Rogue of the month: Billy Hales
Photo by Stacey Warde
"They just do not want a bar around their upscale boutiques. It goes in line with what is happening to San Luis Obispo. It’s easier to drive out local ownership and appeal to national franchises, which have the money."
A rogue barman sounds off
By Dell Franklin
Billy Hales, whose passion for San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast almost rivals his love of bars and the bar life, feels both pain and frustration at having to move his landmark watering hole to a new location. What frustrates and pains him the most is that he did everything possible to keep McCarthy’s on Court Street, beside the new chichi mall that replaced the old parking lot adjacent the government and city hall buildings.
“I thought that after fiftyfive years of paying our rent on time we’d get some consideration and respect,” he says, sitting in the bar that was dismantled after St. Patrick’s Day and moved a few blocks off the beaten track, to the corner of Marsh and Nipomo, where the Old Country Deli used to stand, across from the Foster’s Freeze.
“I understand the inevitability of change,” he continues. “I was prepared to absorb the tripling of rent because of earthquake retrofitting of the building, and I let Matt Quaglino, who owns the building, know that. I talked to him and he sort of led me on to think that I had a chance to stay here. I mentioned that in Santa Barbara they built a similar mall off State street, and agreed to leave an old landmark bar called Mel’s, and everything worked out fine. That bar brings business to a mall. I’ve already heard disappointment from people right here that they’re going to miss McCarthy’s.”
What will they replace it with?
Who knows? Maybe another high-end shoe store. I also talked to Copeland. They built the mall next door. He seemed enthusiastic about our staying, especially when I told him about Mel’s. He even had some ideas, but he just blew smoke up my ass. They just do not want a bar around their upscale boutiques. It goes in line with what is happening to San Luis Obispo. It’s easier to drive out local ownership and appeal to national franchises, which have the money. Thing is, like I said, we were prepared to pay the money. So it doesn’t make sense.
How’d you find out about having to leave?
Well, after fifty-five years of paying our rent on time, and being loyal tenants, and being a big part of the community, instead of giving us a six months heads up, so we could find a new building, I found out on KSBY (the local TV station) that I had 60 days to get out. I got my 60-day notice from KSBY. That’s loyalty for you. We could’ve found a better location in six months.
Do you feel double-crossed?
Where do you go from here?
Well, we secured our new building, and we have to renovate, and we’re hoping to have it open by June graduation, for the students.
A huge part of your business is from Cal Poly, right?
Right. But not so in McCarthy’s. We’ve got a lot of generations of longtime San Luis Obispo townies, a lot of local business people, we've got attornys and government employees from the county buildings around the corner….
Will they make the trip six blocks away?
At first I was concerned, but I’ve talked to a lot of them. They say they’ll enjoy the walk. Also, we’ve got a little more parking over there. So I think they’ll come, out of loyalty. They’ve all been traditionally a part of McCarthy’s over the years. We’re moving the entire interior into the new place, so we’ll see. I want to have all of the old crowd. It means something to me personally.
How’d you get started In the bar business?
I worked my way through Cal Poly as a bartender at Bull’s Tavern, which I now own, along with three other bars in town. I learned the business from the bottom up. It went hand-in-hand with my education in school. I even wrote my paper on bars in relation to the community….
What does a bar mean to a community?
They’ve always, throughout history, been a central meeting place. It used to be a place, in the very old days, for men to meet, and then, later, men to listen to baseball games and boxing matches on radio, and then TV came along, and with it came sports bars. Women started going to bars, and they became places for the opposite sex to meet. For a long time, women weren’t welcome in bars. I think people get lonely, bored, and a good upbeat neighborkood-type bar is a place to seek out company, let down your hair, make friends. Where else can they meet?
For a long time, people’ve looked down at bars as lowlife haunts. Outcasts. Even outlaws. As a rogue, going against the grain, how do you feel about that?
Like Joe McCarthy said to me, in his gruff voice (Billy give his best imitation): “Listen, kid, we’re all second-class citizens.”
What do you think of the swankier, more upscale bars, with entertainment, the kinds of bars where one feels he has to dress a certain way, act a certain way, present a certain image?
I had one of those bars. They’re too high maintenance, too complicated. Every bar I’ve opened since is a hole-in-the-wall.
But not a dive.
No. People can be themselves, that’s all.
Do you have much trouble, like fights?
Very little. College kids are pretty well behaved. They don’t want to get eighty-sixed. They adopt a bar, or bars, while they’re in school. I did. I fell in love with bars and bar life when I was a student.
Is everything bottom line?
No. Business is business, yes, but there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing people enjoying your bar, wanting to come in, greeting them, making them feel accepted, and at home….
I tended bar for 25 years. I worked successful, happy, neighborhood bars. I remember, when we were really busy, and everybody was having a great time, it was a thrill, a rush, during a lull, to stand back with your fellow bartender and witness the jubilation and do a shot together, kind of toasting the scene.
Absolutely. That’s it.
Do people who run this city understand that? Do they understand the cohesion and camararderie a good pub brings to a community?
What do they want?
You know, Pleasantville. Chichi stuff. More high-end franchise shops, squeezing out the local business owners. I think it’s sad, almost tragic, especially what they’ve done to us. I mean, I’m an optimist. We’ll be OK. I’m looking forward to opening up our new place. We’re taking the bar with us, and the spirit. But you know, Matt Quaglino’s grandfather, he actually signed the first lease with Joe McCarthy, fifty-five years ago. It didn’t have to end up this way. This bar is a gold mine. We pour more Jameson Irish whiskey than any bar in the country! We could’ve been a great addition to this mall, in many ways, both culturally and financially, but they blew it. Maybe there’s a silver lining. In any case, I’m excited about re-opening MoCarthy’s. I’ll get over it. Eventually, who knows, maybe they’ll do the same thing to Bull’s, which is even older than McCarthy’s. I’ll be prepared this time around, I want to keep these old places around, as they are. I’ve seen too much change in San Luis over the years. There were twice as many hole-in-the-wall bars here when I went to school. Things are getting tougher and tougher, financially, to run these places, but I believe in them, and I’m here for the long haul. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here: