Columbus, Ohio USA
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Filling the Void
St. James Tavern keeps conversation and friendship flowing
with timeless traditions
By Tracy Zollinger Turner
May/June 2016 Issue
Michelle Hill, owner of the St. James Tavern © Larry Hamill
In the late 1970s, the Italian Village bar now known as the St. James Tavern was named “Lee’s 1002 Lounge.” Owned by a retired postman, 8 o’clock on Friday mornings was one of its prime times for business, as the third-shift industrial workers who worked and lived in the neighborhood clocked out, a fresh paycheck in hand.
As factory work grew more and more scarce in the neighborhood, several businesses shuttered their doors, and private residences were boarded up. After 17 years in business, Lee the postman decided to give it up and sell it to Michelle Hill’s father and a business partner. At first, the two men tried, unsuccessfully, to run the place as a “hillbilly bar.”
“They found out how awful that business model was pretty quickly,” says Hill. “There were fights.”
Christened the St. James, the bar was actually named for her father and “meant to be funny,” says Michelle. “We aren’t religious, and he is certainly not a saint,” although he might be considered the initial patron of her future success as a bar owner.
A college student, Hill had been working as a server at Lindey’s in German Village when her father asked her if she wanted to take it over.
“I said if I do, I’m going to do it my way,” Hill says.
Michelle’s way was rough at first.
“During those first two years when I was still in college, I barely slept,” she said. “I couldn’t get people to work here.”
With persistence, she began to draw a modest but faithful crowd. She started to take what she knew about quality craft beers and wines and make it work for the higher-end tastes and modest budgets of musicians, artists and especially her fellow bar and restaurant workers.
“I thought about where I would want to hang out after work – restaurant and bar people like good wine and good beer, but they like to keep it affordable,” she says, noting that she put well-loved ales like Guinness on tap for just $2.50 a pint at first. “I changed the jukebox and the beer selection right away. I wanted to keep it simple and offer quality things in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.”
The building had some of its character already built in, like its warm, knotted pine paneling and sturdy matching bar. Before Lee the postman’s 1002, it had a long and winding history as a bar that Hill has only partially been able to track – the pool room was added sometime in the 1930s. (Hill also started using that space as a small gallery with work by local artists early on.)
“The oldest use I found in the history of the building is that it was a confectionary around 1902,” says Hill. “They used to make candy here. Now I serve adult candy.”
Most of the stickers on the cabinets behind the bar herald small breweries, some of which she was the first to introduce to Columbus.
“I think it’s safe to say that we’re the oldest craft beer bar in the city,” she says. “Other places may have 40 or 50 beers on tap, but I’m very good at curating. It changes weekly.”
The jukebox, which is also deliberately curated by Hill, reads like a catalogue of some of the most in-vogue music for bohemian tastemakers over the past two decades. From Johnny Cash to the Replacements, Nina Simone to the Pixies, Patsy Cline to the Neko Case, it’s a very particular playlist that appeals specifically to Hill and her clientele.
“I may add something new from time to time,” says Hill. “But I don’t change very much. Like, I won’t ever take Tom Waits off of the jukebox. It’s part of my identity, which means its part of the bar’s identity. So people just have to deal with that.”
By the time Hill graduated from college in 1999, the business was starting to work. She purchased the business from her father, having been the one to “put in the blood, sweat and tears.”
“We were very lucky to have our parking lot because for the first seven years or so, people usually drove here,” she says. “Then people started slowly moving into the neighborhood because it was cheaper than Victorian Village.”
© Larry Hamill
As Hill rounds into the bar’s 20th anniversary this September, the explosive growth of Italian Village has taken the bar into new territory. On weekends, the St. James gets its fair share of tourists, with Italian Village visitors out on pub crawls, dropping by on the way to or from Seventh Son. But on Sunday through Thursday, most of the people who come through live within walking distance, and many have been her customers for years.
“Those are my people,” says Hill, noting that fewer of the servers, artists and musicians who have been at the core of her patronage are able to afford to live within walking distance these days.
A handful of bartenders have worked for her for many years, and she feels that consistency is part of the bar’s long-term success.
“Having people stick around for so long is a great thing,” she says. “It’s great to have good people surrounding and supporting you, but it’s also part of the identity of this place. I know when I go out, the first things I look for in a bar are a good bartender, good music and good beverages.”
These days Hill comes in two nights a week to work behind the bar.
“I can’t imagine owning and managing a place you’re never in,” she says. “It happens all the time, though, and usually you can feel it.”
Holding regular monthly happy hours in support of reproductive rights, supporting Pride in summer and staying connected to local artists are also things that help her stay connected to the neighborhood and community.
The nature of the business itself might be a breed that’s slowly going extinct, at least in the Short North.
“There is a lost art to having a conversation bar. I intentionally have no televisions and to me that’s a positive,” says Hill. “Everything is very theme-y now on High Street. A neighborhood bar has almost become a rarity.”
St. James Tavern, located in Italian Village at 1057 N. 4th Street, is approaching its 20th anniversary. Visit www.stjamestavern.com and Facebook for updates on the anniversary party in September.
© 2016 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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