February 06, 2008


Edited version.

Original version:

or decades, it was the same story every day at Sophie’s. When the scarred wooden doors swung open in the morning, old Slavic men shuffled in and slumped over their cheap beers. Afternoons brought Irish carpenters skipping out of work early for a pint and NYU students cutting class to play pool. As the light faded through the plate-glass windows, it’d gradually fill with musician types, off-duty bartenders, middle-age-verging artists and even more college kids. By midnight, all of the above were mixed and mingled together, talking books and politics, jobs and ex-wives, hitting on each other or hitting each other. Last call swept them all back out on to Fifth Street--and, less than six hours later, the cycle began anew.

But the pub’s old narrative may soon be interrupted. Bill Corton, who has owned Sophie¹s--and its sister bar, Mona’s--since the late 80’s is selling out. “The whole neighborhood has changed,” he explains. “We catered to the neighborhood service people and artists and they’ve moved on.” Combined with health issues and the demands of raising kids, it felt like time to make an exit of his own. Both bars--complete with liquor licenses and ten-year-leases--are on the market, their fate to be determined soon.

A bar dating back to the Koch administration may seem ancient, but its history actually stretches back even further. Sophie’s is named after the wordly-wise babushka Corton bought it from in 1986. “Tough, tough old Ukrainian woman. She buried two husbands in this business,” he recalls with a chuckle. “It started on Second Avenue and 23rd. I lived above her when it was on Avenue A.” When she decided to sell the joint, Corton took it over: “Any young person at one point fantasizes about what they would do if they owned a bar.” He continues, “It was a dream and that opportunity presented itself.”

Long ago, I spent a year or two practically living at Sophie’s. I still have memories of bathing a roommate’s bruised heart in well bourbon shots at the window. Of breaking up a fight between two underfed record store clerks. Of waltzing to Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” with an seventy-year-old wearing a union-logo windbreaker. Of drinking dollar drafts in a backless satin dress and earrings made of chandelier pendants stolen from the Limelight. Of trying to use the toilet while simultaneously not touching the seat and keeping the broken door closed with my foot. Back then, Sophie’s was just one of many dingy watering holes spotting the East Village: The International, Cherry Tavern, Verkhovyna, the Old Homestead Inn, Lucy’s—all but the last only a bourbon-soaked memory. Dim, grotty places you wouldn’t look twice at in passing, but which were like a fairytale tumbledown cottage in the woods that hid a palace’s worth or treasure: The legend of the night Frank Sinatra drank ‘til closing, anecdotes of the store clerk’s past as a Bollywood star, the guy recounting the courtside view of last night’s Knicks playoff game (yes, children, it was a long time ago)….

Nowadays, virtually every bar in the East Village offers precisely what it advertises--every patron will be of the same age range, income bracket, sexual orientation and aesthetic taste. You’ll see nothing you haven’t seen, hear nothing you haven’t heard and so the neighborhood lapses from a heady mix of cultures and influences to homogeny. Even if the artists could still afford it, why would they remain? What is there to surprise and inspire now?

Corton seconds the emotion: “I miss the camaraderie, the different stories people would have.” Not that Sophie’s seemed to promise the riches of geography and history: No sign outside and no décor inside--just dark, stained walls and wobbly tables ringed by creaky chairs in front, pool table, jukebox and the faint (well, maybe not so faint) whiff of bathroom in the back. The room’s sole feature is an enormous, antique oak bar topped by a wee shingled faux-roof with tiny stained glass dormer windows, as though bottles of schnapps and vodka were happy Eastern European peasants lined up and ready to entertain.

“I’ve been running it as a mom-and-pop for 21 years,” says Corton. It’s not a business model many follow anymore. New York City bars used to be more like bodegas, dry cleaners or drugstores: A family business servicing a steady stream of regular customers. Now it’s all about getting in, packing them in, taking their money, then smacking a padlock on the door and getting the hell out. Given the liquor license and lucrative location, Sophie’s could be an appetizing prospect for tavern renewal. “I spoke to someone who owns a couple of bars on the Upper East Side,” offers Corton. Then he continues, “Actually there are a few people—bartenders--if they were to buy it, they would keep it mostly like it is.” Which would be just fine with me. I rarely visit these days, but am always surprised at how much of its scruffy, egalitarian charm remains. The liquor’s still cheap and the bartenders are still friendly. And, so, the saga of Sophie’s continues. For at least a little while longer.

Posted by lissa at February 6, 2008 11:10 PM