The Last Days of Gold Bar

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

Summers quit law and started hanging out a lot at Gold Bar. Then he started playing there. That led to gigs at the Velvet Room in Scottsdale and then to My Florist Cafe in Phoenix, where he now plays six nights a week. Days, he's an anti-gang counselor in an East Valley junior high school.

Gold Bar is still home. It reminds Summers, who is 54, of a coffee house he frequented in Hyde Park, during his days at the University of Chicago. He likes the mix of "spiky hair and button downs," the crowd from Arizona State University, the community colleges and the naturopathic college nearby.

Jeff Newton performed a poem he wrote, called "The Palace of Dreamers," about Summers and Gold Bar at the National Poetry Slam Competition last year in Seattle.

. . . again and again I find myself here, the palace of dreamers, a womb for the uninhibited. The Gold Bar. A place where John plays the piano in the most soulful tones I almost feel as though I'm on the road with Keota passing through some 1950s jazz joint in New York City. It's the tone of purity and with the freedom of obscurity we all come here to dig the night and all the other free of mind and spirit. Dang. Never have I felt so free . . .

Summers speaks of Gold Bar in the past tense, although he still stops by for coffee after wrapping up a night at My Florist. "You could walk in, you had no clue what kind of conversation you were going to get into, but it was going to be good. . . . It was almost like a living Sunday New York Times, you know what I mean?"

After he played there, Summers says, people would tell him they felt peaceful.


Thursday, May 2, 9 p.m.

The mood at Gold Bar is festive this evening — it's the last day of classes at ASU, and people are ready to celebrate before beginning the real study grind for finals. It's also the day Dave Maass and his friends have vowed to quit smoking.

Robert Lang, a Gold Bar fixture, plays Beatles covers on the acoustic guitar, as well as selections from a long list he hands out. "We're going to do one for Dave. Maybe two for Dave," Lang says, breaking into "The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty."

"I asked this guy to learn it for me. It took him months," Maass says, grinning and turning his chair to face Lang, basking in the glow of being such a regular the guitar player knows his favorite song. Maass hasn't had a cigarette in almost a day, so he's splurging, adding an enormous oatmeal raisin cookie to his standing iced spiced chai order.

Tom, one of the baristas, has also quit smoking today, and seems to be doing fine, Maass says. Even John Avery quit. But no one's seen Josh Schicker all night.

Jeff Newton arrives at 9:30, and heads immediately to his table in the back. The guitarist plays a Gordon Lightfoot ballad.

"This is the saddest song," Maass says, shaking his head and looking around for The Sisters, Joy and Jamie Stevens.

Joy's 21, Jamie's 23. Both live at home with their parents in Mesa, both are aspiring musicians. Joy has just quit her job at Mervyn's and is waiting to hear from God about what to do next, she says. The Stevens sisters are pretty devout Christians, which Maass, who is Jewish, figures will ultimately squelch any chance he has of dating Joy.

Maass finds Joy in line for coffee and she mentions she's leaving for Colorado tomorrow for a short vacation. He's really bummed.

"We've had 20 years of not knowing each other and I'm leaving for four days," she says, smiling.

Joy's a pixie in a black hooded tee shirt, dark jeans and celery green nail polish. She leaves — really early flight in the morning — and Maass turns his attention back to the Scrabble board. At 10:55, the lights dim and the baristas start putting chairs on tables, a not-so-subtle signal that it's closing time. Still no sign of Josh.

Maass is a few turns away from ending the game.

"They'll let me finish," he says. "After all, it's me."

And he's right, they do.


Thursday, May 9, 6 p.m.

Already, some of the artwork is disappearing from the walls of Gold Bar. The Owner, as the baristas call P.Z., is taking his stuff home slowly. It will be no small feat to empty the coffee house; every corner is packed with dusty old books, coffee grinders, tea sets — junk The Owner picks up at garage sales and displays haphazardly. St. Lucia, a mannequin in a coffee-stained white eyelet dress, with candles on her head and a tray in her hands, still stands guard at the front door, honoring a Swedish holiday in which children bring their parents coffee.

It was the art in this place that first drew Audie Leah Gehring to Gold Bar. She was running Arizona Theatre Company's box office when she heard about a coffee house in Tempe that had a great collection of work by the Dutch fantasy artist Michael Parkes. She came in for a cup of coffee and six months later found herself quitting her job to become a barista.

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