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.