Bruce Johansen: It’s September 18, 2013 and I’m Bruce Johansen. I’m at the Dubliner Pub, located at 2162 University Avenue West in St. Paul. This interview is one in a series that I’m doing with business owners along University Avenue, also known now as the Central Corridor. This project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant. With me is owner Tom Scanlon. [Audio at bottom]
To learn more, read Dubliner Pub: “Do you think I have a crystal ball or something?” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
Thanks for accepting my invitation.
Tom Scanlon: You’re welcome. That’s the easy part. It’s like going to confession.
B: Now it’s going to get really tough.
T: Now I need to figure out what I’m going to say.
B: I’m going to try to trip you up. No, this will be easy. I always like to start at the beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
T: I was born in a little village called Tarbert. It’s in County Kerry, in Ireland. Not too far from Killarney, actually. I grew up there, too. So that’s if I have grown up.
B: Can you describe what that place was like?
T: Well, it certainly was a little different lifestyle. It was a small farm, you know, a dairy farm, so we had to milk cows everyday, walked to school. I got my first pair of shoes when I was about nine, I think.
T: Seriously. Now I have a fetish for shoes. I can’t get enough of them. It’s the first thing I look at when I go to a store.
B: Do you have a closet just filled with shoes?
T: I have a lot of shoes. I buy them everywhere I go. I’m not kidding you, I buy shoes everywhere I go. I don’t know why. I don’t need them. I give them away. Goodwill does pretty well with me.
B: So you were up early in the morning?
T: Yes, we had to milk the cows before we went to school, and we usually walked to school, and of course, you know, Ireland is not Hawaii, there’s a lot of water, a lot of rain, so it was kind of wet. Lots of clouds. But overall I guess you don’t remember the bad parts, you remember all the good so, and there were a lot of us there, so we had a pretty good program.
B: How long was your walk to school?
T: I think it was about three miles, yeah, it was pretty good though, it was enjoyable, yeah. I still walk a lot. Some of the things stuck with me.
B: Big family?
T: Yes, there were a lot of us there. There were thirteen kids in the family. Yeah. They had to have a lot of kids to work the farm because they couldn’t afford to pay for any help. It’s kind of the way they did it. It really was. It was. They did it to, it was a labor pool that they were developing but it worked.
B: When did you come to the United States?
T: I came to the United States in 1965. I went to England first. I spent two years in Manchester.
B: What took you to Manchester?
T: Well, I had brothers there and I worked construction there so it was my first job. I left Ireland when I was 18 years old, so. On my 18th birthday actually. I went to Manchester for two years and then I came here in 1965.
B: Did most of your siblings move to other places?
T: No, I’ve still got some sisters in Scotland and England and Ireland. And I have quite a few of them here, too, in St. Paul. Most of them settled around the St. Paul area.
B: What drew you to the United States?
T: Well, my uncle was here for a lot of years. My uncle was a St. Paul fire captain for many years. My son is a St. Paul fireman, too, so it’s kind of a coincidence, life repeating itself, so, which is kind of nice. Because my uncle spent his whole life in that house on Vandalia, just right there, right across the street. It’s right there. The fire station, right there. Look out the window, that’s the fire station right there on Vandalia. So when my son first went into the fire department, I said to him, he stayed in that house the very first night, I said, ‘If you don’t see a ghost tonight, you’ll never see one.’ Because my uncle was there a lot of years. That’s how we came over too.
B: You have pretty deep roots in this city.
T: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. We knew where we were going as soon as we turned 20, 19 or 20. We knew where our destiny was. It was pretty well set.
B: It wasn’t in farming.
T: No, no, no. I don’t think so.
B: That’s one of your earliest memories of St. Paul and University Avenue, the firehouse?
T: Yes, yes. I never thought I’d end up on this corner myself for 30 years. I never would have believed that if you had told me.
B: What other early memories do you have of University Avenue?
T: Well, we spent a lot of time around here, I mean, my first job was right down the street here. A place called Cole Sewell. I used to take the bus down here, the old-fashioned buses, back in ’65, you know. The streetcars had just left. Now they’re putting them back in again. I just missed the streetcars the first time. I don’t think I’ll miss them this time, I don’t think, you never know.
B: What kind of work did you do down there?
T: I was just a, worked in a, it was a factory, you know. I kind of worked a little bit on the, I was what they called a shipping clerk. I was kind of the, what do you call that? What do they call that again? I can’t remember anymore. It was a shipping clerk at that time, but you’d bring in the orders, you’d check in the orders.
B: A receiving clerk?
T: Yeah, that’s what it was. Shipping and receiving. That’s what I was in. I couldn’t remember what it was, but that’s what it was. I’m sure they’ve got a fancier name for it now. Everything is a lot fancier now. Everything’s a lot fancier than in those days.
B: Back then you could actually tell what it meant.
B: What was University Avenue like back then?
T: The buses were going. It was a little bit different program back then. I don’t know. I mean, does our memory serve us right? I remember my first car. I remember that more than I do University Avenue. It was one of those big Plymouths with those big wings coming out the back. I think every immigrant must have, must have had one of those.
B: So every immigrant had a car with big fins?
T: Well, I don’t know, but that’s what they aspire to in America.
B: Back then University was one of the big thoroughfares for cars.
T: It was the big thoroughfare. They had all that, Mickey’s, what was the name of that diner that just went out of business?
T: Porky’s. That was a big deal. We used to go there for burgers at lunchtime. Yeah, Porky’s was one of our big stops. I was always fascinated by the waitresses, the girls coming out and putting the, the carhops, putting the thing, I’d never seen anything like it. If I’d had had a camera in those days, I’d be taking pictures. Now we have cell phones, and iPhones, and iPads. I came from milking cows to a cell phone. What do you call those new phones?
B: I remember a lot of car dealerships.
T: Oh, yeah, that’s right. It was full of car dealerships. Midway Chev, and I got to know the salesman down there, Dan Rydel was the salesman there. All my family bought cars from him. It was kind of what you did in those days. You bought from the same salesman, you know.
B: Any other businesses you remember?
