A neighborhood fixture
The Rainbow Tavern is an oxymoron of sorts: bawdy and homey at the same time.
It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t want your mother to catch you in, but other people’s mothers work hard to make a living at the no-frills strip club at 1824 E. Sprague.
The owner is Ben Hicks, 44, a neighborhood boy who bought the joint seven years ago years after spending most of his adult life on the road selling auto parts.
Hicks saw potential in the nearly 65-year-old tavern, which had a reputation as a seedy hangout for ne’er-do-wells, much like the street it fronts.
“It was like a dungeon in here,” he says.
Hicks put in new carpet, painted the walls and chased off the riffraff, including drug dealers and pimps.
He now knows many of his customers by name. They’re guys who work construction and come in for a beer after work, who shake hands before and after a game of pool, who generally don’t raise a ruckus, even on Friday night.
“Ben’s the best,” says Tabby, a former crack addict and mother of three who dances at the Rainbow and rents a nearby duplex Hicks owns.
Dressed in a too-short tartan skirt, black pumps and a white blouse unbuttoned to her navel, she stops to chat with Hicks for a moment before heading to the stage for her set.
“He’s made this a good place to work,” she says.
Although he lives on the North Side now, Hicks returns to the neighborhood almost every day. With ZZ Top blaring from the sound system, he holds court at the end of the bar, a pack of Marlboros and a $10 roll of quarters for the video solitaire machine close at hand.
Hicks talks about the old days, when he ran the streets with his friends without fear, bought pants at Clark’s Dry Goods and drank at the old Rainbow.
He acknowledges things on East Sprague aren’t what they used to be, what with the druggies and prostitutes, and now a serial killer.
But it’s not all bad, either.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “you can get almost anything you want between Division and Havana, from cars to clothing to hard-to-find auto parts.”
East Sprague could be a good place to live and work again with a little vigilance. Maybe build itself back into a commercial center, Hicks says.
He mentions Northwest Seed and Pet, which started on East Sprague nearly 20 years ago and now has two more stores in Spokane and another under construction in the Valley.
Lately, the cops have been keeping the undesirables on the run by aggressively enforcing even the smallest infractions, he says, and that’s a step in the right direction.
“Of course, I’ve lost 40 percent of my business. Nobody wants to walk out of a bar and get pulled over for not signaling. But I’d rather have the (police) force out there causing problems than the whores and dealers.”