Okay, I confess. I was once a customer at the once famous San Francisco Big Top marijuana supermarket. I wasn't the only one. At east 5000 or 6000 other people in San Francisco could make the same claim including Paul Krassner, Tim Leary, the Tubes and an 80 year old shopping bag lady. So it was hardly an exclusive club.
The Big Top was a retail marijuana market that had what every pot smoker was looking for-a large and varied selection of weed ranging from the most regular regular to the most exotic and expensive. On a typical evening there would be a couple of different types of Mexican four or five kinds of Colombian, hash, Thai Sticks, Cambodian, Hawaiian and ''Super Home grown California Sinsemilla. Tops and Shake were in separate bowls, all prices were clearly marked and everything was sold by weight
The Big Top was in operation for Over three years in one form or another It was run by a man once described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a young Bronx born former Air Force clerk restauranteur and utopian, Dennis Peron.
Worst Kept Secret
The Big Top was probably one of the worst kept secrets in 1970s San Francisco. Even if you didn't go there, you probably had heard about it. Part of the Big Top's appeal lay in the manner in which it blatantly ignored felony laws prohibiting the sale of marijuana. Dennis and his people ran what amounted to a neighborhood grocery store for pot complete with regular business hours two scales for speedy check-outs and even business cards.
Dennis was a righteous dealer who felt self-righteous about dealing. He felt he was performing a community service. Maybe he was. My experience had been one where I've seen his money and energy go back into the community. A close friend of Harvey Milk, Dennis Peron has been described as the father of the medical marijuana movement. He was the opposite of a profiteer. Dennis wasn't afraid of being busted, his biggest fear was getting ripped-off. Several scary rip-offs had forced Dennis to move his operation from over his communal Island Restaurant to the 11-room fiat at 715 Castro Street that became so famous.
It Was the Police
So, when one day during a hot summer several long-haired guys came running up the stairs waving .38s, Dennis thought, 'I've seen this movie be fore. A rip-off. Fortunately, it wasn't a rip-off. Unfortunately, it was the police. Fortunately, there is some question as to whether the police properly identified themselves. Unfortunately, they did have a warrant. Fortunately, Dennis was not killed by the plainclothes police when he threw a five-gallon water jug down the steps at them. Unfortunately he was shot in the leg.
He later recounted, "I didn't know it was the cops. Shit, they had longer hair than me. So I threw this water bottle down the steps at them. Next thing I knew I had been shot."
In their July 20, 1977 raid at the Big Top Marijuana Supermarket, the narcotics detail of the San Francisco police netted Peron and 13 others, along with between almost 150 pounds of pot suspected hashish, hash oil, mushrooms. LSD, marijuana plants, $8,000 in cash and various Big Top business records and letterhead stationery.
I had first began hearing stories about Dennis shortly after the opening of the Island Restaurant. The Island was a communally-ran natural foods restaurant located where the funky Mission District met the gay Castro street area. It was started so Dennis would have a job to qualify for a work furlough program, following his 1974 arrest for dealing.
The Island grew to have a hip local reputation for its open-mike cabaret cheap healthy food, and the characteristic aroma of burning hemp that permeated the place. It was the kind of place where, for tips, loose joints were as acceptable as loose change. And then there were the persistent rumors of an apartment upstairs that was sort of like an underground pot market. Almost anybody could just walk in off the street.
When my regular dealers were out of stock, friends could always be counted on to bring me a half ounce of Thai from Dennis Peron's Big Top marijuana market. He was never out and he always had at least one or two types of exotic connoisseur quality weed. In retrospect, it was inevitable that a heavy toker like me and “Mister Marijuana” would one day meet.
That day came in January, 1977 when a friend got tired of buying there for me. By that time I was more than curious to see this place first hand. Dennis had told her it was alright to show me over after she assured him I was cool. As we walked up the front steps of the three-story wooden Victorian building at 715 Castro, it was easy to pick which apartment door was the Big Top's. You didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to pick the one with all the red-eyed people walking out of it.
