Grassroots effort to save historic piano bar in Oakland at brink of closure

A historic piano bar in Oakland was on the verge of closing for good until A GoFundMe was launched by some loyal regulars.

The Alley Piano Bar & Restaurant, located in the Grand Lake neighborhood has been around since the 1930s. But in March, it was forced to close its doors, and the owner doesn’t know when it will finally be safe to reopen.

Its unique interior includes wallpaper made of business cards. There’s a lounge area with traditional songbooks and microphones.

"It’s an Oakland institution. It’s a travel destination," said Bryan Seet, on The Alley’s piano players.

The owner, Jacqualine Simpkins, said the pandemic forced the bar to close. Then the tenants living in the upstairs unit could no longer pay rent.

"I depend on that money for my mortgage and I got really behind," said Simpkins. "So I actually had enough for one more loan payment."

A core group of regulars heard how dire the situation was and stepped in to help.

Seet launched a GoFundMe with a goal to raise $75,000. "We've set a target of 5 or 6 months Jackie needs to pay the mortgage, expenses, and utilities," said Seet.

Some supporters include Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal – the screenwriters of the movie "Blindspotting." The Alley was used in one of the scenes of the film.

The family of Ghostship victim Ben Runnels donated $5,000 in his memory. Runnels was an Oakland musician who often sang at the piano bar. Employees posted an emotional response to this donation, saying "Though he’s no longer with us in person, his spirit absolutely lives on in the Alley."

Simpkins said the bar will reopen when it’s safe to do so. Money from the fundraiser will allow her to stay in business through June.

"It’s overwhelming. I'm just so happy," said Simpkins.