T: Well, there were a lot of taverns on the street then. There were a lot of places. My god, right back here, right behind us, where that trucking company is, there was a 3.2 place. Right there. I can’t remember what the name of it was. But they used to sell everything. They used to sell clothes and shoes and. I didn’t buy any shoes there! I didn’t have any money yet. But yeah, it’s definitely a different avenue now. It certainly is, but I think there was for a while there, when I first came here, I came here, I came here to this location, in ’83. It was rough. It was going down hill. There was a beat-up gas station across the street. I think the place could have gone either way at that time, you know. There was a lot unsavory characters on the corner, on the street. We kind of cleaned it up a little bit when we came here first. We got rid of all the riffraff. People who were doing more than they should have been doing. We kind of cleaned it up a little bit. I kind of felt like I was a bit of an anchor, that kind of changed it. Whether I did it, or was I a victim of what happened around me? I don’t know, but it went the right way for me in that sense, you know.
B: When you bought the bar, it was the Ace?
T: It was the Ace Bar. You know, it had a bad reputation when I bought it, but it really wasn’t a, it was never a, it was truck drivers and they just like to drink. You didn’t have to do too much refineries for them.
B: I think that happens with a lot of bars, they have undeserved reputations.
T: Yeah, this one was definitely undeserved. I hear people talking about all the fights there used to be and I say, ‘Well, I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve never seen one, and actually I’ve never seen the truck drivers fight. Never.’ Never seen one of them get into a fight. Just because they look a certain way, people already automatically say, ‘Oh well, I wouldn’t go in there, ooh, ooh.’
B: How long had it been the Ace Bar?
T: You know, I think it was, I think it was the Ace Bar forever. I think it was before Prohibition. It was down here, it was down here, the street down here a little way, where the Italian place is (Café Biaggio at University and Raymond Aves.) It used to be there. And they closed during Prohibition and they moved up here, but rumor has it that it never closed during Prohibition. That’s the rumor. Because this was out of the way in those days. It was kind of a long ways from downtown. The police didn’t bother it too much.
B: But they probably had to do it pretty covertly?
T: Yeah, yeah. They reopened in this location in ’33, after Prohibition. They were the first tenants in this building, actually.
B: When you took it over did you keep the name or did you change the name?
T: No, we actually kept the name. We kept it the Ace Bar because we had a good clientele. We had all the truck drivers. There were a lot of trucking companies around here. That’s the one thing that has changed. That’s the one thing that has changed. All the trucking companies moved out of here. There were all kinds of trucking places and businesses all up and down the street. Fisher Nut had a huge plant up here. And Darts Transport, they were our biggest customers. And they moved out to Eagan. That’s when we decided we had to do something else. Either die or do something else. That’s when we became the Dubliner.
B: Did that happen with a lot of the industrial, manufacturing plants?
T: Yes, yes. They just about all moved out. So this place was pretty dead and derelict for several years. I don’t know how we hung on. We didn’t make any money but we just hung on. We still don’t make any money. We’re still just hanging on. We make it up in volume.
B: I remember there being the Cromwell and Johnny’s.
T: Yep, Skip was a good friend of mine. I knew the people that owned the Cromwell, Johnny’s. The Cromwell, boy you go all the way down the street and there was just tons of bars, tons of bars.
B: What happened to most of those?
T: The times. The times. It just couldn’t support them. When I first came here, we used to be here first thing in the morning at 8:00, 8:00. Bartusch Packing used to be over here, they used to kill beef and cattle and then they closed down in the ‘70s, the late ‘70s. And they’d drink here. The late shift would come and it’s just the bar business changed. There’s no day business anymore. It’s, that’s done for.
B: How much of that is tied to the more industrial businesses?
T: Well, I don’t think any of it really. I think it’s a social thing. I think it’s a social change. I think drinking was more of a—I don’t know, I don’t have the reason for it, but I think it’s the whole thing changed. The type of people that would come in and drink all day—we had several customers who’d come in and drink a shot and a beer all day, starting at 8:00—those type of customers aren’t around anymore. It’s more of a social thing now and they want better beers and they want the music, they want food, or they want to play darts, play games, do dancing, like we do here, so there’s other things they want to do now. So I don’t think just opening up a bar and having a liquor license and open up the doors, I don’t think that’s going to work anymore. It’s not going to work anymore. It’s gone. Those days are gone. It’s history. Some people were able to change with the times and others weren’t. That’s one thing a small farm teaches you, you change with the times, you have no choice.
B: You’ve navigated all of that successfully.
T: Sort of yes, we’re still here. That’s how I, that’s how I. Like I told my dentist once, he said, ‘The Ace, isn’t that a rough bar?’ I said, ‘Well, I still have all my teeth.’ So he said, ‘I guess that answers it.’ We’re still here, that’s our way of saying we were somewhat, we were at least successful at staying in the same location.
B: The other bar owners, did they just not figure out how to change with the times?
T: Yeah, and they were a victim of times really. Because if times had stayed the same and everybody had stayed coming in and doing the same thing, but everything changes. Everything’s fluid, everything’s fluid. Everything’s moving. The whole planet is moving. None of us is going to live forever, we’re not going to be here forever, but in the meantime everything is going to change. That’s the philosophy of a guy with an eighth grade education. Take that with a grain of salt. Throw it in the trash can.
B: So you did warehouse work?
T: Yes, that was my first job. And then I sold real estate for a number of years. Yes, I sold real estate for the Keller Corporation in Roseville for a lot of years. We even had a stint with our own company for a while selling real estate. But that didn’t last long.
B: Did you enjoy that?
T: I did, actually. I enjoyed sales. I enjoyed sales. This is a little bit like sales really. So I kind of enjoyed selling. It was kind of fun really.
B: You did that for how long?
T: Boy, I sold real estate for a lot of years, let’s see. From about ’70 to about, oh boy, ’83. Thirteen years, yeah.
B: This was the first business you owned?
T: This was the first business. Yeah, yeah.
B: And then the Turf Club came later?
T: We bought the Turf Club from Mark Johnson, who’s a good friend of mine. Mark and I, he wanted to get out of the business, he knew I like music, and he knows I’m into music, and I kind of liked the Turf Club at the time, so I bought the Turf Club from Mark.
B: When was that?
