great author wrote The Call of the Wild (1903). This residence is also rumored to be the oldest standing house in Piedmont, built in 1876. Referred to by London as “the Bungalow,” he described the home in a 1902 letter: “A most famous porch, broad and long and cool, and all for $35 a month.”
Once you’ve admired this “long and cool” historical porch, hop back on your wheels for a quick ride to your next destination. Take Blair Avenue west until it soon merges with Scenic Avenue. Make a right on Scenic Ave. and soon after another right onto Oakland Avenue. On your right at 2083 Oakland Ave. is your second destination.
Travel time: 1 minute.
Jack London’s good friend and the author of The Wine of Wizardry (1909), Sterling resided in Piedmont around the same time as London, and it is said the two authors visited regularly. Friends referred to Sterling as “the uncrowned king of bohemia,” and his cyanide-induced suicide in 1926 is often recognized as the end of San Francisco’s golden age of bohemia.
After contemplating the residence of Sterling, hop back on your wheels, we’re gonna make a quick pit stop on the way to our next destination. Continue west down Oakland Avenue until you reach Grand Avenue. Take a left onto Grand and enjoy the lovely ride until you reach 3316 Grand Ave.
Travel time: 10 minutes.
Walden Pond Books is Oakland’s largest and one of its most valued independent bookstores, and since its been in operation since 1973, it’s also the oldest. The “Rare Book Room” in the back, with its own special hours, is in itself worth a visit. Not to mention an area with local authors and a wonderful children’s section. While you’re looking for those Jack London and George Sterling books you now need in your personal library, be sure to check for anything by Gertrude Stein, because she’s next up on our literary tour.
Back on your wheels, recent purchases stored carefully in your bag/basket or strapped to your bike rack, let’s get going to our next literary landmark. Along the way we’ll be passing Lake Merritt, with plenty of beautiful picnic spots and benches to relax and do some reading, so if you haven’t grabbed a snack yet there’ll be plenty of options along the route. Continue south down Grand and make a left on El Embarcadero, cutting through Eastshore Park. Make a right on Lakeshore Avenue and follow along the lake until you see E. 18th St. Hang a left and follow E. 18th until you get to 10th Avenue. Make a right and head down just over one block. Your destination will be on the left at 1640 10th Avenue.
Travel time: 15 minutes.
Poet, author, and literary socialite, Stein was raised in Oakland and lived here from 1885 to 1891, until both of her parents had passed away. Stein famously wrote of Oakland, “there is no there there,” and these mysterious words are still interpreted in various ways by residents and scholars alike. The house is now gone, as Stein discovered upon returning in 1935, and perhaps this loss of physical origin explains her words regarding Oakland and home. And whether or not Stein’s home is not “there,” her impact on twentieth century literature makes this a worthwhile destination for an literary tour of Oakland.
Continue down 10th Ave. to Foothill Boulevard and make a right. Then make a left a few blocks later on 5th Avenue. Pass under the freeway and make a right onto the Alameda County Bicycle Route 5/Embarcadero. Take this lovely route with views until turning left on the San Francisco Bay Trail. (Here’s another lovely place for a picnic if you passed up Lake Merritt). Continue along the water until you make a slight right toward Webster Street and then a slight left at Harrison Street. Turn right shortly thereafter onto Webster St. and your destination is on the left at 48 Webster St.
Travel time: 15 minutes.
You’ve made it to the end of Oakland’s literary bike tour, and quite possibly the crown jewel of Oakland’s literary history. Sounds like you deserve to celebrate. Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon was built from wood collected from an old whaling ship in 1880, and functioned as a bunk-house until 1883, when it became a saloon. One look at Heinold’s, inside and out, and there’s no denying it. The very same tables that fill the bar to this day were once used by a schoolboy-aged Jack London for studying. But London isn’t the only author who could be found at Heinold’s. At one point or another, notable writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce visited and drank at Heinold’s. Mementos of this saloon’s history abound inside, and “Jack London’s Cabin” sits out front. So sit back, have a drink, rest your legs, and bask in the old-style greatness that surrounds you. Job well done.