On Culture

On culture: Memories in amber at Slim’s

CorrespondentJune 21, 2014 

— There are a lot of great things about Slim’s, the resident dive bar/live venue smack dab in the middle of Wilmington Street (aka one of the few properties on that street not owned by chef Ashley Christensen, who’s also a fan of Slim’s). For starters, you can get a can of Coors for $2.50. Another thing is the bartop, which serves as a visual timeline of the bar’s 15-year history.

“We were pretty much the original bar downtown,” says Van Alston, Slim’s longtime owner. Although the 51-year-old N.C. State alum also owns MoJoe’s Burger Joint in Raleigh and the Cave in Chapel Hill, Slim’s is his most beloved establishment – with an equally beloved bar. An impressive 35 feet long and 2 feet wide, the bar’s surface is made up of old photos, promotional band stickers, even the bar’s old liquor license, all glued on and covered with epoxy, a clear adhesive.

“The process takes about 10 hours,” Alston explains, “because you have to sit there while the epoxy dries and, while bubbles come up, you have to pop all the bubbles and, then, smooth it back out again. It’s quite an involved process.”

The bar is in its third incarnation. Fifteen years ago, it was a regular wooden bartop. Then five years into it, Alston and his employees started adding pictures of bands they liked. Five years later, when Alston came out of retirement in Honduras, the bartop was remade again.

“When we redid it the second time, we made it more Slim’s-centric,” he says. “We put out a call to all of our regulars, to people who come in here, to bands who play here, to bring in things that they thought that (should) be there. So, we probably had thousands of pictures that we went through.”

As for the old bartop, that actually went into the hands of the people.

“We cut the old one that had all the pictures into one- or two-foot slices, because the demand from our customers was so large for the pictures that were on the bar,” says Alston, who’s got a slice of the bar himself. “And our regular customers came in and staked which parts of the bar they wanted and taped their names on them.”

Slim’s isn’t the only bartop that takes beer-drinking music fans down memory lane these days. Schoolkids Records got a memorabilia-filled bartop of its own when it moved to Mission Valley earlier this year.

“I wanted to have something that, you know, suited a record store,” owner Stephen Judge says. “I noticed (Slim’s) had done something similar to that. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is totally what I kind of want to do. And kind of in the back of my mind, I kind of thought, ‘Slim’s does it the way I want to do it.’ 

Alston ended up working on the bar free of charge, taking Judge’s own shoebox filled with ticket stubs, band pictures and whatnot and laying it all over for customers to see. “He basically was like, ‘I want to contribute to the local scene, and I love Schoolkids, and I think it’s an awesome idea – you putting a bar in the store.’ 

For Alston and Judge, the bars that they built have a lot of emotional value behind them. Alston got his bar-building savvy from his father, who died in 1998, while they were building Slim’s. “And I still hold it against him,” he says with a laugh. “He didn’t have to go until we got it finished.”

As for Judge, he also lost a loved one who was integral to the building of his bar. Gade Marie Hutaff worked in music distribution and was a close friend of Judge’s who died in January, at age 35. “She was a huge advocate of the idea of putting a bar in the store,” he says, remembering the ideas and photos she would send him. “Two weeks after we opened here, she suddenly passed away.”

Hutaff’s memory lives on in the bartop, as her obituary and photos of the bands and artists she liked are embedded there. And that’s just what these bartops represent for Alston, Judge and those who frequent these spots: many, many memories crystallized in amber.

As Alston says of his bartop, “If they say a picture is worth a thousand words, then that’s a David Foster Wallace novel sitting right there.”

Lindsey: talkingfurniture@aol.com

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