Volume 77 / Number 34 Jan. 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Villager photos by Clayton Patterson

The pool table at Sophie’s attracts billiards players — and stickers.

Two classic dive bars may be going down for the last time

By Patrick Hedlund

There are two realities: The reality of the outside world and the reality in here. In order to understand the one in here you have to look at the outside world, and to get a perspective on the outside world you have to come in here.

—Degenerate John, legendary Sophie’s patron

On a recent Friday at Sophie’s bar in the East Village, owner Bob Corton sat on a corner barstool like any other of the wizened patrons he’s served for more than two decades. He reminisced about 21 years spent inside his decidedly unrefined dive with the customers that became his closest confidants.

Corton, 54, who opened Sophie’s in 1986, and later the nearby Mona’s in 1989, can trace the evolution of the neighborhood as it played out in his rough-hewn saloon: from the early days when the art community thrived in the low-rent district shared with indigent drug users, to the present day where a predominance of swanky lounges has reduced his unmarked hole in the wall to another blip on the grid of nightlife destinations.

But to anyone who spent time at either of the well-worn watering holes — which Corton announced last month would likely shutter due to his ailing health — the bars posses a mythical quality wrought by waves of well-lubricated patrons who found solace inside the shabby spaces. The regulars spin tales of mirth no doubt emboldened by the heavy flow of whiskey and beer, but no less poignant given the setting. Now, for these two muses of the Downtown drinking class, the stories might be the only thing Sophie’s and Mona’s have left to save.

Corton, who co-owns Sophie’s at 507 E. Fifth St. near Avenue A with a partner and Mona’s at 224 Avenue B near 13th St. with his brother Rich Corton, made the decision toward the end of last year to start accepting offers to sell. After a year of battling bone marrow cancer, Bob found he couldn’t run Sophie’s the same hands-on way he had daily since taking over the pub in the mid-’80s, and decided to call it quits.

Rich said he would prefer to keep both bars open as is, and has had to compete with other interested buyers and offer market-rate bids to protect them from the whims of new ownership.

“I would say, in all honesty, that someone could walk into Sophie’s tomorrow and run it exactly as it is, and make money on the place,” Bob Corton said of one possible future for the bar, which has always been known for its affordable drinks and unkempt attitude. He added that prospective buyers thus far have only shown interest in keeping them as bars, but that it could ultimately mean something vastly different than what has existed there for years.

“Because of the changes in the neighborhood, you don’t have that backbone of supporters anymore,” Bob said of the “hardcore regulars” who helped give the bars their identity. “You’re competing for a dwindling number of people.”

Jen drawing a pint at Mona’s.

Bob would have preferred to keep going regardless of changes in the neighborhood, but he said his health wouldn’t permit him to maintain the “mom-’n’-pop” operation patrons have grown accustomed to. “If I were healthy, it wouldn’t even be in my mind,” he said.
Rich Corton sounded more optimistic about the bars’ fate, acknowledging just this week that he is nearing a deal with his brother that would maintain both bars without staff changes and only minor renovations.

“People who have bought in [the East Village] have aged themselves out of the drinking crowd,” Rich observed. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, there were only 10 or 20 bars in the neighborhood. Now within a four-block radius, there’s 30 bars.”

The economic reality of the increasingly upscale East Village and Alphabet City contributed to the decision, a fact that is ruefully accepted by many of the longtime customers who watched the area morph from the bars’ windows.

“Given the way things are going in the neighborhood, everything seems to be turning into a bank branch,” said John Elsasser, a resident of Eighth St. and Avenue B, who’s been coming to Sophie’s steadily for the past few years. “A lot of people boohoo about the loss of Manhattan, but it’s happening everywhere.”

Jeff, a holdover from the neighborhood’s heyday who still sported long, gray hair from beneath his woolen cap, struck an even more plaintive note about the new East Village.

“We won’t be able to go anywhere. … It’s just the last peg of a dying neighborhood,” said the Sophie’s fixture, who’s been coming for “a couple of years, or a couple of hundred” but declined to give his last name. “This place is like a church for drunks.”