T: That was in, let me see, I must have had it about ten years. It must be close to ten years. What would that make it?
T: 2003? I thought it was five. I think it was 2005 I bought it. It might be ’05. I think it was ’05 I bought it.
B: So eight years.
T: So eight years, maybe that’s right. Maybe eight years, yeah. I think that would be correct.
B: How long had Mark owned it?
T: Mark had it about ten years. About ten years. And we kind of continued the same tradition down there. That’s got a good reputation for music and we get some good bands in there. We get some good acts. Some good booking shows.
B: I’ll get back to the Turf Club, but let’s stick with the Dubliner for now.
T: This is kind of the main place. This is where I spend most of my time anyhow.
B: I want to talk about both.
T: Okay, that’s fine.
B: We’re starting here because we’re here. I know a little bit about the origins.
T: And now you know about my fetish for shoes. So we could wrap it up now.
B: That will be the core of the interview.
T: If you ever want to get me a present, get me a pair of shoes. Shoe companies would love me.
B: You started out as the Ace.
T: It was a place that needed a little bit of loving care. I think it was a place, to put it mildly, it needed a lot of loving care when I came. It was a place in dire need of a facelift. I mean it was definitely a beautiful lady with no makeup on. I remember the day I walked in here. I would say that the dust on the back bar there was probably, probably not exaggerating, an inch thick. And I’m saying, there are people who say an inch thick and they don’t mean an inch thick. I’m, it literally was an inch thick. It was in need of, I’d say it had never seen a vacuum cleaner. They had a janitor here. I told him one day, I can’t remember his name now, I said, ‘When you get here,’ I said, ‘the place is pretty rough, but when you leave, it’s rougher.’
B: When you bought it, it sounds like you were really up for a challenge.
T: Oh, yeah. It was a challenge, it was a challenge. But then again, that challenge was tempered by the clientele. Their big deal was to stack up the cans on the table. You couldn’t move them. It was all canned beer. There was no tap beer. You couldn’t move the cans off the table. That’s what struck me as funny because when I first came here I wanted to really get the place in shape. They didn’t want it. They wanted it left alone. It’s their place and so.
B: What made you say, ‘This is the business I want to buy’?
T: Well, I did think it was a sort of, it was a bar that needed some care. I thought it was actually a good buy at the time. I thought it was a place that, and of course people didn’t like the location because it was in the middle of an industrial area, kind of a dying industrial area at the time. This was a dying street at the time. Remember back in the early ‘80s? This was pretty well, everything was vacant on this avenue. People didn’t like the idea of buying businesses in those days in a place that was going downhill. And there was no residential around here then, but that’s all growing up around us now, with the Carleton Lofts down here. It’s a different program now. I always thought it was kind of a diamond in the rough. I really did. It’s coming around right now.
B: What did you do after you purchased it? You brought out the dust cloth.
T: Well, we did. We cleaned it up quite a bit. We made some changes on it. But we didn’t really do any major changes. We cleaned. We got a good cleaning service. It was nice. It was very presentable then. We still had a reputation though. I mean it had a reputation, and undeserved, really, I might add. Because I didn’t see it. Maybe somebody else did. I don’t know.
B: Did you do certain things to tackle that reputation?
T: No, not really. It’s pretty hard to tackle a bad reputation. Like this one old guy told me one time, when I was a kid, he says, ‘You know Tom, if you get the name of getting up early in the morning, you can stay in bed all day.’ That’s kind of what the Ace Bar was. Because it had a bad reputation you could have given out candy to every kid in the city and you’d still have a bad reputation. That’s kind of how I looked at it. So it didn’t really bother anybody, so. You probably couldn’t go to a party in North Oaks and say you owned the Ace Bar. Even though I did. But I wasn’t too much afraid of that.
B: At a certain point you decided it was time to make more of a change.
T: Well actually it was more of a, I always had the idea of an Irish bar. And you know, I did make a foray into an Irish bar. I bought O’Connell’s on Grand Avenue. In ’86, because I wanted an Irish bar. And I ran that until ’92. It was called Scanlon’s on Grand. I changed the name. And of course the bar business was kind of in a downward trend at that time, and that had some problems, too. We didn’t stay there that long. We sold that.
B: Where on Grand?
T: It’s Tavern on Grand now. Or Grand Tavern. One of the two. They’ve changed the name a couple of times. But we owned that for five or six years. That was my foray into Irish music. I was doing Irish music and all that stuff and then I sold that and I kind of, I don’t know, I kind of languished for a couple years and tried to decide what to do, and then I decided to open an Irish pub. Which was really kind of my roots anyhow. So I went back to that.
B: What year was that?
T: I think that was about ’96, I think, when we switched over then into all Irish, Irish music. Redecorated the place and painted the place. Had the walls repaired and all that stuff.
B: Did your clientele stick with you through that change?
T: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much, pretty much. And I think, I think we changed the clientele quite a bit then. Because, like I say, I think it was more the neighborhood changed more than we changed. Because we started putting in Irish music and Irish dancing. That did bring in a different clientele. That’s kind of the core of what we have to do to this day. They stayed. We’ve had Irish music and Irish dancing here since ’96. There’s never been a break and that has stayed and it’s been very good.
B: So you kept some of the truck driver clientele, but you gained?
T: Well, we didn’t put anybody out. But they moved away. They moved away on their own. Some moved and still come back but it’s been a good transition really. Nobody said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ That never happened. It’s just the way it worked. We have a good, nice clientele right now. We have a good mixture of people. We’ve got every group comes in here and every group is kind of represented. Everybody’s welcome, is kind of how it is. Just because it’s an Irish bar with Irish music and Irish dancing doesn’t mean it’s an all-Irish clientele. I don’t think it is.
B: So how would you describe the clientele?
T: Well, I think we have a fairly, I don’t know, we’re fairly open to everybody really. We have a lot of businesspeople in the afternoon. We get the businesspeople from the neighborhood. We get, we’re fairly well-connected to the community. We have some really good people connected to the Irish music and Irish dancing and that’s a nice following, too. I think we’re fairly open to. I don’t know if you’ve been here or not. It’s a pretty nice mix of people.
