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.