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‘You can always find a friend here’: The Baby Bar embraces its hole-in-the-wall vibe

By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

They’re not fully meant to be funny, although they do sometimes make people snicker – especially first-timers who wonder whether they’re tongue-in-cheek.

Rest assured, they’re not suggestions.

The rules, written on the mirror behind the back bar, are meant to be followed.

No. 1 is, perhaps, “No crying.”

Right up there with it: “No fake accents.”

And don’t even think about wearing sunglasses inside.

Owner and bartender Patty Tully sums up the tenets of her tiny watering hole like this: “Treat it like you’re in my house.”

Baby Bar, known for its gem of a jukebox, all-around scrappiness and hand-written rules, is comforting in its no-nonsense but friendly approach to service. During the past dozen years, this hip but unpretentious downtown dive has established itself as a haven for local artists, musicians and misfits right alongside the likes of regular 9-to-5-ers and the occasional rock star.

With its one small, red-lit room and rules for how to be a good customer (as well as a decent human being) Baby Bar unites old punk rockers and young poets, city hall workers and writers, and hippies and hospitality industry folks who find themselves here at the end of their own shifts.

They come together over a pint or a whiskey or one of Baby Bar’s signature Greyhounds made with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Or selecting and maybe singing along with Violent Femmes or Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Or the fact this establishment, by design, has no big screens.

There’s also, of course, its extremely close quarters.

“There’s people who work for the city and people who live on the street. Everyone ends up here, and you rub elbows,” says Tully’s partner, Baby Bar co-owner Tim Lannigan. “You end up smashed together in this little room, and there are no TVs. You actually communicate with the people around you.”

That’s the thing about Baby Bar, says Berserk bar co-owner Beth McRae. “You can always find a friend here. Patty has done an awesome job of creating an atmosphere where you find (business people) sitting next to punk rock kids, and they mesh cohesively.

“It helps,” she says, “that you have a list of rules to follow.”

With room for five taps and 25 people, Baby Bar is inherently cozy. Hidden away in plain sight, it also sort of feels like a secret.

There are no windows. The ceiling is painted black. And there’s only one way in and out: through a single door that leads down a darkened hallway. The bar doesn’t open until 5 p.m.

“It could raining or snowing, there could be a tornado outside, or it could be a bright sunny day, and you would never know,” Lannigan says. “It’s always the same in here. It’s always nighttime.”

Mirrors on opposite walls make the room look a bit bigger than it is. Red velvet curtains from a “Twin Peaks”-inspired art installation add to the ambiance. So do sculptures of aliens and owls from the same exhibit. You can debate whether they are what they seem while they watch from a perch above the jukebox, jam-packed with songs by Leonard Cohen, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, the Pixies, Misfits and more.

“I love that they have the Pogues on here,” says Spokane Symphony trumpet player, poet and yo-yo champion Chris Cook. He started coming here more than eight years ago, drawn in by Broken Mic poetry nights held down the hall at Neato Burrito. The late-night burrito counter is part of the same business and more than doubles its capacity, bringing the total between the two rooms to 79.

Red bulbs give Baby Bar a sort of surreal but inviting glow, the kind of light that – especially after midnight and maybe two or three Greyhounds — makes everyone lose all track of time along with whatever might be ailing them.

The rules level the playing field.

“I love that phones are highly discouraged,” Cook says. “I love that this place is about people and not technology. I don’t think I’ve ever had a typical conversation here. It’s always engaging. The people can’t be beat, and that starts with Patty. I love that she remembers everybody’s name. You really only have to come here once.”

If you plan to stay, you’re going to, particularly when ordering, “Put your phone away!” You’ll need to keep your hons, babes, sweeties, chiefs, bosses and bros to yourself. The sign says, “If you don’t know my name please don’t substitute it w/your term of endearment. Just ask me!”

But don’t ask for a menu.

“We don’t have a menu. This is what we have.” Arrows under that announcement point to the bottles below, just in case there’s any confusion. And, although the bartender might turn up the volume on the jukebox and the bands that play at Neato might get loud, there’s “no excessive noise.”

Tully wants all of her guests to feel welcome and comfortable.

“I want it to feel like everyone’s at home. It is everyone’s home. That is the mood we’re creating,” she says. “You have to be kind to people.”

So, as the sign above the bar says, “please say please.”

Cook abides. “Patty teaches us good manners,” he says. “There’s great wisdom on that wall.”