B: I’m going to come back in the evening sometime and if it’s okay take some photos and shoot some video.
T: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. That would be perfect. Then you’ll have a better idea yourself of what it’s like. My description may not be the best description. Maybe you can get somebody else to describe it.
B: But it sounds like you get a good mix of people from the neighborhood, but also people who come, it’s more of a destination.
T: More of a destination. We have the destination people, the neighborhood people, the people driving by. We have a little bit of everything, so. It’s fairly good for that, it’s pretty open and people feel comfortable in here. It’s a very comfortable feeling in here at night, really. It’s not dark, it’s light. We keep the lights on, we don’t turn the lights off at night.
B: Do you have music every night?
T: We have music quite a bit, you know, our music is pretty low-key really, just a little Irish music. Not a big music program. We have no sound system or anything like that. Because it’s just a small room, you know what I mean. It’s low-key, more of a background kind of music. It’s a very comfortable room. Like my friend Dan Gleason, he’s an architect, he said this is a very, very nice set-up for a barroom. He just loves it. He’s from Ireland, too. And he helped me a lot over the years. He’s an architect and he’s had some nice ideas.
B: What did he contribute?
T: Well, he did a lot of the original proposing of what to do and how to set it up and he picked out colors and he plastered the walls and he did a lot of this stuff. He redid the walls and the wood trim around it. He picked out all the colors and all that. He’s really good at all that stuff. He’s an architect. I told him, ‘You should be good at something.’ It was his idea to save the old Ace Bar sign. There’s a little story behind that, believe it or not, and we got the neon, we put the neon back on.
There was two of those actually. It was a corner. It was a corner, so, I remember the day we took it down off the building. The other one was on the corner. They met together, so we took it down and we were going to bring them down and clean them up and the other one was supposed to go right there, like just below that window. And that night, Dan and myself cleaned it up and everything. And I said, ‘You know what, Dan, I think we better put them in the building.’ ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘Nobody’s going to take these.’ I said, ‘You know, I think I’d be more comfortable,’ so we took one in, and then we were tired and it was late, and I’m, ‘You’re right, nobody’s going to take them.’ The next morning it was gone.
B: You have no idea where it is?
T: No idea. Somebody stole it. It’s probably hanging in some dorm room. But, like I said, we’re flexible enough to say, ‘We’ve got one.’ I thought for sure I’d see it somewhere. But it probably went to a scrapyard or something by now, which would be a shame. I’d love to see it somewhere, but somebody might have it.
B: It would be fascinating to know where it is.
T: It would be. I’d love to get it back.
B: Well, I’m glad you at least rescued the one.
T: I’m glad we did. Of course we wouldn’t be talking about it because we’d never know.
B: Tell me what other changes were made in the bar.
T: We put in a new bar in here. This front, the back bar was always here, but the front bar, in the ‘60s they modernized in here. They put a low ceiling in here. And they took out the front bar. They took out that counter. And they put in a McDonald’s like linoleum because it was supposed to be easier to clean. That was here when I came here. I hated that and I wanted to get a wood counter. Well then I got lucky on that one because Shannon Kelly’s went out of business down there and I bought that from them.
B: I’m trying to remember where Shannon Kelly’s was.
T: It was where that Lawson’s is now.
B: So right downtown.
T: Right downtown. So I got that front bar out of there and put it here.
B: That’s so interesting because I assumed that this was a holdover.
T: Well the back is, the back is, the neon is on now.
B: Nobody touched that?
T: Nobody touched that, nobody touched that. They took the front counter out and put in a, because everybody was modernizing. The only thing they didn’t do was close up the windows. Which surprised me because you know how these other places have the windows closed up? But they had a really low ceiling. The ceiling was down, just below those windows. You see where the top of the window is? That’s where they put the ceiling. That was to save heat, I think.
B: So it was a big renovation.
T: It was fairly, it was pretty good sized, yeah. We had to repair the ceiling. The ceiling was in tough shape.
B: And the floors?
T: The floors had like seven floors on top of this floor. It was an interesting floor when we took up the floors. Dan Gleason again was involved with that and he said the floor was in really, really good shape underneath all the floors. And I said why was there, the floor was finished and everything. And he said the reason for that was, he said, in those days if you put a new building in, even if you tiled it, even if you tiled it, you had to finish the floor, because the carpenters’ union was strong when it was built in the ‘30s. And you had to put a floor down and finish it. And now of course you can put in plywood or whatever you want.
B: The excavation of those seven layers resulted in-
T: That took a long time. I did that myself, every bit of it.
B: Were you closed at various times?
T: No, we were open all the way through it.
B: What about the tables and chairs?
T: We bought those at some kind of a supply house. I can’t remember. Dan Gleason picked those out too and he’s a funny guy. ‘They’ll be perfect,’ he says, ‘with the green.’ Of course we’ve redone them since Geri came. But we got the tables and chairs. We put air conditioning in, which it never had before. That’s kind of nice. The air conditioning before was both doors wide open.
B: You said the Ace Bar only carried beer in cans?
T: Beer in cans, just canned beer and whiskey. That was it. It was a fairly basic, it was a fairly basic program.
B: Any food?
T: No, no food. No food of any kind. No, no.
B: At what point did you make changes?
T: Well there’ve been changes going on right along over the years. It’s been an ongoing deal really. We did the first phase and the last year we’ve going through some more changes. A few more. Geri kind of brought a few more.
B: Geri’s role is?
T: She’s kind of overall in charge of most of the thing. I do mostly golf now. She’s kind of the architect of the latest changes. So she’s made it pretty livable. She’s put a little bit more of an artist’s touch on it. She is an artist, by the way. She used to teach at Avalon School over there.
B: You’ve added, I know that you have a lot of whiskey.
T: We’ve always had a good supply of different whiskeys, scotches and Irish. We’re fairly deep in scotch and expensive scotches and Irish whiskeys. They’re not everyday sellers, but the Irish stuff is, more than the scotch. And we’ve got a lot of Irish clientele, and English clientele, and Scottish clientele, so they drink some of their own stuff.
B: And you’ve got some good tap beers.
T: Right, right. We try to do more towards the local now, the local stuff. We’re going more toward the local stuff.
