June Espeland is the co-owner of Jules Maes, Seattle's oldest bar. She bought the place on July 1, 1988, the year of its 100th anniversary. Espeland, 65, and her 43-year-old son Jay have been running the blue-collar digs--a dark and comforting watering hole with high wooden stools and a long mahogany bar--for the past 12 years. They're a pale pair, washed in the dust of the bar's interior, drummed out by the sound of hammering and frequent phone calls during Memorial Day weekend.
The purpose of this weekend is to shut the bar down, to drain it of anything drinkable. The collection of historical photographs and prototypical bar art has already been auctioned off. (Everything from the jukebox to the dishware is labeled with a sold sticker bearing the words "Lucky Dog.") At the goodbye party on Friday night, a tame and somehow tear-jerking burlesque performance draws a crowd to the back room. The place is packed; all evening a line of well-wishers and the curious yawns around the shabby façade, kept in suspense by Jay's careful obedience of the maximum-capacity law. Two mourn-ful men in bowlers sit at the kitchen counter, one of them in an apron. When someone asks for help, the man snaps, "I don't work here." Around the corner, behind the kitchen entrance, a waitress in a long, '40s-style dress packs dirty glasses into the sink, an inch of ash hanging precariously off her sordid cigarette.
There has always been an element of loving greasiness to Jules Maes, an anti-celebrity opacity that caters to a mix of blue-collar locals and rockabilly folks. Jules Maes opened his bar in 1888 to service brewery workers who, after a long day of making beer, wanted to consume it. Located in Georgetown, the flat-out no man's land in industrial South Seattle, the place slowly drifted just far enough away from commerce to suit its occasional clients and put its owners out of business. People I spoke to on Friday night praised the old-Seattle nature of Jules Maes: mixed crowds of people who danced together, a constant and palpable sense of the blue-collar history, Rainier on tap. Many people had played music there, in the back section that used to be a poker room. One guy I spoke with said the stage had the best sound he'd ever encountered. He said maybe it was because of the history of the place, a phenomenon akin to old guitars mellowing perfectly. Most people were too melancholy to be articulate, and just took a swig of beer when I asked them what they thought. I heard, "There's no place like this place," over and over again, like a mantra used to fix a memory.
Ask Jay what he's going to do now, and he waits a little, self-consciously. He doesn't want the answer to sound like a post-Super Bowl endorsement. "Um, I'm takin' the kid to Disneyland," he says. "Yeah, we're just gonna drive down the coast and chill. I want to take some time to remember what it's like to be a human being, and not a bartender."
"Bittersweet" is the word both Jay and his mother use to describe the experience of shutting down Jules Maes. "It's been a quaint, interesting occupation," says June, who's worked plenty of overtime behind the bar in the past year. "It's kind of a relief to be out of business and retiring, but I am very disappointed that over the two years we tried, we couldn't find a buyer who wanted to keep it a bar."
In a few months the building will become a... glass studio. As in, art glass. The section along Airport Way in Georgetown is being awkwardly groomed for artistic space. Bands practice here, and the Seattle Design Center houses showrooms for furnishings, fabrics, and accessories. But the movement has hardly been organic, and while various ventures have promised renewal, June and Jay have waited, but they can't wait any longer.
Friday night, May 26, 1:36 a.m.: The very last thing I hear Jay yell into the night is "My income doubles as soon as I leave this place! From nothing to nothing!" He laughs, but no one else does.