“Dive bar” is a term that is used by bar patrons in both affectionate and pejorative terms, depending on the speaker.
For some folks, a dive bar is a dirty, grimy place with gross, permanently sticky bathroom floors and walls that reek of and — if you inhale with an open mouth — taste like old urine at all times. The bar’s offerings are very limited, unfussy and domestic-beer heavy.
The glasses and mugs are perpetually murky and are never quite clean and the smell of 20-year-old cigarette smoke is seemingly imbedded in the walls. And there may be a dank aura of tragedy, alcoholism and/or hopelessness.
But for others folks, a good dive bar is a social and drinking haven. A neighborhood place usually with friendly drink prices you can go where “being cool” or “being seen” or “just trying to hook up” isn’t on anyone’s agenda.
Dive bars usually are not big splashy places raking in the money, but places that survive.
While there are no set-in-stone rules or definitions of what elevates or deprecates a bar, the Internet is filled with concrete ideas of what a dive bar is NOT.
For example, Huffington Post posted a 17-point list aimed at “hipsters” featuring signs you are “not” in a dive bar which includes pithy bon mot such as “The wine selection includes more options than just ‘Red’ or ‘White’?” and “It’s called ‘Dive bar.’?”
Locally, a blue-collar town such as Akron is dotted with neighborhood bars that have earned the dive bar status by standing the test of time, surviving and carving out warm spots in patrons’ hearts, minds and livers. One long-standing, beloved and accepted “dive bar” is Annabell’s Bar & Lounge in Highland Square.
The bar and concert venue, which was at one time One-Eyed Jack’s, is named for former owner Ann K. Pflueger, who died in 1991 at age 88. It is currently owned by Billy Reynolds.
Often referred to as a “quintessential dive bar,” we asked some of its patrons to help define the dive bar and why Annabell’s qualifies for vaunted “dive” status.
While “live music venue” isn’t part of most definitions of a dive bar, music is a big part of the reason Annabell’s is so well known throughout the area. Musicians of all ages have played, drank or seen a band there and it adds to the eclectic feel of the crowd, and the fact that the majority of shows are free also allows folks to casually check out bands and the people who listen to them.
“I personally think it’s someplace you can be yourself and where you don’t have to put on airs to go to,” said Chris Bentley, 39. The singer/guitarist of Canton rock band the Most Beautiful Losers talked about the bar while sitting at the basement bar drinking a beer between bands.
“It’s where there’s a bunch of people just like you, into the same kind of music and the same kind of stuff,” he continued. “You don’t all have to all listen to punk rock or anything but at least enjoy and appreciate all kinds of stuff.”
Bentley has been playing at and drinking in Annabell’s for 15 years and said his band has played more than 100 shows in the basement. “We used to play a lot more, when our livers could handle it,” he joked. Besides his love of the entire Annabell’s staff, Bentley said he also finds himself frequently meeting new people.
“I’ve sat here, drunk … talking to people I’ve never met before and that’s not something I do anywhere else,” he said.
Upstairs in the bar, Toni Billick of Akron and her visiting friend Shani Richards, a former Akronite who is now a grad student living in Brooklyn, were people watching, talking and enjoying the crowd.
“I don’t feel like I’m being judged … there’s not much diversity here, only two or three black people here a night, but I never feel unwelcome here,” said Richards.
Billick, who lived in Tampa for five years, said she found that she missed Annabell’s and was anxious to get back to her favorite local haunt upon her return to town.
“There’s always bands here. They’re free and there’s always something going on every day of the week here,” she said, “and there’s not too many other places like Annabell’s in the area that maintain a similar crowd. It’s all walks of life that come to this place and I like that I don’t have to have a dress code like some bars downtown and I can come here and be loud. It’s a place where girls can get rowdy.”
Richards said she too enjoys the relaxed atmosphere. “We can just talk [stuff], I yell sometimes. I laugh really loud sometimes and nobody cares.”
“Yeah, that’s the beauty of this place, nobody gives a rat’s [butt],” Billick said laughing.
Retired educator Tom Mitchell doesn’t consider himself a dive bar aficionado, but used to come to the spot in the late 1970s and was married to a former Annabell’s bartender for nearly 20 years.
About eight years ago Mitchell, 70, moved back to the Wallhaven area to be closer to his family and found himself returning to a quite different Annabell’s.
“Obviously some stuff has changed but other stuff hasn’t changed,” he said, pointing out decor mainstays such as a couple of pictures embedded into the wall behind the bar. “I’m sure on any given night I’m the oldest person in here but … I’m comfortable. There’s good beer and the price is right, that helps.”
Later, Mitchell ventured downstairs to listen to the band and talk with some of the younger patrons, i.e. everyone else. “I like the energy here, the young people have good energy and are friendly,” he said while bopping his head to the pop/rock sounds of Burning Down Broadway.
But while Annabell’s patrons proudly tout their affection and the club’s status as “quintessential dive bar,” among the most commonly mentioned tenets of a good dive bar is that it be “poorly maintained” and though Annabell’s men’s room fits that common tenet by having a single heavily graffitied and band-stickered toilet stall and a trough (yeah, a trough), there are aspects of Annabell’s that stretch the definition.
For instance, the staff is friendly. The beer list is pleasantly eclectic even though PBR — by far the most popular beer at the bar — does have an entire shelf to itself in the coolers, there are plenty of imports alongside American favorites and the glasses are usually clean enough.
Additionally, about 10 years ago, Reynolds significantly upgraded the basement with several fresh coats of paint and new lighting. He also fixed the ceiling, which Bentley said used to leak so much his band could barely get through a show, and had the aged sound system updated by Black Keys soundman Jason Tarulli.
All that time and money softened the dank, dangerous, keep-an-eye-on-the-fire-exits aura without losing that unique Annabell’s flavor.
For longtime Annabell’s booker Brad Thorla, though the bar has the requisite dive bar character, history and little desire to impress or attract any particular crowd, the concept that nobody who runs the place cares is untrue.
“Annabell’s might be slightly different because we have live music that brings out different people,” Thorla said. “I feel like that’s the one thing that keeps us from being a ‘quintessential’ dive bar.
“If there was just the upstairs of Annabell’s then it might be quintessential, but the draw of dive bars is that they don’t have a draw which makes the people who come there much more random.”
But having different bands from around the country and sometimes the world playing most nights of the week, also helps keep the crowds interesting, frequently bringing in first-timers.
“So when we have musicians come in, they bring their friends and contingent of fans and the chances of experiencing unordinary people; people you wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with is greater, and that’s maybe something that’s different,” he said.
Thorla said owner Reynolds (who declined to be interviewed for this story) understands the bar’s dive status but may not fully embrace it.
“Billy understands the history of the place … but what he might have a problem with is the idea that dive bars don’t put any effort into what they do and Billy does put a lot of effort into Annabell’s,” Thorla said, noting that the bar holds all-day music festivals in its back parking lot, participates in community events such as the fundraising Zombie Walk food drives and hosts a beer garden during the annual Square Fest neighborhood festival belying the community promotion inertia commonly associated with dive bars.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.