B: I see you have Summit, you’ve got Schell’s, and Grain Belt.
T: We’ve got a lot of the local stuff. We have all of the Irish stuff, pretty much. Guinness, Harp. Ciders are becoming kind of a big thing. We have two ciders on tap and we have some more in bottles. So that’s becoming kind of a big deal now. Tastes have changed over the years. What sold ten years ago you’re not going to sell today. Except the Guinness. That seems to be a constant. It’s just a good beer, I guess. It never went out of favor.
B: Is that your biggest seller?
T: I think Guinness is our number one seller. Guinness and Jameson are our number one sellers. We sell a lot of Guinness.
B: Let’s talk a little bit about the Turf Club, which I know has a long, long history on University Avenue.
T: Yes, yes.
B: Can you tell me a little bit about its origins?
T: Like you mean from before my time? Well, I can tell you a little bit about its history but I’m not exactly an expert on its history either. But I know it was burnt in 1945. There’s a picture on the wall of the fire in 1945, the year I was born, which is why we left that picture up there.
B: A major fire?
T: I guess so, I guess so. I guess it was a major fire. Curt & Gillis it was called in those days. It was Curt & Gillis Café. It was actually a food place. I think that’s when it became a music place.
B: Had it been around pre-Prohibition?
T: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think it was a grocery store when it started out. I think it was. This is Geri, by the way. She’s the architect of the new changes, of the recent changes.
G: We love it. I was coming here in the ‘80s, doing Irish dancing, so I’ve always loved it. There used to be smoking though. Did he tell you that? With all those dances. Oh my, goodness gracious.
T: They were nonstop complainers.
G: We were because we were dancing and breathing, dancing and breathing, and smoking at the same time. They’d sit and play cards. He and his friends would be sitting there playing cards, all cigars, and cigarettes, and we’d be doing our Irish dancing.
T: We used to have a card club on Wednesday nights and it was the same night that they had that deal so the card guys smoked cigars because it was legal to smoke cigars in those times and. I never smoked a cigarette a day in my life. Isn’t that funny? Thirty years in a smoky bar and I never smoked a cigarette.
G: You didn’t need to. Everything had that kind of yellow cigarette, typical bar thing.
B: That probably sets you apart from a lot of bar owners.
T: I would say all of them. I’d be surprised if there was another one.
B: It used to be that would have been a question that I would have asked right away. How has the smoking ban changed things for you, or affected your business.
T: Well, you know, it’s inevitable. It’s just like one time, somebody was complaining about the light rail going down the street and that I should go to the protests, the meetings about the light rail. And I said, you know what, progress is a very difficult thing to stop, it’s like trying to keep out the ocean with a pitchfork. You’re not going to stop progress no matter how many meetings you go to. The smoking ban was going to come in and I recognized it right away. I said, you know what, ‘I’m not going to have smoking, it’s a done deal,’ because it became political and all of the politicians got in on the deal, so you might as well go along with the program. And if you don’t, you’re not going to be around.
B: What was the impact?
T: The impact was devastating, at first, yeah. It wiped out a lot of businesses. You see, we just happened to be, the smoking ban itself is okay. But just like the industrial revolution when all the Rust Belt went out of business, we just happened to be there at the time of the transition. We just took the brunt of the transition. Somebody had to do it and it just happened to be us that had to do it. So I would have much prefer to come in five years after the smoking ban went into effect. Ten years before it. That’s the way it works out. The first people in line are going to take the brunt of it. It changed the whole bar business. It changed the whole system. And you can argue for the better or the worse. Most bar owners will say it was for the worst. And I think it hurt the smaller places with nothing more to offer, more. The small corner bars? The neighborhood bars? It kind of wiped them out. Really. We had music at least and the dancing, so. But, I personally wouldn’t go back to it, but there’s plenty who would.
B: But you survived it.
T: We survived it and it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t easy. It changed the rules. It changed the bar business. It permanently changed the bar business. And you can argue for better or for worse. I don’t know, but it definitely changed it. I think it changed the corner bar more than it did the bigger bar, you know. The downtown bars.
B: Do you have some clientele who wouldn’t have come here when there was smoking?
T: I don’t think we got a lot of people who came out because it didn’t change. There’s one person in my family and I won’t mention her name because—and I love her dearly—but she was praying every night that the smoking ban would go through. And I said, ‘Why are you worried about it, you haven’t been in a bar in your life?’ ‘Oh, yeah, but I’m worried about people who do go to bars.’ I said, ‘I think you should stop worrying, they’ll be okay.’ She was praying. That was nice. But I’m like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ She’d never been in here. She’s pretty close to me, too.
B: Are some bars actually doing better?
T: The times have changed, the times have changed. And you can’t pinpoint what caused it. It’s just the times have changed. And I think it was going to change anyhow. There was a change coming anyhow because I don’t think the beer and the shot guy was coming, that was all changing. The business was changing anyhow. It just hurried it up. It speeded it up. It ended the day business. Because I don’t think the old-timers come in anymore. I think they just quit. They drink in their garage. I think they just bought a six-pack on the way home and stayed in the garage. I think it created a whole new industry though. It really did. It created the garage industry. That’s a whole other story.
B: Back to the Turf Club. I didn’t realize that it didn’t start out as a bar.
T: I don’t think it did. Now I probably wouldn’t be the right person to talk to on that because I just know about it from when I got to see it. But I think before that, before that, I think it was, I think it was, it was a, I think it was a- but as far as the, I just know about the later part. I did know Mark when he first bought it, so, and that was from, I think Mark bought it in about ’86, I think.
B: And before that it was a café?
T: I think that’s a long time ago now. That’s a long time ago. They had that old time music down there. It was a country western place for a lot of years. I went there myself in the ‘70s and it was a country western place. They had a lot of country western music. And they stayed with that program probably too long. Country western and then it kind of…
B: Under Mark’s ownership?
T: No, under Mark’s ownership, he’s the one who switched it over to a rock and roll club. That’s when it became a rock and roll club. He inherited the country western.
B: Did he stick with that for awhile?
