John's Tavern: Last call
Branda Shaw wiped away tears as she thought about losing a place that has been part of her family for more than three decades.
When she sees John’s Tavern, it’s a physical connection to her uncle John Bosch. John and his wife Diane Bosch purchased the small, neighborhood bar on Oak Street in 1977. They wanted to work for themselves and raise their daughters. John worked the night shift, Diane the day.
Holidays. Weekends. Years.
But it’s all coming to an end. On Sept. 15, John’s Tavern will close its doors for good after last call.
The small, neighborhood bar opened in 1936 with owners Cully and Lydia Nelson. It was called Cully’s then and continued into the 1950s. The Nelsons lived next door to the bar. Patrons would walk up to their bedroom window and ask Cully if they could buy a pack of cigarettes before the bar opened. The door’s open, he’d tell them, just leave the money on the counter. Lydia was reported to say the only thing she didn’t like about the bar business was cleaning spittoons.
In following years the owners and name changed on the building. It was Butch’s bar when Butch and Doris Hanson owned it and later was called B&M and the GI bar, based on the owners’ initials. Some lasted longer than others. Then came John.
His family said he was a man who enjoyed a laugh, a joke and stirring the pot. The bar was part of Shaw’s life since she was a child. Her father, the manager at the Clark Station, would stop at the bar and take the same stool every afternoon and drink a pop after work and catch up with the family before heading home. Shaw’s mother was John’s sister. After John died in 2009, Shaw helped at the bar. She was working one of the last shifts Thursday afternoon, occasionally wiping tears as she looked past the nearly empty bar to past memories. On Christmas, the extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, gathered at the closed bar. When a customer with nowhere else to go knocked on the locked door, they were welcomed into the family celebration. “It’s a lot like family,” she said of the relationships. “People that come here have come for years and years — you get to be real close to people. Most I’ve known since I was little.”
Shaw wasn’t surprised when her aunt Diane, now in her 60s, was ready to retire and close the bar. It was for sale, but a prospective buyer didn’t pursue a purchase earlier this year. Then the bar closed two days of the week in August and the end was coming. Customers began to drift off to other places. Even those who felt displaced kept in touch. They’d text, email, call and connect on Facebook. Shaw said the bond was bigger than the bar as they’d get-together outside its narrow confines for parties at Halloween and other events. Shaw and a patron kept a running tab on who had the most grandchildren, soon to be a tie at 11.
“You are in touch with more of their life than serving them a beer or a pizza,” Shaw said. “It’s meant a lot to a lot of people.”
John’s Tavern was a 3.2 bar, offered beer and hard lemonade, pizzas and snacks. A single pool table sat beyond the two-sided bar area with stools on either side or the center aisle. The two sides were close enough that patrons on either side could easily carry on a conversation across the divide. Skilled laborers were regulars. One customer said all he needed to build a house was a crew from the patrons at John’s.
Diane, Shaw said, was quick with a joke and John gave a wink to let customers in on his effort to stir the pot. “The next thing you know, everybody is laughing at something,” Shaw said. “I really tie the bar to John a lot. It took awhile for anybody to say his name in here without breaking down.”
John’s Tavern served as a neighborhood gathering place. When the family put thoughts on paper about the tavern, they noted much more was given than a cold glass of beer. And they said John and Diane’s dedication showed their daughters Leah and Angie and their grandchildren, Jacob, Jeremy and Hailey that hard work and dedication go into owning a small business. John was known to lend money to neighborhood residents when they were having trouble buying groceries or hire out-of-work laborers to clear land he owned so they could have a little extra money. He grew up in a family of seven children on a farm near Pillager before moving into Brainerd. “John’s Tavern has provided us not only a living for our family, but has given us a lot of lifetime friends that will be here for my family even after I retire,” Diane wrote. “John’s Tavern has given us many happy memories through the years.”
When a neighborhood resident came in because John’s Tavern had a pay phone they could use, his confession of murder sometimes meant people associated the violent event with the bar. But others knew it as a safe place to stop in, like the lady in her 60s who comes up from Little Falls for senior citizen events and stops in along the way, Shaw said.
Some customers were daily visitors. Others stopped in once a week or every two weeks. For 24 years, Al Enberg has operated AJ Upholstery just a few paces down the block from John’s Tavern. The two businesses are separated by Hoffman Electric. John’s Tavern is a regular lunch stop for Enberg. He’s tried to think of ways to keep the neighborhood bar open.
“It’s comfortable. It’s quite, safe,” Enberg said. “It’s more like a small family. It’s one of the last neighborhood bars in town.”
On Monday, the neighborhood will be different.
Shaw has had to think of her next steps, too.
“I put in an application at Costco just like everybody else,” she said.
The indoor smoking ban, the change in how people feel about driving after even a drink or two, the relentlessly tough economy; it all took a toll on the bar’s business. Laborers who were regulars for decades have aged. They went out less often.
Last winter, when potential buyers approached the Brainerd City Council for a full liquor license, they wanted to serve burgers and food instead of just pizzas and snacks. They also wanted to serve more than beer and hard lemonade. But the council was reluctant to make the change, telling prospective buyers it would depend on how the neighborhood residents felt about it. The potential buyers were told to come up with a better plan before approaching the city again down the road. It didn’t materialize. Now the small, neighborhood bar will close.
Shaw said some customers who came in hoping to get a mixed drink stayed for a beer and a pizza.
It just wasn’t enough.
“It’s change,” Shaw said.
And for Oak Street, it means the end of an era.