The Last Days of Gold Bar

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

Gehring, who is now 26, thought she was downsizing, but she laughs about that now. Three years later she's Gold Bar's night manager and music coordinator. Gehring and Alicia Smith, the day manager, do their share of hauling boxes, scheduling events and pulling espressos, but there's always time to chat, they say, as they settle at a table by the counter, within easy earshot of a barista-in-training.

Smith's shift is over and she has to get home soon, to iron her cap and gown. She's graduating tomorrow with a fine arts degree from ASU. She started out drawing, and recently got into ceramics.

But Smith's real interest, for now at least, is coffee. Gold Bar is the center of her universe, she says, has been her entire adult life. She's 23. She moved to an apartment complex next to Gold Bar so she could walk to work.

Barista Tom takes a break.
Irvin Serrano
Barista Tom takes a break.
Gillian Nieboer (left) and Leslie Jabara are Fiona-McGregor, a harp duet with a thing for cheesy '80s pop music.
Irvin Serrano
Gillian Nieboer (left) and Leslie Jabara are Fiona-McGregor, a harp duet with a thing for cheesy '80s pop music.

"If somebody brings back a drink, I'm upset for two hours after that," Smith says.

"It doesn't happen too often," Gehring adds quickly.

When Smith started at Gold Bar, she had coffee grounds in her ears at the end of the day. Gehring would fall into bed, totally exhausted. Now they attend national coffee conventions and train the baristas to speak of coffee like fine wine.

The word Frappuccino is nails on the chalkboard for these women — they can't believe how Starbucks has butchered the Italian language. The Gold Bar baristas speak their own language.

"When you yell out from the drive-through, 'I want a grande iced one pump decaf skinny with half a Sweet 'N Low, naked,' no one knows what that is unless they work at Gold Bar."

"Naked" means no whipped cream. When someone orders a skinny (non-fat) decaf drink, Smith calls it a "why bother." Recently a man came in and ordered a skinny drink. When she heard he was on vacation, Smith insisted he have it with 2 percent milk instead.

"We know about our customers' lives. It's scary, how much we know about our customers' lives," Gehring says. "We've got nighttime regulars, and when I first started working here, they were pregnant. They've since had kids, they got divorced, now they have a new boyfriend. There are people who come in, like couples, that'll be coming in together for a year and then all of a sudden, only one of them comes. I'm like, 'Where is so and so?' 'Oh, I got Gold Bar in the separation. They're not allowed to come here anymore.'"

A sign was posted months ago at the drive-through, warning of Gold Bar's demise. Seems like every customer orders a drink, then asks for a status report. Gehring and Smith don't have any answers.

"People are freaking out. 'Where am I going to get my drink if you guys go away?'" Smith says.

Gehring rolls her eyes. "There's enough freaking out on our part about where we're going to work."

Tuesday, May 14, 8:45 p.m.

Dave Maass is wearing contact lenses for the first time, and they're bugging him. Every 30 seconds or so, he squeezes drops in his eyes, which just get redder and redder. He's been walking around with a rubber ball he bought at Target. It's supposed to keep his mind off smoking, but other patrons have been yelling at him for bouncing it inside. And he's 50 points down in Scrabble.

Maass moons across the room at Joy. Last week she let him down gently, in an e-mail. They're still friends. They watched the movie Cast Away together over the weekend, and Joy and Jamie tell Maass his rubber ball reminds them of Wilson, Tom Hanks' volleyball/companion. The night before Mother's Day, Joy had all her friends write her mother letters. Maass wrote that he was being held captive in a Mother's Day letter-writing sweat shop.

Mostly, Maass is worried about money. He's got to find work, he insists, and is considering something in the janitorial field. At least he's not smoking. Tom's doing well, but Audie Gehring long since went back. And no one's seen Josh Schicker.

Finally, at 10, Maass switches the contacts for his glasses and puts away the Scrabble board.

"I'm not doing so well tonight," he mumbles, heading outside to bounce his ball.

Friday, May 17, 2:30 p.m.

Afternoons at Gold Bar are cool and dim and almost empty, except for Jim Waugh.

Waugh is arguably the most accomplished Gold Bar regular. He's a legend in Valley mountain-climbing circles, founded the Phoenix Bouldering Contest 20 years ago and wrote the guide that's considered the bible of Arizona climbing routes. Recently he started organizing climbing events for ESPN's X Games and the Gorge Games, which will air this year on NBC.

He doesn't have a usual table, Waugh says, or a usual drink.

"I go through patterns. I was into chai tea for the longest time, and lately I've been totally into the mochas, so I tend to vary." Today he's drinking an iced coffee — trying to cut back on the chocolate — and entering evaluation results from the Phoenix Bouldering Contest onto an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop.

Somewhere in his 40s, Waugh is lean with sun-worn skin and bleached-blond hair. Jeans and flip-flops. He found Gold Bar years ago, and comes almost every afternoon for several hours.

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