Last call came early at Collinsville’s Fireplace Café on a recent Sunday. Shortly after 8 p.m. the coldest beer in town ran out after over forty years of longnecks and drafts. The day had been expected for some time after the decrepit building went on the market following the death of owner and beloved curmudgeon Bill Wilson in October 2010. But even without a drink, people lingered, leaving slowly and sadly, some taking souvenirs such as glasses, beer posters, the bells on the door, and even the men and ladies room signs. A few patrons were seen carrying off cheap vinyl and metal chairs to their apartments up the hill as if they were pieces of goal post or turf from a fabulous football victory.
With its rundown appearance and rough (though undeserved) reputation many found the place forbidding. But it was a womb of neighborly warmth for those who regularly walked through the battered, featureless doors. The Fireplace was a sanctum, a haven from the world where in dim light time melted delightfully away in conversation, laughter and communally watched television regardless of whether the screen flashed the Red Sox, a Dirty Harry movie, or a fishing show. Sure, it was a dive, but unapologetically so. Among many regulars it was affectionately known as “The Pit.”
A kind of gritty version of the bar in television’s Cheers, there once were neighborhood taverns and saloons like The Fireplace on many American street corners, but they are rapidly fading. They’re places where people from all walks of life can gather, tell tales, crack jokes and just hang out together in a rumpus room atmosphere that lacks the formalities of work and the relative isolation of home. These are refreshment refuges where you not only wet your whistle, but recharge your energies for life’s challenges and grind.
A community melting pot, on any given Fireplace night you might find people from age 21 to 81 swapping recent news and holding forth on whatever the day had washed up on the shores of their lives. Drawn to the bar’s cozy, if disheveled confines were college professors, musicians, lawyers, salesmen, truck drivers, masons, librarians, writers, cooks, artists, waitresses, accountants, carpenters, electricians, assembly line workers, actuaries, architects, mechanics, nurses and people holding just about every job imaginable. Even dogs were welcome, and there was always a big container of biscuits for them. Of course, it was a “shot and a beer” kind of place (with a few rudimentary mixed drinks available) and heaven help the newcomer who ordered a martini or some other fancy beverage when Bill Wilson held sway. He’d summarily kick them out, even after they’d corrected themselves and ordered a Bud, figuring (probably correctly) they wouldn’t be happy in the plebeian world of The Fireplace. And though he wasn’t a big man, few argued with Bill, especially after seeing the shotgun not too discretely placed in a slot on the backbar.
Loyal patrons and long-time bartender Phyllis Carroll and her husband Duke, who spiritedly took the place into extra innings after Bill died, wouldn’t let the bar go out with just a whimper. So Friday and Saturday local bands played the tiny space to packed houses as usual, and the building throbbed with sound and the electric excitement of the crowd which swayed, danced and shouted. Sunday the bar opened early for what amounted to an “Irish wake” with plenty of drinking, toasts, hugs, yuks and reminiscences. It was a bittersweet day with the big unanswered question being: “where will we all go?” One twenty-something regular felt as if “a part of my house is being taken away.” Together we all seemed to realize that The Fireplace was not so much a watering hole as it was a series of relationships that existed in time, like a large extended family.
Businesses are as much a part of the fabric of a community as the buildings which house them and the people who bring them alive. Unfortunately, they have a natural lifespan just as structures and living things do. It’s right and proper that we should mourn their passing. Only when such institutions disappear without a tear should we worry, for the act of mourning itself demonstrates the vibrancy of the community that remains.
Hartford Courant, 6-14-12