The Last Days of Gold Bar

The doors are closing on the Valley's most eclectic coffee house.

Jeff Newton is looking for office space. Nothing fancy, just a table and chairs, a good desk lamp and a caramel double-shot latte waiting when he walks in the door.

For the past four years — nearly every night since January, when he quit his waiter job at Olive Garden — Newton's been a regular at Gold Bar Espresso, a coffee house in Tempe. He piles his usual table in the back corner with a mess of legal pads, bills and photo magazines. Newton's cell phone, set on vibrate, jumps across the table when he gets a call.

He gets a lot of calls. Newton is a photographer, a band manager and a poet.

Dave Maass, Gold Bar's self-appointed philosopher-king.
Irvin Serrano
Dave Maass, Gold Bar's self-appointed philosopher-king.
Iced mocha with a smile: Gold Bar is the center of Alicia Smith's universe.
Irvin Serrano
Iced mocha with a smile: Gold Bar is the center of Alicia Smith's universe.

Newton, who is 24 and perfectly average looking until you get to his hair, which defies gravity in a Flock of Seagulls sort of way, was never really one to hang out at coffee houses until he found Gold Bar.

Other coffee houses are so fake, he says. He used to live across the street from Undici Undici, a stylish cafe in Mesa.

"I went in there and tried to write once and they had . . . all this different art on the walls and everything, but it just felt so much like they were trying to be like, 'Look, we're cool! We promise!

We promise, we're cool, come here!' I couldn't write a freaking single poem. I felt like I was trying to be fake along with them."

Then a friend told him about Gold Bar, which is housed in a former Valley National Bank building in a graveyard of a strip mall on Southern Avenue. The dress here is roll-out-of-bed casual, and the decor is strictly garage sale. The pastries aren't always so fresh, the coffee is pricey and the rest rooms at Starbucks are much cleaner, but Gold Bar has high ceilings, a drive-through and plenty of space to spread out. And despite small signs that admonish customers to buy a drink an hour, no one cares if you plug in your laptop and hang out all day — and night — nursing your iced mocha until it's watery and gross.

"This place, it kind of has a forget-about-it vibe," Newton says. "It's like, 'This is who I am, like it or not.'"

And that's the kind of people the place attracts, as well. Lulu in Hollywood, an acid jazz band, and Fiona-McGregor, a harp duet with a penchant for '80s pop, join the traditional James Taylorish acoustic guitarists as part of Gold Bar's regular music lineup. Among the crowd migrating in and then outdoors to smoke and kibitz, you can find aspiring comic book artists and filmmakers, accomplished pianists and mountain climbers. The baristas are ceramists and theater junkies. It is not unheard of to walk into Gold Bar on a weekday afternoon and see a 4-year-old in a pink fairy dress sipping a hot chocolate after preschool, or catch a woman in a zebra-striped plastic cape — her hair half up in plastic clips, half down in cascading curls — ordering a cinnamon roll. (There's a hair salon across the breezeway.)

Gold Bar's owner is a guy named P.Z., a mysterious Wizard of Oz type who drives an old gray convertible Mercedes 450 SL and won't talk to reporters. It's said that he learned how to make coffee in Europe, and once owned a coffee house in the Pacific Northwest. He is short and silver, and his dog Luigi, who is short and brown, often sits on the patio at Gold Bar or wanders back behind the counter. The regulars say that P.Z. once had an aborigine pray over the place.

For several months, Jeff Newton would come to Gold Bar on his nights off and sit in the vault — it's the actual vault the bank once used, now equipped with benches and tables — and write. Slowly he met other regulars, making both friends and business contacts. He came more and more often, and eventually the coffee house became his workplace.

"Like, I joke around, but it has," Newton says, straining to be heard over a raucous card game at a neighboring table. "That's what I'm freaking here doing right now. I've got all my business cards out for all these different companies, I'm booking concerts for the bands that I manage, I just set up a photo shoot for another band that I do photos for. A bunch of stuff. And then sitting here studying photo magazines, trying to read reviews on just whatever I can learn."

Sometime soon — no one will say for sure when, but likely before the end of June — Gold Bar's doors will close. The coffee house has lost its lease, and Jeff Newton and many others will have lost their office space.

And they will have lost their community in a metropolis where community can be a rare commodity.

Gold Bar's demise has been a near-constant topic of discussion for weeks. Even if the old bank becomes another coffee house — and that's the rumor — the regulars say it won't be the same under different management. They won't come back. And even if Gold Bar does eventually relocate, it will be to a tiny spot with no drive-through, no place for music and no room for Jeff Newton.

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