The blues are becoming all too real for one Evanston bar. Bill’s Blues at 1029 Davis St. may close its doors for good next week.

Bill Gilmore, who opened the bar in 2003, said staying afloat has always been a problem in an area where blues music lovers don’t make up a large crowd.

But with the recession and the city suspending his liquor license this week for failure to make payments, Gilmore is left with just one choice: to close.

“We were sort of struggling from day one and business never really reached what we thought it would when we did the projections,” said Gilmore. “It’s just really been a struggle.”

Shanee Jackson, liquor and special project coordinator for the city, said the bar’s liquor license has been suspended for a week. “Currently we have him in for delinquent liquor tax payments, failure to pay his liquor license fee and also his state liquor license has expired,” she said.

The reason for these overdue payments: The money just isn’t there, Gilmore said.

“If I can’t sell liquor, I have no reason to be here,” he added. “Sadness is one feeling I have right now.”

After co-owning a blues bar for nearly 20 years in New York City, Gilmore sold his half interest to his partner in 1998. He then moved to the Chicago area with his wife, Deborah, and daughter Mary Victoria, who is now 15 years old and attends Evanston Township High School.

“I’ve owned other blues clubs in New York and Chicago, and so I thought this would work well in Evanston,” he said. “But I sort of realized very quickly on that blues had passed out of the college demographic.”

Gilmore also said drawing a constant crowd to Evanston is difficult unless they are hosting a special event. “The blues clubs in Chicago are largely supported by tourists and I knew I wasn’t going to get tourists up here,” he said. “But I thought I’d be able to replace it with the students and that just flat out didn’t happen.”

Jon Londres, a manager at Turn Bicycle next door to Bill’s Blues, said he’s sad to hear of another business on the block go. “You don’t want to have these empty spaces between businesses because that just puts a negative vibe on our neighborhood,” he said.

Gilmore is considering relocating the bar to another area closer to the central part of Chicago where it might draw a larger crowd. “It’s like a magnet there,” he said. “The city really pulls people in. It’s very tough to go against the magnet.”

Gilmore said he thinks the larger problem right now is that people don’t know where to find Bill’s Blues. “Everyone looks for the action over on Sherman, east of the tracks, and we’re sort of off the radar,” he said.

“I don’t think a bar like that can exist in this area,” said Louise Hsieh, manager of Pine Yard Restaurant, which rents space in the same building as Bill’s Blues.

While he is considering working with anyone who wants to help save the bar, Gilmore thinks the concept needs to be changed so that they can appeal to a younger crowd, noting the popularity of their occasional indie rock and hip hop shows.

“It’s always a gamble with people liking niche genres,” said Londres, who feels that more people need to support their local businesses. “Maybe people just need to get out more and stop thinking what’s on the computer and just see what’s on their block.”

The bar has been the Gilmore family’s primary source of income, so he hopes to find a solution or a new spot soon. He said a few people are interested in helping to keep the bar open, “but if that doesn’t happen, we’re going to have to close next week officially,” he said.

“A lot of people are going to miss the music,” Gilmore said. “And we’ll see what’s next for me.”

Reporter/photographer Tara Lachapelle is a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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6 Comments

  1. Bill’s
    Bill’s is a performance venue that happens to have a bar. On Sundays when there are first rate folk musicians and singer songwriters, the bar makes very little while those of us who appreciate the music have a wonderful venue. Tend to head there more Sundays than not and would sorely miss it. Sure, I can go to SPACE but it’s not the same as being able to just walk over to a neighborhood gathering place.

    1. Bill’s
      Then if the place is great without booze – go for it – no reason they can’t stay open unless the landlord evicts for non payment of rent.

    2. Bill’s Blues BAR
      Bill’s is definitely a bar. In my opinion, it’s the only real bar in Evanston. (1800 club is close, but I would call it a lounge more than a bar. All other drinking establishments in Evanston are restaurants and cafes that also have bar areas… and some do this better than others)
      Unfortunately, without alcohol I don’t see how Bill’s can survive.

      There might not be a ton of drinking going on during Sunday performances, but go there on a Friday or Saturday night and the bar is selling drinks at a reasonable pace. That’s not a bad thing, as cold beer and blues music go great together. Heck, I was there at midnight on a Tuesday recently and the place was packed. EVERYONE was drinking. It was great.

      SPACE is great too but in my opinion is more of a music venue than a bar (you buy tickets to events at SPACE in advance). It is also just a short walk from Bill’s, so I don’t really understand the comment that it’s “not the same as being able to just walk over to a neighborhood gathering place”.

  2. No sympathy
    Gilmore mismanaged the place. Woeful service, not enough staff, high cover charges, erratic inventory, serving to minors, horrible sound…the list goes on.

    1. Bye Bye Blues
      Although I sympathize with the loss of his business, I find it very hard to understand why someone with his experience would allow such blunders in management to occur. Delinquent liquor tax payments, failure to pay liquor license fee, and expiration of State liquor license does not equate to success. Not to mention the fact that at one of his “successful” Hip-Hop nights a large fight occurred resulting in the nearly fatal stabbing of one of his patrons. I’m not so sure this will be a major loss for the city of Evanston.

  3. Public relations style
    I’ve been a Tuesday night blues jammer at Bill’s Blues for nearly a year and the loss of this venue after 7 years is a huge entertainment and cultural loss to both Evanston and all of Chicago. I’m aware of no other venue in the Chicago area that offered live performance opportunities for so many budding musicians in so many genres.

    While I applaud Bill (aka William Gilmore) for having kept this multifaceted cultural entertainment resource a viable concern for so long, I’d like to offer a little constructive criticism:

    I haven’t been acquainted with that many club owners, but the ones I have known tend to be extroverts, a constant presence in the club that conveys a dedication to pleasing both their customers and performing talent.

    For small clubs especially, I’ve often seen the owner busy filling in for hired staff as needed, whether it’s spotting the bar, bussing tables, or cleaning the bathrooms. Sadly, during my limited experience with Bill’s Blues I’ve seen none of this from Mr. Gilmore.

    If he appreciates his patrons and performers (and I’m sure he does), he doesn’t communicate it. To the contrary, for the 40 weeks or so I’ve observed Mr. Gilmore at work, his most obvious priority has been watching movies on DVD on the HD television hanging over the bar.

    On one occasion I witnessed a long-time Chicago blues celebrity walk into Bill’s and introduce himself to Mr. Gilmore, but Mr. Gilmore barely acknowledged him, apparently far too adsorbed in watching his movie of the evening. On another occasion Mr. Gilmore delayed a scheduled live performance for nearly an hour while he—alone—finished watching an especially long movie. No explanation, no apology from Mr. Gilmore.

    Mr. Gilmore, I realize that public relations may not be your strong point, but that’s no excuse for such public displays of outright disregard for your patrons and performers. Bill’s Blues deserved better. And in a message for all music club owners: if you have a television near the main stage, please turn it off while the live music is playing. Nobody should have to suffer through FoxNews while enjoying some of Chicago’s best live talent.

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