Donald Deane

Don Deane isn’t an easy guy to figure out. He owns Bolinas’s historic and sometimes raucous Smiley’s Saloon—yet he hasn’t “had a drink in 30 years.” He’s the publisher-editor of West Marin’s ultraliberal monthly Coastal Post—yet he’s not hesitant to declare, “I believe governments are inherently bad.” And though at age 66 he’s never been married (“I came within a half a mile of it once”), he’s been a caring foster parent to literally dozens of at-risk teenagers over the past three decades.

“I came to Bolinas in 1971,” Deane says in a voice so soft that at times it’s a challenge to hear. “It was just after the surge of alternative politics and hippie lifestyle.” The 28-year-old Deane, a recent psychology graduate of San Francisco State, was a county juvenile probation officer at the time. “I moved here because I was fed up paying rent and hoped to buy a house,” he says. “Then, over time, I guess I just fell in love with the place.”

Smiley’s Saloon, where Deane maintains an upstairs office for the Coastal Post, first opened for business in 1851; it received its current name from “Smiley” Biachini, who owned the pub in the mid-1950s. In addition to a well-worn pool table and a well-lit CD player, Smiley’s has a scarred 20-foot bar, eight spartan hotel rooms out back, two computer poker games and live weekend entertainment, and it serves as a local Internet hot spot. Deane bought Smiley’s in 1990. “While it’s not hugely profitable, it’s more so now than when I took it over,” he says.

Deane started the Coastal Post in 1977. The newspaper is mailed to readers throughout Marin and distributed free in newsstands as far east as Corte Madera. Recent editions featured the writings of novelist Anne Lamott, comedian Will Durst and author Norman Solomon, as well as front-page articles claiming Vice President Cheney was drunk when he shot a hunting buddy, examining the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iran, and describing how owners of medical pot clubs are being threatened with forfeiture of their property by the DEA. As a business, the paper is “a dog,” says Deane. “It’s truly my nemesis; my interest has always been in the editorial aspects, not the business end.”

As for the more than 50 teenagers he’s foster-parented, “these were kids in their early teens, mostly from broken homes around the Bay Area.” Very few of them “had a problem adjusting to life in Bolinas,” he adds, and as many as a dozen still live in the area. He sees them regularly. “Most are successful adults raising good families. I consider that a huge victory.”

How did Deane come to be known as the unofficial “mayor of Bolinas”? He chalks it up to “being visible” as the owner of the newspaper and saloon. Then he adds with a smile, “Heck, I don’t think anyone could be mayor of this town.”

To get us started, would you describe yourself politically? In some ways, I’m conservative, but mostly, I’m fairly liberal. (Long pause.) I believe people are inherently good. If left alone they will make good choices for themselves and society. On the other hand, I believe governments are inherently bad. Much of the negative [aspect] manifests itself through governments assuming people aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. As a result, a whole structure of laws and rules have been established to do just that. I know liberals are often responsible for much of this, but I don’t care who does it; it is wrong.

Let’s not get maudlin, but briefly say what you’d want to see in your obituary. My most important role has been with the kids I’ve worked with. I’m most proud of that. As for running a saloon and hotel, there’s nothing terribly altruistic there, but it has to be done and it might as well be me doing it. My newspaper, the Coastal Post, has gone through many different phases, but I think it has served a good purpose. I guess I feel good about it all.

Is the Coastal Post going to make it? The newspaper hasn’t missed an issue in 30 years now; that’s 360 issues. In the beginning we did maybe 300 copies. It’s always been a free monthly publication—annual subscriptions of $24 just cover mailing costs—and I’m both the editor and publisher and do some writing. Circulation grew to as many as 15,000, but now we’re down to 9,000. Costs have gotten so high, and advertising is always a bear to sell. But I’m determined to keep getting it out.

And your role as a foster parent? Over the past 30 years, I’ve parented sometimes two or three kids at a time. I own a seven-bedroom home on 10 acres and that’s where the kids lived… I got them when they were in their early teens and they stayed with me until they were 18 or 19. Most were kids who weren’t dealt the best hand, and I always felt a home life should have some structure, boundaries and a minimum of conflict. And remember, as a bachelor, I had no one to argue with.

After operating continuously for 157 years, how’s Smiley’s doing? I look on myself as the trustee of Smiley’s. It’s been up and running a pretty long time. With me, it’s survived the last 18 years, and that’s longer than most owners. The ’80s were roaring as far as drugs and alcohol are concerned. Then in the ’90s, things slowed down considerably.

Now we’re doing more collateral things at Smiley’s like check cashing and Western Union where Hispanic [residents] send money to their families, that sort of thing. Also, we regularly have live entertainment and charge a cover. New Year’s eve we had a party featuring the French Gypsies, a nice reggae band.

A bachelor who owns a saloon is a foster parent? How does that happen? Remember, I haven’t had a drink in 30 years. I’m one of the 10 percent who has a problem with alcohol. Once I realized that, I just quit.

Please share your thoughts regarding the following: the legalization of marijuana? I think the money being spent to restrict the use of marijuana is insane. The government should neither encourage nor restrict the use of drugs or alcohol. That our government restricts the use of marijuana is the weirdest phenomenon I can imagine. It’s just nuts. With the money spent on the War on Drugs—what is it, over $20 billion a year?—we could send a whole generation of kids to universities like Stanford.

And we spend what—$30,000 a year to imprison someone who is caught using drugs? That’s insane.

Global warming? It’s the most pressing issue facing West Marin. If the predicted increases in sea level hold true, West Marin is a goner! The tide is expected to rise three to five meters over the next 25 to 30 years. That will decimate Bolinas and Stinson Beach. Hopefully, it’s not too late to take remedial actions.

President George W. Bush? I think the country is in acute distress right now because of his policies. The war in Iraq is an abomination. He started it with a lie, it is draining our treasury, and the billions that have been either stolen or lost in his administration are unbelievable. In the process, our country’s reputation has been destroyed. To me, it’s very startling that we can be even talking about things like torture—and yet we’re having that debate. It’s just unbelievable.

The 2008 presidential election? While it will be an interesting election, it’s now hard to be idealistic about our political system and how it works. I don’t have a candidate yet. But whoever is elected—and it will not be a Republican—will have a very, very hard row to hoe. It will take many, many years to make the corrections that will be necessary when President Bush leaves office.

Your heroes? Rather than historic figures, I think people with us every day are my heroes. I think members of the local Hispanic community are very heroic. I find the people who risked greatly in crossing the border to attain a better life for themselves and their families are incredible.

This goes beyond the issue of illegal immigration. Any one of us would be inclined to do the same thing — to want to make our lives work and, in the process, improve the lives of our loved ones — but we may not have the raw courage to actually do it. I think those who do it are hugely heroic.

What gives you hope? I’m a fairly optimistic person. But I’m always open to the dark side—the possibility that things will go wrong and the best outcome won’t happen. I think most people are basically good and want good things for themselves, their loved ones and others.

However, I also believe, unfortunately, that we’ve lost our way over the last couple of years. I hope we can find it again. People are enormously resilient and, given an opportunity, are capable of a great deal. I’m confident we’ll find our way.