The Back Door Tavern Is Brought Back From the Dead by its Congregation

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by Harry Whiteside

Everyone remembers Mark Twain’s response to the news that he had died: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” And many are familiar with the response to the news that a certain apocalyptic preacher had risen from the dead: “Hallelujah!” they shouted with joy. Likewise, many comments both sacred and profane are being proclaimed with the news that the Back Door Tavern, once dead, is miraculously alive and well in Bearden.

It closed in February when, after 35 years or so, owner Barry Cook had decided that it was time to retire. It seemed that the end was truly nigh; the memorabilia on the walls were auctioned off, all the beer was sold, the coolers were removed, and—in a gesture that symbolized the finality of everything—the “FREE HOT DOGS WITH BEER PURCHASE!” scrolling sign was taken down. In their grief, some of the heartbroken faithful removed pieces of the iconic wooden fence to take home and create shrines to their beloved neighborhood dive.

But occasionally in this life, good news cometh to those who believe. Sorrow has turned to joy with the revelation that a gathering of the faithful has refused to accept the inevitable, garnering their resources to keep the place open. Steve Polte, a long-time patron, has spearheaded the process and developed a business plan that should keep the bar open for the foreseeable future. This plan includes updates to the place. That’s right, updates—to a bar that hasn’t been updated during its lifetime.

But fear not, o ye of little faith. These won’t change the atmosphere that gives the BDT its charm. Rather, they include behind-the-scenes types of improvements such as accepting credit cards. Who says that miracles only happened in the ancient days? Other updates include social media and, wait for it… advertising! Who knows, maybe there will even be curtains for the men’s restroom, which would add a nice touch, especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees.

But back to the plan. As one might imagine, there was a major problem facing Polte and the faithful who gathered for a revival meeting: money. A substantial amount (around, oh, $25,000 or so) was needed to pay bills and fix things. Word went out (on social media!) that the BDT might yet rise up and live again. A capacity crowd of believers gathered, and Polte frankly presented his plan, which was enthusiastically received. This was followed by a call for an offering. The congregants rushed forward in an overwhelming display of conviction; the $25,000 was raised in about two hours, with many who arrived late being disappointed that it was cut off once the target had been reached. High risk, no return; that’s conviction.

One cynical patron, Snake the Lawyer, pledged a substantial sum, although he (Doubting Thomas-style) was skeptical. The outpouring of support convinced him otherwise and, his faith renewed, he offered more if necessary (it wasn’t). Another of The Lawyers, Don Howell, offered his services pro bono to navigate the legal aspects. Even the landlord, Virginia Anagnost, wanted in; she offered to keep the rent the same for the first month.

Getting the BDT back up and running has not been easy. For instance, most of the iconic memorabilia that gave the place character had been auctioned off, snatched up by regulars in the immediate moments of shock and grief. Polte says that Toddy Cook, the owner before his son Barry took over, hadn’t planned on covering the walls with the hundreds of photographs that ended up there. Rather, one night some drunken patrons (so the story goes) became particularly rowdy, the result of which was several holes in the walls. That didn’t look nice, so Cook brought in some pictures to cover them up. And lo, a tradition was born. But when the place closed down a few weeks ago, the walls that were once covered with pictures of clientele past and present had been stripped bare.

So how can the BDT recapture its signature ambiance? Easy—many of the pictures (that people paid good money for at the wake) are finding their way back to the bar, donated by those who want the BDT to live for all eternity. Also, people are bringing in new material as well. Polte points out that this has resulted in an interesting confluence of the old and new—enough of the old to keep its unique character but also the new to reflect its second coming.

Speaking of a confluence of old and new—once everything was in place, the new management planned a grand reopening. And for those of you who still refuse to believe that a higher power is involved, it turns out that the chosen day for this gala—coincidentally, I say—happened to be Barry Cook’s birthday. A large cake was prepared, and the faithful, packed shoulder to shoulder, raised their voices together in song. Never was a more joyful chorus of “Happy Birthday” heard across the hills of East Tennessee. Everyone clapped their hands and shed tears of joy in an outpouring of appreciation for the man who had kept this little, seemingly insignificant dive bar open for so long.

But was it a coincidence? That, my friend, is a decision you must make for yourself.

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