T: He stuck with that for awhile. He stuck with that for a lot of years. We had one incident down there where this little old lady was in there one day in a booth, she was in there all day. She was still there at about 7:00. At 12:00 I said, ‘That little old lady has been there for an awfully long time, someone should check on her.’ So I went over to her and I said to her, I said, ‘Are you okay?’ There was rock and roll playing all around her. ‘Are you okay, do you need any help with anything?’ She said, ‘Well, my daughter dropped me off. She thought it was country western,’ and she wasn’t picking her up till 12:30. The music on the stage was so loud I gave her earplugs.
B: That was probably her last visit.
T: Her last visit. That was funny. Oh my god. I felt sorry for her. There were two of them actually. There was another lady with her.
B: Did you work there?
T: I never really worked there, like I never really worked behind the bar there. But we did a lot of the repairs. And that’s mostly what I do, fix it up. We did a lot of work there, too. That place has had a lot of work done over the years. Since we took it over. That’s the funny thing about this place here. When I first came here there was like two, three light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. And we’ve been adding electrical to this place since I got here. I don’t know how they got by. They had one single dial phone. It’s been non-stop adding telephone lines and it seems like there’s never enough. There was one plug behind the bar and that was always blowing fuses. We put in a 440 system and there’s still not enough. We put air conditioning in so we had to have the bigger power system.
B: Did you know the owner of the Ace?
T: I did actually, Tom Lenhart. I knew him, too. He was a good, a pretty good guy, so. Yeah, I knew him, too.
B: He was just ready to sell?
T: He was just ready to sell and he died of a heart attack. The funny thing about it was, about a month before he died, he came in here one day, and he hadn’t come in much, and he was looking around, and he said, ‘You know, Tom, is it okay if I go behind the bar?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He went behind the bar and he went down the basement. He died a month later. I thought that was kind of odd, how he’d come in, and he was kind of doing the nostalgia thing. It was spooky. He came in and he looked all around like he was saying goodbye to everybody and everything, you know. It was just kind of odd.
B: I wonder if he just had a sense.
T: That’s what I’m thinking. That’s what I’m thinking, that he had some kind of a sense. It’s spooky. I’m not a very believe-in-ghosts kind of person. Although I did see a few. But that’s a whole other interview. Part two. We’ll leave that for the movie.
B: With Mark.
T: Mark owned the bar for about ten years. He bought it from his aunt. And then I took it over from Mark. And it’s been very successful, and he was very successful, and he brought the bar along. He had good people. Still some of the same people are working down there today that were there when he started. I think that’s kind of a mark of a place like we’ve got. Nobody ever leaves here. We’ve had Kenny here for over twenty years.
B: What kinds of changes did you make at the Turf after you purchased it?
T: Well, we did kind of similar things there. We took the ceiling down. It had a really nice art deco ceiling up there. We did the walls again and painted it up and fixed it up. We did stuff like that up there, too. It basically just needed to work properly. We put new stuff behind the bar. That place was always a pretty good bar. It had a good reputation. It hadn’t fallen into disrepair like this place had. It was upgraded over the years. We put a nice mural on the wall. Angie just fixed it. It had been damaged in the storm. It just got, we just finished it today. Finished all that back wall, got it all done. It looks nice up there.
B: What’s the story of the mural?
T: Angie, I call her Angie Artist, I’m not quite sure of her last name, but she’s the one who did it, and she got some kind of a grant from the city and she did it through, what do you call it? The arts.
T: Yeah, yeah. She got one of those. She got a little bit of a grant and she wanted to do it. And she’s quite an artist. She’s a great person, too.
B: In terms of the music and entertainment.
T: I don’t have a lot to do with the music, really. Because it’s rock and roll bands and I’m more hands-on with the Irish stuff, because I know those bands, I know the music, but we’ve got good people up there who run that, too.
B: Has it changed much since the Mark days?
T: Not really, it’s pretty much the same thing. We have a relationship with First Avenue and they do quite a bit of booking up there for us up there, too, and we’re good friends with them and they’re really nice people and they work good with us and we work good with them and they do a lot of booking. Plus we have our own bookers and they do a pretty good job. The gentleman running it up there, he does a good job, Joshua. He’s managed it about five years, so. He went though the training program here, so he’s don’t that quite a bit. But other than, it’s pretty much the same.
B: And has the clientele changed much there since you took it over?
T: Well, I think the clientele is constant there. It goes by whatever the band is. That’s a little different bar than here. This is a neighborhood bar with a neighborhood clientele. We’ve got people here at 5, 4:00 after work. We don’t really get that there. That’s based on shows up there. And each show has its own different following. That’s almost entirely based on music.
B: So, a destination bar?
T: Destination bar, 100 percent. If you, almost 100 percent. Now it used to be that it had more of a clientele but that was probably more of a casualty of the smoking ban than here. And that did take care of the after work crowd up there. The neighborhood crowd and that. They go to different bars. They don’t go to that one.
B: Were the hours reduced after the smoking ban?
T: Yeah, yeah. We open later. We don’t open until 6:00 now, so that used to be a 3:00. It was noon at first and then 3:00.
B: Until fairly recently, right?
T: Yeah. A couple years, a couple years. It’s basically become a destination bar now. It’s become a show venue, and it’s a good venue, and it’s able to work on that. That’s kind of what it’s turning out to be.
B: I’ve heard about something called the Clown Bar?
T: There’s another bar downstairs, the Clown Lounge. It’s actually a very nice little bar. Very cozy. Have you ever been down there?
B: I haven’t.
T: Well, you should go down there sometime. It’s a great little place. Yeah, it’s a great little place. And that’s not open a lot. That’s open if there’s something going on, if it’s full upstairs we’ll open up downstairs. It’s more open for private parties, something like that.
B: How many people do you employ at each of the businesses?
T: Let’s see, let’s see, we have about eight people working here. I think about the same down there, actually. It’s a little bit more down there at certain times because you’ve got sound and door guys, so. There are more door people there and sound people. I think about eight people at both places. So sixteen people total. We run it fairly tight, so there’s not much excess.
B: Any family?