The writing wasn’t always on that wall. The rules were added gradually, as needed. But, longtime bartender Bob Alexander says, “The baby has always been here.”

The outline of a kind of Kewpie-style, diaper-wearing baby, along with “Baby Bar,” is etched into the mirror behind the back bar and predates the lounge’s current incarnation. The office building which houses Baby Bar and Neato Burrito was built as a motel annex in 1971. The front first-floor space was the motel restaurant; its back room, the motel bar. They were, among other names, Abraham’s Restaurant and Lounge.

“It closed for a while in the ’70s and opened again in the ’80s then closed in the ’90s,” says Alexander, who remembers when “there was a grate over the door to the bar. It was padlocked up. I have no clue how long it had been like that. But I’ve heard so many stories about Baby Bar of the past.”

Stories of a bartender nicknamed Reba who sang Patsy Cline songs into the soda dispenser. Of drug rings and the hard-drinking stuntman Evel Knievel, who frequented the joint when he passed through town.

Spokane author Jess Walter remembers the night he and a buddy “just went from bar to bar following him. It was probably ’93 or ’92 or maybe even earlier.”

Then a reporter at The Spokesman-Review, Walter had received a tip that Knievel might be involved with Operation Doughboy, described in this newspaper as “the biggest cocaine investigation ever prosecuted in Spokane.”

After tailing Knievel to two other spots, they ended up at Baby Bar, which had carpet that “came halfway up the wall. It really did feel like the inside of somebody’s van,” Walter says. “It was a little loungey, a little sketchy. We sat back and watched (Knievel) flirt with Reba for a while before we lost him. I think we just had too much to drink. I don’t know what we thought we were going to see.”

When McRae moved back to Spokane in 2002, Baby Bar was closed and Slick Rock eatery occupied the front room. She went to work readying the back room for its Dec. 6 reopening. She added CDs — “Every record you want to hear is on the jukebox,” Walter says – and painted the leopard spots that still decorate the bar top.

Really, she says, “there wasn’t much to do.”

McRae ran Baby Bar for about eight months before moving on to manage other establishments. Before she left, she recruited Tully away from the now-closed Blue Spark.

Now, Tully says, “I can’t imagine ever not working in it. This is so much more than my job. It’s how I’ve met most of my friends.”

And, with Tully behind the bar most nights for the better part of 16 years, McRae says, “It’s become a Spokane institution.”

Tully’s first Baby Bar shift was April 1, 2003. At the end of 2007, she and Lannigan bought the business, replacing Slick Rock with Neato, hanging black velvet paintings in the dining area and booking bands to perform in front of the pass-through kitchen window. Sometimes, their own band performs; Tully, a vocalist, and Lannigan, a bassist, are members of Fun Ladies, a staple of Spokane’s music scene.

As new owners, they sought local artists to display their works in the bar, encouraged graffiti in the restrooms and welcomed weekly poetry readings.

“The cool thing is how Patty and Tim have made it so relevant again,” Walter says. “My daughter, Ava, when she was home from college, said, ‘We’re going to the Baby Bar.’”

Bob Whittaker goes to Baby Bar “not often enough and every chance I get.” He doesn’t remember how he first found it, but bets a friend at the Lands Council introduced him.

“I lost my checkbook there one night; that’s how long ago it was,” says Whittaker, president of the Ferry County Rail Trail, co-creator of next week’s Get Out Fest in Republic and former manager of the Seattle alt-rock band Mudhoney.

He’s also the former tour manager for R.E.M. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and has known Neko Case for decades. Late one Thursday, after her show at the Bing Crosby Theater, he brought her to Baby Bar.

“For me, it’s a little hole-in-the-wall, kind of the underdog, and it’s all the richer for it,” he says. “If you think it’s just a bar, you’re missing the point; it’s a community center. It’s where people go to sort of step outside themselves but also collaborate or mix and interact in a really open, positive way.

“Neko Case hit the nail on the head with her tweet, pretty much. She’s a good judge of character, except she’s my friend so you have to qualify that.”

Tully, a fan, had not yet seen Case perform when the singer popped into her bar. “She was dressed in jeans and kept choosing music on the jukebox. I felt silly that I didn’t know it was her and she was in here for hours.”

That night stretched into morning, and – in a social media post that’s now legendary around these parts – Case tweeted at 2:09 a.m., Friday, July 8, 2011: “The Baby Bar in Spokane, WA. Best bar in USA. No question.”

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