The pints still pour amid gossip over the bars’ future, giving regulars a chance to eulogize their hangout with the imminent sale. It’s where barflies named Jimmy Tokens, Johnny Red, Caveman and Degenerate John took up years of residency on the tattered barstools, earning renown for their eccentric character traits.

Caveman, described as a large, brutish man with full beard, famously slugged pitchers of beer at a time — drinking directly from the source instead of a glass. Degenerate John, a postman who had a history of back injuries, regularly extended his own brand of chivalry by greeting all women patrons with the offer to “sit on my face.”

Another John, this one a deaf mute, simply made a recognizable gesture to the bar staff when he needed a fresh round.

“Sometimes when conversation gets too detailed he’ll ask for a pad and pen,” read a note from a Sophie’s scrapbook dating back to 1993.

It’s a place where Irish laborers cashed their weekly paychecks in exchange for cheap mugs and shots, and the staff accepted mail sent to a well-known homeless man living in a nearby refrigerator box.

“We didn’t discriminate against anybody,” added Bob Corton. “I connected with people immediately.”

Jeff remembers when neighborhood residents sought asylum in Sophie’s during the Tompkins Square riots of 1988, as police feuded violently with protesters in the street. The staff at Sophie’s provided rioters refuge from the advancing cops, he said, when other local establishments locked them out to face the brutality of their attacks.

Elsasser fondly recalls coming to Sophie’s for the first time in the early ’90s — only to find a lone drunk, who may or may not have been touching himself inappropriately, leering suggestively at his female companion. Elsasser didn’t return again for about a decade after that, but still seemed to know everyone at the bar on a recent Saturday.

Bob Corton even talks of the time Bob Dylan and Ellen Barkin dropped by for open-mic night, sitting quietly disguised in the corner before getting whisked away by a limousine a short time later. He also encountered — and promptly ejected — a number of unnamed celebrities who came to shoot heroin in the barely operable bathroom, the door of which to this day doesn’t close all the way. (In the early days, Bob relates, an incoming heroin addict was more desirable than a crack user, with the former a more docile customer.)

The stories still hang in the dank ether of the rotting space, seen on the inexplicable tchotchkes adorning Sophie’s faded bar facade, and trapped inside the peeling paint and crumbling brick where the faces of drinkers past hang immortalized in original paintings. The stories are embedded in the wooden bar, which appears not to have seen a coat of lacquer since the Reagan administration, and etched into the well-trodden, chipped cement floor.

“It’s a club here,” said John Crellin, a resident of Fourth St. and Avenue A for 23 years, who has been coming to Sophie’s since the mid-’90s. “Between my kids and my work, this is kind of the thing that stabilizes it.”

Freddy Correa, who speaks with a thick Puerto Rican accent and sports a mane of black hair streaked with gray strands, agreed.

“I’ll go around other places, but it’s not the same,” said Correa, a patron since around the time Sophie’s opened. “In here, everybody knows everybody.”

At Mona’s, which appears more polished and upholstered than its sister Sophie’s, bartender Brian Burchill knows all who come to worship at his altar. He has been working at both bars, minus a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, for the past 17 years. All the recent talk about closing has made his future uncertain, he admitted, but it doesn’t come across in his work while offering a free first pint or bantering with customers about the state of the Knicks.

“It’s interesting,” Burchill said about the faces that have come and gone throughout the years. “It makes me reflect about myself.”

When presented with the possibility of losing his favorite public house, Albert Koenig, who has lived in Stuyvesant Town the last 12 years, shook his head at the prospect of finding another barstool.

“They’re vanishing,” he said. “There’s other bars, but not like this.”

Added another Mona’s denizen, “I come here to forget I’m in New York City.”

Whatever becomes of the venerable East Village spaces — Rich Corton now feels there is a strong chance they’ll survive — owner Bob Corton will depart with a pang of sadness, but no regrets.

“To be able to walk into Sophie’s any time and be able to know a lot of the population in the bar, it was a real family there,” Bob said, still perched on the barstool. “As much as it’s part of me, the day I walk out the door, I’m gone.”

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