Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The pipes, the pipes are calling...

So besides hosting our 10th and 20th business founding anniversary party and the occasional visits I made earlier on while still a full-time Umass student, my most vividly memory about Charlie's Bar in downtown Amherst was the strategic role it played in the most heated political engagement of my entire career--the 'smoking ban in bars' battle.

Owner Rich Slobody was a long-time friend and one of my very first karate students joining up the day we opened in 1982. Rich is an experienced savvy businessman but also a law-an-order kind of guy who may grumble about the rules but follows them to the letter. He was also at the time a volunteer duly authorized Hampshire County deputy sheriff under my favorite cousin Sheriff Bob Garvey.

So in 1998 when the Amherst Health Department extended the smoking ban to bars and all Hell was breaking loose, Charlie's instantly conformed--the only bar in town to do so. Other bar owners carried on like that scene in Frankenstein where the villagers boisterously head toward the castle with pitchforks and torches in hand.

I instantly wrote an Amherst Bulletin column (one of many) in support of the ban and as a result was already receiving threatening Anon phone calls and a note written on a napkin left under the windshield wiper of my car.

At the time Dr. Valerie Steinberg was Board of Health chair and she had the typical small-frame runners physique. I made it a point to attend all the public meetings sitting in the front row in case things got physical, which in a few cases it almost did. The smell of alcohol and heated rhetoric makes for a disconcerting combination.

Town Meeting initially passed overwhelmingly an advisory article supporting the ban, but Town Manager Barry Del Castilho was less than enthusiastic and Select Board vice chair Hill Boss, a smoker, was downright rude.

Meanwhile Charlie's became the target of a boycott. Charlies's was the kind of bar you may start or finish a night of bar hopping rather than settle in for the night, so if you had other bars along the way suggesting they should be shunned for the good of the industry--it had impact.

Rich reported a loss of $10,000 that first summer because of a steep decline in patronage.

Another barowner filed a Town Meeting advisory article declaring the Board of Health ban went "too far" and variances should be allowed. The Select Board supported the article. After an hour of heated debate, it failed by almost 2-1. At that point even the wishy-washy Select Board came around.

And the Board of Health started playing hardball: issuing fines and pulling food permits which automatically voided the alcohol licenses issued by the Select Board. The resistance crumbled.

Rich sold the bar a few years ago and can't remember the last time I was there. But I'll always remember those gloomy dark days when the ban was besieged from all sides and it looked like the bullies would win. Charlie's was the only bright light.

And now they're--like all those clouds of smoking ban acrimony--just a memory.


Anonymous said...

I spotted a small typo in your post:

When you said "...it looked like the bullies would win..."

I think you meant "...like the WRONG bullies would win..."

LarryK4 said...

Sometimes you fight fire with fire.

Anonymous said...

"gloomy dark days" is right if you were in that dank pit of a bar. What a dive. It made the Drake look good. It was where you finished the night when you were too drunk to care where you where or even know where you where.

Good riddance.

Anonymous said...

Good. Now maybe they'll wash the windows for the first time in three decades.

dominique said...

I heard something about an ongoing problem with the sewer pipes -- anybody know anything about that?

Anonymous said...

Unrelated to this post, but I see you now have a link for people to donate money... What is this for and for what purpose would people give you money??

Anonymous said...

Think of it as a replacement for the nickel people used to put in the fortune telling machine at the amusement park. Only less reliable.

Anonymous said...


This blog seems to have been on a downward spiral. Clearly your heart and energy are no longer in it. It's updated less frequently and when you do update it's it's with "look at my kid on the slide" filler. I'm sure we'll get the obligatory photos from the fair this weekend. It's time to hang it up. One of the problems with the citizen blogger is it's a one person operation and when that one person loses interest it's over. You had a nice run.

LarryK4 said...

Actually, I'm working on a major project.