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Survivor: One Santa Rosa area bartender’s fight to keep his saloon, and himself, alive

John Timberlake is not married, at the moment, though he has been in the past - four times, to be precise. And he’s not ruling out future nuptials.

“I’m not a quitter,” said Timberlake, 59. “I’m a hopeless romantic.”

If there was any quit in him, Timberlake’s bar would’ve gone belly-up several times since he bought it in 2016. But after a tense two months during the COVID-19 pandemic, when its survival hung in the balance, the Final Edition Bar & Grill in Larkfield is out of critical condition and on its way to a full recovery.

One of the best-known bartenders in Sonoma County since the mid-1980s, Timberlake always wanted a saloon of his own. He fulfilled that ambition four years ago, when he and two partners bought the Final Edition, a beloved, blue-collar neighborhood bar just off Old Redwood Highway in Larkfield.

Timberlake knew it wouldn’t be easy. He’s worked in the county’s bars and restaurants since 1984. But he wasn’t prepared for the Old Testament-caliber tribulations awaiting him, including a heart attack, two wildfires, power outages and “the virus apocalypse.”

After the last four years, he said, “I’m ready for it to start raining dogs and cats. I’m ready for the Rapture.”

Renowned for its welcoming atmosphere and excellent burgers, the Final Edition has ample room for improvement when it comes to abiding by rules governing customers’ social distancing and the use of face coverings. True, patrons are not required by the state’s public health order issued Thursday to wear masks if they’re 6 feet apart, or if they’re with members of the same household. But a Press Democrat photographer who entered the bar around 4 p.m. on Thursday was greeted by the sight of at least 15 people, without masks, nowhere near the proper physical distance. And the local public health order requires people to wear masks when inside buildings other than their homes.

While he and his staff make sure that everyone in the bar has a mask, Timberlake said, they’ve not required groups of friends to keep their face coverings on while socializing. His priority, he said, has been “protecting my staff.”

Standing at a hightop table during Wednesday’s happy hour, he pointed at a regular posted up at the bar.

“That’s Grumpy Brian,” Timberlake said. “He was my first customer here.”

Valued gathering place

Both men still laugh at the memory of their first exchange four years ago. Looking up from his beverage that afternoon, Brian Elder greeted the new barkeep thusly: “You’re ugly. Where’s Amanda?”

They’ve gotten along famously ever since.

A refrigeration and HVAC specialist, Elder said that the coronavirus-related closing of this bar put a major crimp in his social life. “I was missing the people that come in here - the friendships,” he said.

To support the Final Edition, Elder drove over and picked up lunch once a week. He had plenty of company. Staying open, even if they were only serving takeout, “gave our customers a touchstone, a place to go,” said Timberlake’s co-owner, Jennifer Kirchner. “Even if they couldn’t come in, they could say hello, and shoot the breeze.”

Timberlake’s sacrifices to keep his bar alive included downsizing his living quarters.

He’d moved out of one apartment, just before the county imposed its stay-at-home order in mid-March, and was about to plunk down a deposit on a new one. Unsure of when he’d get paid again, he let those lodgings go, instead moving into a room in the house of some old friends.

In the kitchen at the Final Edition, they worked with no air-conditioning, no lights, no TV - “no nothing,” Kirchner said. “We had no money. We were scratching and clawing.”

They were rescued by a timely loan from the federal government, and by their own fierce determination to survive.

Before he could save his bar, Timberlake had to save himself.

Flames at the back door

He was tending bar late on the night of Oct. 8, 2017. Three different men came in with the same lament - “I lost my house” - before Timberlake went outside and saw the firestorm bearing down on Larkfield “like a freight train.”

In time, the Tubbs fire had fully engaged a house next to the bar, the flames coming right up to the back door of the Final Edition. “All I kept thinking was, ‘I can’t let it burn,’” Timberlake said, recalling that night.

The garden hose was no help - there was no water pressure. So he spent three hours filling buckets and beer pitchers with water. “What a stupid ass I was,” he said.

When a firefighter told him he was in danger, and it was time to clear out, Timberlake did a double-take. It was Fred Esposti, “my ex-cousin-in-law.” He let Timberlake defend the bar for awhile longer.

Looking outside around 4 a.m., Timberlake noticed a jet stream of wind-borne embers and firebrands.

He was filled with sudden fear that his roof was burning, and about to collapse on him. It wasn’t. But looking back on it, Timberlake thinks that’s when he suffered a mild heart attack.

It took him three months to go see a doctor. It was January 2018, the Friday before the Super Bowl. Overweight, out of breath, a dull ache at the base of his neck, he sat in his office and thought to himself, “I am dying.”

He drove himself to Kaiser Permanente hospital in Santa Rosa and had barely gotten out of the car to walk to the emergency room when a nurse came outside to meet him.

“Do I look that bad?” he asked.

“Yes, you do,” she replied.

His suspicion had been correct. He really was dying. A main artery in his heart was 70% blocked. He had arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, extreme sleep apnea and several other ailments - none of which hurt as much as the verdict from the doctor who looked at his angiogram and told him he needed a pacemaker and a triple bypass, but that no one would perform that surgery on him, in his condition.

“You’ll die on the operating table,” Timberlake was told. “Lose some weight, then come back and see us.”

Driving home with his girlfriend, the outgoing, upbeat barkeep was silent and sullen. He was scared and angry, thinking about what the doctor had said.

“That pissed me off,” he recalled. “I thought, to hell with you, I’m not dying.”

Working through Kaiser’s medical weight-loss program, Timberlake dropped over 100 pounds in 4½ months, “basically by starving myself,” he said.

So dramatic was the improvement of his health that instead of a triple bypass and pacemaker, surgeons told him he’d be fine with a couple of stents.

‘This bar is me’

That close call has made him more grateful for each day on the planet, each day as an owner of the business that fills him with passion and purpose.

“This bar is me,” Timberlake said, his sweeping gesture taking in the taps and jukebox and the painting, over one of the pool tables, of a voluptuous woman executing a complicated trick shot.

“I’m a barman. This is what I do.”

He’s dabbled with other occupations. After graduating from Piner High School in 1979, Timberlake trained, briefly, to be a machinist, and had a cup of coffee as a mortgage loan officer. After six weeks of that, Timberlake recalled, “I stood up in my cubicle and said, ‘I’m f------ out of here. I’m going back to the bar.’?”

He’s been slinging drinks, dispensing advice, cracking jokes and defusing arguments since 1984, his main ports of call before this one being Old Mexico, John Barleycorns, Rita’s, Roberto’s, Basilico and the Flamingo Lounge, where he once had to politely persuade Bruce Willis to extinguish his cigarette.

Where bartenders were once part of the party, regularly drinking and smoking behind the bar, the profession changed in the 1990s, Timberlake said, and he changed with it. He’s not there to party, he’s there to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

“John likes to project himself as a jerk,” Final Edition regular Michael Griffith said, “but he’s a good guy, and he really cares about the people in here. And that’s why they keep coming back.”

One of the Timberlake’s tips to new bar owners: do what will work, not what you want to do.

If he did what he wanted to do, he said, “we’d have eight recliners in here, and watch Elvis movies all day. But that’s not going to make any money.”

Another tip: swab your own lavatories. That way, he said, “you find out what’s broken, what’s leaking, and if someone’s doing drugs in the bathroom.”

A final tip, for the general population: When you’re out shape, and your prognosis is grim, “You don’t have to die. Take your medication. Do what they tell you to do. You can live another day. But you’ve got to fight.”

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