The whole door was one-way mirrored glass. They knew my friend so the doorman buzzed us in. We squeezed our way past several smiling customers and climbed the stairs to the big top floor apartment that gave the place its name. Then we entered that fabled marketplace for marijuana-Dennis' living room.
The room was long, with 14-foot ceilings and large bay windows. There was a nice oriental carpet on the floor and Indian print bedspreads hung on the walls. Pillows and mattresses served as furniture. Strictly hippie chic. The room was filled with hanging, creeping house plants and with laughing, coughing people.
'It was like the Casbah-only more so,' recalls one “waitress' from the Island.
At the far end of the room, with their backs to the windows, sat two guys by triple beam balances. In front of them were all these bowls full of marijuana and sample joints. And there were little signs in each bowl announcing type, price and quantity available. Those little signs were everywhere, along with signs reading 'LSD,' 'Magic Mushrooms,' 'Thai Sticks.' The room was filled with an ever-changing group of about 20 people who kept coming, getting loaded, making purchases and then leaving. At the other end of the room by the door, riding herd over this madhouse, was Dennis Peron. He sat in the only chair in the room. A telephone by his foot was ringing off the hook.
A Cros-fire of Potent Marijuana Strains
The room was thick with marijuana smoke as I sat down to sample a few joints. I lit a number of some red-bud Colombian, took a couple of tokes, and passed it on to a woman who was suffering from a bad case of anxiety. Then some guy with a ring through one pierced nostril passed me another. No sooner would I get rid of one joint when somebody handed me another. It was impossible to sit there and not get buzzed. I was caught in a cross-fire of potent strains of marijuana.
There was some Cambodian weed there that was killer-tightly pressed green-black flower tops that glittered with crystals of THC. They rolled me a number the size of my little finger. It looked like a Camel cigarette with a Thyroid condition. Three hits and the top of my head exploded. I was sold. I bought a quarter-ounce and then was introduced to Dennis Peon.
He was a small man with an impish grin and hair past his shoulders. We talked for a while and Dennis told me about his plan for starting a restaurant/ spa/theater complex in Geyserville, California. After his first bust Dennis would point to his late model Volkswagen and simple communal life-style and claim he only made $20,000 a year; but on the first day I met him, Dennis was scheming to build an Aquarian Age shopping center. In his own head it was a logical progression-today the Big Top Marijuana Supermarket, tomorrow the Islandia Shopping Complex.
Marijuana Business Card
Marijuana supermarkets and utopian shopping centers. I would not have believed it if I hadn't been sitting in the middle of one. Then Dennis gave me one of his business cards. The card was hand written and said simply 'Dennis.' It had his address, phone number and business hours' Mon-Sat, 5:00-9:00PM.' The cards were sort of informal ID. If you had one it meant that Dennis had personally checked you out and you were okay.
Dennis estimated that he had 5000 or 6000 active customers and knew them all. They came from all walks of life professional people and hippies, businessmen and factory workers. The Big Top began to rival the Golden Gate Bridge as a local tourist attraction. Hip cab drivers would bring out-of-towners there to buy weed and Dennis was even talking about adding a third triple beam scale.
The scene at Dennis' started to change. The big place kept getting more and more crowded, and while before the Big Top had worked on a strict customer-referral policy, toward the end Dennis let in anyone whose “vibes” he thought were right. Long-time customers started getting paranoid about going there and complained about not being able to hang out. The scene had grown too large.
'It was like a bus stop there,' said one of the arresting officers. Neighbors were beginning to complain about the traffic going in and out of 715 Castro Street. The police could no longer ignore the Big Top.
'Our problem was with people double-parking in front of the house,' Dennis later said. “We’d probably still be in operation today if only we'd had a parking lot.'
Dennis said at his trial, 'Instead of them putting me on trial, I'm putting the marijuana laws on trial. How can the decriminalization statutes tell people it's okay to have an ounce of marijuana, but it's not okay to have a pound? Where does your Miracle Ounce come from if not from my pound?'
Sure, I was a customer at the Big Top marijuana supermarket-and I would still be one today if only they'd had a parking lot.