T: Well, over the years there has been. I have a son and daughter and they’ve both, you’ve met them both, that was my son that came in and that was Ann, and they’ve both worked at it over the years. So Dennis is a St. Paul fireman. And Ann is an ultrasound technician down in South Carolina. She just moved away. She was working at the Turf Club for a lot of years but she always worked in the office. It was kind of funny, when she decided to leave, we had a little party, a going away party, and there was a woman here, I’d known her for years. When Ann was at her going away party I said, ‘Ann, I want you to meet Kathy, she’s taking over your job.’ ‘Boy,’ she said, ‘it didn’t take you long to replace me!’ That’s the nature of the world, the nature of the business. So that was how that went.
B: What are the most popular drinks at the Turf?
T: Well, I think there’s a thing down there they call a Cowboy Special. I think it’s a shot of Irish whiskey and a Tall Boy. Pabst, I think. Those big tall boys are big down there. Actually, the Turf Club kind of started that big craze on those tall boy drinks. We started buying those Pabst, is it Pabst, yeah I think it’s Pabst, Pabst and Hamm’s. We started buying them by the palate down there. All of a sudden everybody in town has them. Even the Lexington, before it closed, had them. That’s kind of funny, No, they’re very popular, these tall boys. Every beer company got into them because they were selling. That’s kind of, like you say, how trends go in the bar business. Who would ever think that a Pabst or a Hamm’s would become a popular beer again? Back in the ‘90s, nobody would look at them. If you were selling Pabst, they’d move out. It’s kind of a double-edged sword now. You’ve got the retro and you’ve got the new stuff, you know. There’s a new little brewery that opened up down the street here. Bang Brewery. Did you hear about that? It’s open, it’s open. We’re already getting excited about putting their first keg on here. Summit actually opened up down the street, actually, I came in ’83 and Summit opened, did Summit open in ’83? We just put tap beer on and they were one of the first beers that was ever put on tap here. Johnny’s Bar was the first bar that ever had Summit and we were second. I once in awhile remind Mark of those days, but I don’t think he wants to hear about it anymore. He has too many customers now. He don’t need me anymore. They’re putting millions and millions of dollars of extensions on it. And good people, every one of them. I’ve known them from the get-go, every one of them. Mark and Jeff, and Mike the brewer. I know them all. We’ve had good relationships with those over the years. We’ve kept good relations. I think that’s one of the successes in the bar business, too. You have to keep good relationships with all of the distributors. So that has been successful for us. We’ve kept good relationships with everybody.
B: You mentioned light rail construction earlier. I’m wondering what kind of impact the construction has had and…
T: Well, the construction had a huge results, huge results. I mean I came down here one morning during the height of it and it took me 45 minutes to get from 94 to here. There was no way I could get around it. 45 minutes. It was just a complete dead stop. It had a huge impact on us.
B: That lasted for how long?
T: Well, I’d say at least a year. They were at this intersection for a long time. I don’t know why, how they did it. Of course I’m the Monday morning quarterback. I’d be great at Monday morning quarterback. There were a few complaints about that. That was tough, that was tough. I don’t mind saying, that was tough. But again, like I said, as with the smoking, we were the people that were here when it was put in, the people that were on the ground at the time it was put in are the ones that are going to take the hit. That’s just how it works. But it seemed like we took more hits than we should have. We were like a target. It was disruptive. We had a great sign. I don’t know what I did with it. We had a great picture of all of the signs here. All the different signs, and I had one guy, he called me from up the street, and he said, ‘You know, Tom, I’m fucking giving up.’ And I said, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, he was, and I said, ‘Just park your car and walk down.’ I said, ‘And trust me, you could use the exercise.’ He did come down. It didn’t kill him.
B: How has business been since construction’s ended?
T: Well, it’s been, again, it has steadily picked up since, and we’ve kind of reconnected with the neighborhood. Now we did lose some people that never came back. When something like that happens people go to a couple of different bars, I won’t say where they went to, but it does change the dynamics and people did move away and we were kind of trying to rebuild. We did have to do a whole rebuilding program after that. We did, we really did. And that’s where Geri kind of came in. I said, ‘I don’t know that I want to do this anymore,’ and I didn’t, so she did it.
B: What did she do?
T: She reached out to the community, she got in with all of the people in the neighborhood. And she reached out to the neighborhood. We did some new training for our staff, which was important. We changed some staff members, who didn’t want to do it the way she wanted to do it. She did a good job, she did a good job. She made it a more neighborhood friendly bar and got it back on track. What she did more than anything else was, and more than I was good at—I was good at it, but I wasn’t good at transferring it—she was very good at getting the employees to be more, what do you call it, customer service-oriented. She was really, really good at that because she’s genuine and she believed it. It wasn’t just a, you know, you go to a training seminar and they train you do that. That don’t work. It has to be in your heart and soul to do it. I always had it but I wasn’t able to transfer it onto the people I had working here. We did make some changes and, like I say, if someone ever left this organization, it wasn’t because they were bad people, it was that they weren’t doing it the way we wanted it done. I always told everyone, not everybody can do it, and you might fit in better at a different location. And most of them have. So it worked out good. At a chain business they go to a big open hall and they get the pep talk from the guy and they go in and they have to pretend that they’re friendly, ‘Oh, hello, I’m Susie,’ and shake your hand. We don’t do that here. It’s not genuine.
B: I connected with you through NDC. Have you worked with Isabel Chanslor?
T: I have, I have. They helped us out with, they gave us a little bit of a stipend for the construction. Of course like all political things, by the time it got to us it was pretty small. It was pretty small by the time it got to the individual.
B: Have they worked with you in other ways?
T: We haven’t had a need for that. We’re kind of self-sufficient. We have been. I’m not saying we’ve made a lot of money on the project. We haven’t. We stayed open because I like the place. It probably would have been smarter to close during the construction.
B: When this is all up and running, the light rail-
T: Do you think I have a crystal ball or something?
B: I keep waiting to hear that one of my interview subjects does have a crystal ball.
T: My friend, my friend is a priest, right? This old lady died and I went to the funeral, and I said, and he gave this gorgeous, beautiful sermon. And she’s in Heaven by the still waters. And we went up for the food, and I said, ‘Look Father, how do you know all that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ I said, ‘You were starting to scare me. I thought you did.’ So that would be the same. I don’t know.
