Blues bar may be all tapped out

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.

Editors’ Picks