Charleston bar

I don’t mind clean. Decades of dirt may lend a bar character, but if the place is truly grimy, I’m the first to fish out the hand sanitizer. So, not having been a regular at the Charleston, Bucktown’s beloved, if dusty, tap, I was baffled by all the brouhaha over its recent freshening up.

A bit of backstory: Aghast when he heard his neighborhood hangout, located next door to his house, was up for sale to a potential buyer who had plans to turn it into a sports bar, Jeremy Lewin told the Charleston’s longtime owner he would buy the bar if her deal fell through. “She eventually dropped a napkin through my mail slot with a handwritten note asking if I was serious,” Lewin, a lawyer by day, says. He was, but since taking over last November, he has learned it isn’t easy to helm an institution. “I think a few of the regulars found it difficult to adjust to new faces behind the bar,” he says.

In advance of my initial visit to version 2.0, I polled a few Bucktown friends. “It’s not the same!” they cried. “Black walls? What were they thinking?” Then, by chance, I ran into a bartender who had worked at the Charleston for more than a decade and was let go as part of a total staff turnover. “Have you ever read much by [the urban sociologist] Ray Oldenburg?” this person asked. I hadn’t. “He talks about the concept of the great good place. You know, the place you go that’s not home or work, but where you find a sense of community and belonging. The Charleston was like that.” The former employee sighed, making an effort at diplomacy. “When Jeremy came in, he told us everything was going to stay the same. But it didn’t.” Change, they say, is never easy.

If I had heard nothing of this, I would have sat there sipping my Bulleit bourbon while reflecting on the fact that black is my favorite color and it doesn’t look half-bad on walls. (Lewin says they’re a dark blue-green; we’ll take his word for it.) “That’s the first thing people are noticing, that the look is darker,” said Chanel Pease, the sweet and funky new manager, formerly of Nightwood, who was behind the bar. She pointed out other tweaks: new floors, banquettes, and lighting; updated bathrooms; and a retooled music schedule. “Everything got polished up,” she said. “We’re just trying to utilize the space better.”

My date, a painter who’s not afraid of a little dirt, picked up my pen and made some notes of his own. “Too sleek?” he wrote. “Too clean? I like the staff.” Then he introduced me to an old friend, a regular named Nate, who had just snagged the next stool over. “The changes are pretty noticeable,” Nate conceded. “You just have to adjust. Take my beer. I used to get PBR. Now I get Staropramen. PBR’s good and cheap, but Staropramen’s a step up.” You know what else they say? You can’t fight progress.

GO: CHARLESTON 2076 N. Hoyne St.;


Photograph: Chris Guillen