Despite being a functioning corner tap since Prohibition in 1933, Guthries Tavern wasn’t officially established in Chicago until 1986, seven years before Dan moved to Wrigleyville and became a regular there. He celebrated its legal 10th, 20th and 30th anniversaries; worked behind the bar between 2000 and 2008; met countless friends on its stools who he’s grown to treat like family; and after it announced on July 20th that it had failed to survive the pandemic, he attended its funeral.
“Friends drove in from all over to say goodbye,” Dan, now 49, tells me. The coronavirus be damned, 20 to 30 long-time regulars gathered inside to drink, cry and share memories until 3 a.m. (In their defense, they were wearing masks almost the whole time.) “There were definitely some tears for sure, particularly when the bagpipes started,” Dan says casually. “The pipers weren’t planned. They showed up on their own to pay tribute.”
Multiple therapists acknowledge that it’s entirely normal — healthy even — to grieve the loss of a bar as if it were a loved one. “Grief fundamentally re-orients us to the world,” explains therapist Ned Presnall, the owner and director of Plan Your Recovery and professor of clinical social work and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s an emotional process through which we adjust to life without something or someone that we had never really imagined living without, and it absolutely applies to bars.”
This level of emotional attachment to a place is especially intense right now, as loyal customers watch more and more small businesses struggle to stay alive. And with many cities like Chicago and New York requiring bars to serve food in order to stay open, true watering holes like Guthries have been the first to go, but won’t be the last. Along the way, each shuttering will continue to serve as a painful reminder of the losses still likely ahead — other bars, restaurants, bookstores, fitness studios, jobs and potentially loved ones.
“It can often trigger a more global sense of loss in which a person comes face-to-face with multiple losses in their life or begins to grieve a loss that they hadn’t fully grieved in the past,” Presnall says.
“Bars and restaurants can be good coping strategies for existing mental health issues such as isolation and disconnectedness,” adds therapist Alicea Ardito. “In losing a favorite establishment, we have people who are also losing their way of connecting with the outside world in a way that feels comfortable.”
When Jamal, 45, found out that The Way Station in Brooklyn was closing on June 23rd, he felt like he was losing a lot more than a Dr. Who-themed bar with a Tardis bathroom. “It was the first bar where I never felt any real need to hide behind a book,” he tells me. “We were all Whovians.”
Regulars checked in on each other in the days that followed, but Jamal admits he was too worn down by the pandemic to have the energy to honor the loss like Dan and his fellow barflys did Guthries. “Navigating the new normal left me rather exhausted, and I was too numb to grieve or otherwise react when it happened,” Jamal recalls. Although he was invited to a Zoom memorial for The Way Station, he decided not to go. Instead he privately read Facebook posts of old friends eulogizing the bar they all loved. “Almost two months later I’m just coming to terms with a loss of much more than a bar,” he says.
“We might be more comfortable labeling certain types of grief, such as the loss of my favorite restaurant, when really it isn’t only that particular closure, but everything it symbolizes. Again, things such as connection, routine, security and certainty,” Ardito reiterates.
The cruel irony about grieving the death of a bar, of course, is that bars, in pre-COVID times at least, were the places many people sought out when sad or despondent — whether it involved drinking or not. Which is why, other than the hangover the next day, Dan doesn’t have any regrets about how he grieved a spot that mattered so much to him. “It was quite emotional,” he says, “but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”