T: I was talking to a guy last week and he has a place up for sale, and I was giving him some advice. He asked me for advice. And I said, ‘I think you should sell it. Because I don’t think it’s working for you.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m waiting for the price to go up.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘like the stock market. You want to buy low and sell high.’ So I said, ‘You don’t need my advice. You need someone else. My answer, I don’t have a clue.’
B: Where is the closest stop?
T: Just down the middle of the block down there, which is okay. It’s okay. It’s close enough. The Turf Club it stops right at the door. They’ll have to have a drink. I’m sure we’ll have to change our hours once that’s up and running. We’ll probably, well, we’ll play it by ear.
B: What might you change the hours to?
T: I don’t know yet. Like I said, we’re going to wait and see here. Re-engineer it. I’m sure there are going to be some changes there to accommodate the light rail. See how it works out. It might not do anything for that area. I think it will. I do think it will change the Avenue. I do think it will change the Avenue. I think it’s going to be another one of these, you probably won’t notice it. I always like to use the phrase, ‘Change the course of history.’ Did we ever see when history was changing? Did we ever see the course of history change? It changed without we knowing it. The tide comes in and goes out without you noticing it. I was born by the ocean. It goes out before you notice it. It’s so gradual. I think there will be changes on the Avenue. I think it will make a lot of change on the Avenue. There are a lot of people that won’t survive on the Avenue, and probably some bigger programs coming to the Avenue. The big corporate type stuff will come in. I don’t know. Is that what the thinking is? I don’t know. I’ve never talked to anybody about it personally. I think that will happen. I think that any place the light rail has happened before that has happened, I think. History is the best teacher of all. How about the Hiawatha Line? Has that done that, too? My gut feeling is that it will change the Avenue.
B: And do you think that one of your businesses will be more positively affected than the other?
T: Well, actually, I expect the Turf Club to be more positively affected. I do. Because first off, it’s right in the area, and if they can connect with downtown Minneapolis, with the clubs in downtown Minneapolis, and downtown St. Paul, I do expect that to be, but here, I don’t know about here, actually. I couldn’t say, really. I’m sure we’ll get some business because first off, the University of Minnesota is going to be hosting the Vikings for two years. We’re right here, so we’re probably the closest bar to them and we’re not a big sports bar but we do have a large pull-down screen. People think we have no television, but we do have one, I say. That big, pull-down screen behind you. So we will show the games on Saturdays and Sundays. So we could get some business. I don’t think it’s going to be a negative, would be the best way to answer that. I don’t think it is. I see it as a positive. I mean who rides the rails? Do they come out on a Sunday for a ride? I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve ridden it in Chicago and Boston because I was going somewhere. I think it’s going to be very positive for the Turf because if you go out for a night drinking in Minneapolis you’re going to have to pay twenty bucks for a cab in both directions. But this way if you ride the rail, you can go to the Turf Club or something. So I think it will be a positive for there. I do think it will be a lot more positive for the Turf Club. It would appear to be almost custom made for that type of club. And then the hub down by Target Field, all of those businesses have done well since the light rail, because I know some of those bar owners down there and they say the light rail has been a boon to them. It’s going to open up a new world.
B: And when you find the person with the crystal ball, let me know.
T: I’ve always noticed that anybody I’ve ever worked with who knew everything wasn’t quite correct. I went to court one time on some small matter and the woman told the judge, she said, ‘Your Honor, I’m going to be a lawyer, I know everything about the law,’ and the judge said, ‘We’ll see about that.’ She lost! I’ll never forget the judge, he said, ‘We’ll see about that. Now sit down and wait your turn.’
B: Any changes coming up at the Dubliner or the Turf that you can tell me about?
T: We’ll let you know.
B: That’s what everybody else says, too.
T: Breaking news. You’ll see it on CNN. Do you ever watch CNN with ‘breaking news.’ There is no breaking news. They’ve said that 15,000 times before. When they came on with 24-hour news, I unplugged the television and never plugged it again. I never watched television again because I couldn’t take the breaking news. There never was any breaking news.
B: I know that the owner of Bonnie’s Café died.
T: Yes, Bonnie, she was a dear friend of mine. We spent a lot of time together here. Her and John, her boyfriend, died also, a week later. Do you believe that? It’s the gospel truth. Bonnie died and was buried and there was a little sermon and a little wake for her over here, and I was there and John was there and we shook hands. He did not look good. And a week later he was dead. Died at home. Sudden.
B: What’s the future of Bonnie’s?
T: I think the daughters are running it, so I’m not sure. I haven’t talked to anybody over there. It’s still a grieving time. They’re really nice people. I get along good with them. It was kind of a shocker. You know, Bonnie was sick for over a year. We knew that, that wasn’t a shock. And John was a good guy. He was her partner for many years. He just died. They don’t even know why he died. He just died. I don’t think he wanted to live anymore. Bonnie and I came here about a year apart.
B: Did you share clientele? Do people patronize both businesses?
T: Well, you know, her hours are so much different from ours. She closes at 2:00 in the afternoon and that’s when we get started. Even right now, they could bring food in, but they’re eating pizzas. We have pizzas. But we get some people for that, the pizzas. But overall, a pretty quiet corner really as far as relationships are concerned.
B: This has been great. I want to get some photos before I leave. Is there anything, besides your shoe collection, that we haven’t really delved into?
T: Do I get a pair of shoes out of this? …We have our big St. Patrick’s Day event. That’s our big one every year, so we mostly always do a tent on that day. Irish music and a tent… I remember when we got our first radio at home in Ireland. We got this big thing with all the batteries in it. And my grandmother was alive at the time, and I went up to her house and the news was on. And I said, ‘Oh, I heard that earlier this morning on our own radio,’ and she said, ‘How could you? My radio costs more.’ And she meant it. ‘My radio costs more,’ she said. And she used to smoke a clay pipe. And she was 93 or 94 when she died. It was at towards the end of her life. And whenever you’d go in this thing would vanish into all this clothing. I don’t know where the hell it went to. I was fascinated by it. That was her that I remember the most.
B: Well, thank you so much.
T: Thank you. It’s fun hanging out. I’m glad you came out.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.