A clock sits above the bar at Quenchers Saloon, counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Quenchers is no more.
It’s like waiting for your own funeral.
“I’ve dealt with it intellectually — this is what needs to be done,” Quenchers owner Earle Johnson said on a recent afternoon while sipping a Half Acre pale ale at his bar. “On an emotional level, I haven’t dealt with it yet.”
Instead, Johnson busies himself with the mechanics of shuttering a bar at the center of his life since 1979, when he started working as Quenchers’ evening bartender. He was 36 years old then. Within a few months, Johnson became Quenchers’ part-owner. By 1981, he was sole owner, and he learned the role a bar can play in knitting community.
Johnson also used his bar to rebel against the homogeny of early 1980s beer drinking. In the era of Bud-Miller-Schlitz — long before craft beer bestowed diversity on the nation’s beer menus — Johnson embraced any possible diversity: imports, the fading regional brands, the occasional local upstarts. Quenchers became one of Chicago’s best and most ambitious beer bars.
Johnson, who is now 75, put Quenchers up for sale late last year. The fact that someone might want the building at the teeming intersection of Western and Fullerton avenues, but not the bar, was always a possibility.
Customers talked of assembling investor groups to keep Quenchers afloat, but when a pediatrician practice submitted an offer just below Johnson’s asking price of $1.65 million, the decision was made. Johnson has a family to think of. A retirement to enjoy.
“My wife and I, we considered it and thought about our priorities and what we needed for ourselves,” he said. “It took us this way, rather than trying to force something else to happen.”
After 39 years, Quenchers’ last day in business is June 16.
The clock above the bar, ticking back in glowing red numbers, is a constant reminder of what needs to be done and how little time remains.
Tasks include selling off beer and liquor while ordering just enough to stay operational. The things guaranteed to sell — Old Style, PBR, Malort, small amounts of beer from local breweries — are still being bought. Everything else, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and as it’s gone, taps will be winnowed: from 24 to 12 to six.
A few kegs had been squirreled away for future events, but suddenly the future is now. The bar’s 2016 and 2017 vintages of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and Half Acre’s Big Hugs imperial coffee stout will be tapped Saturday as a last Illinois Craft Beer Week hurrah.
Then there’s getting rid of the decades of memorabilia that Johnson has stashed in the basement. Thirty-nine years of tap handles, bar mirrors, tin signs, neon signs, glassware and other relics will be on sale at the bar June 21-23, coordinated by a company specializing in estate sales.
(The clock above the bar just so happened to be in the basement, amid Johnson’s years of collected stuff. “It didn’t surprise me one bit,” said Josh Hastert, Quenchers’ beer buyer for three years. “It seems there’s one of everything in that basement.”)
A collection of drawings from local icon Wesley Willis — a Quenchers regular until his death in 2003 — generated a flurry of interest. They will be put on exhibit and sold July 17 at An Orange Moon, a vintage shop in Logan Square.
Most consuming is carving out time for a parade of well-wishers. As word filters out of Quenchers’ imminent demise, old-timers have shown up to revel in the bar one last time.
Johnson likes to leave in the early afternoon to go home for a nap. He’ll surrender his nap for now.
“I think I’m going to have to spend more time here because I’ve missed some people,” he said.
This week, the procession included Robin Barfield, who sat at the bar drinking a cognac while reminiscing with Johnson.
In the early ’80s, Barfield was part of a Vietnam veterans support group that visited Quenchers after meetings. He became the epitome of a regular, one of the few customers allowed to cover his tab with a check in a cash-only bar during the pre-ATM era. Barfield now lives in Zion, 40 miles north, so he only gets to Quenchers a couple of times a year. But it remains a special place.
“I’m 66,” he said. “I had my 30th birthday here.”
Barfield wore a bright yellow sweatshirt commemorating Quenchers’ 2002 “Walk to Wrigley” — an annual 3-mile bar crawl to Wrigley Field. His chat with Johnson became a cascade of memories. The name of a longtime bartender, Emmett, came up.
“You talk to Emmett?” Barfield asked.
“Emmett died,” Johnson said.
Barfield grunted remorse.
Johnson said the longtime customers who depend on Quenchers for social interaction are struggling with the bar’s closure.
“It ran its course. Now it’s done, and it’s nobody’s fault,” Barfield said.
Johnson knows he’ll struggle too. For now, he prefers to lose himself in the logistics, including the blowout party for Quenchers’ last night. A couple of bands will play, including polka punk band The Polkaholics. Barfield said he’ll be there.
“I’m trying to follow the philosophy of ‘Be here now,’” Johnson said. “We’ve still got six weeks left.”
He glanced up at the backward-running clock. It read 32 days, 11 hours, 53 minutes. He smiled.
“Make that a month.”