The Collins Bar, Birmingham, AL
"I'll have an Alabama Slammer."
As the words left my mouth, I noticed a slightly pained expression on Mike the bartender's face that quickly disappeared. "It's just that this is my first time to be in the state, so I might as well have one while we're here," I said. "Not one of your favorite drinks?"
"It's a very sweet drink."
"Well, maybe you can make mine a little less sweet."
"Whatever you'd like."
Mike's disappointment was understandable. After all, if I'd wanted a bar with drink names on a menu, I could have gone there. The Collins Bar is a different kind of place.
Mindy's order was more what he was expecting. After she said she didn't know what she wanted, he said, "Tell me what you usually order."
"I don't like beer. I like chocolate and sour. And citrus."
And off he went to mix our drinks.
There were many interesting decorative touches to observe in the bar. There were dart boards in the back, boot umbrella holders in the front, interesting lamps, and what look like paper airplanes hanging from the ceiling, but best of all was the Alabama Periodic Table on the wall behind the bar. Elements included such things as Ribs and the Crimson Tide and Condoleezza (element 55 on the table, with the symbol CZ).
I heard another customer explaining to a first timer how things worked at the bar. She explained to her friend that you are to express your taste, and the bartender will try to make a drink to suit you. Mike approached and asked the first timer what she usually liked to drink. "I sometimes order margaritas socially." He asked more specific questions about her taste preference and was off to make her drink.
Three women came in together and sat next to us at the bar. I asked if they'd mind answering a few questions. We told them about our project, a church and a bar in every state, and they cheerfully offered to talk to us.
Rylee told us we'd come to the right bar, the best in the city. She and Santina said this was their friend MK's first time visiting The Collins. We asked what we always ask, "What makes for a good bar?"
Santina said it the personality of the bartender was important. I asked her to be more specific; she said the bartender should provide good customer service, be truly creative, and know customers by name. At The Collins, she said, "They are truly experts at what they do." Another plus for Collins for Santina (and Rylee) was that the bar is next door to her work. "I don't even like bars," she said, "but I like this bar."
MK said she likes a place that has a relaxed atmosphere, where people know you.
Rylee felt the vibe of the place is important, that she likes a chill, casual, comfortable place. Music was important to her, a variety of good stuff from different genres. She likes the crowd, like the vibe, to be casual, people not there to see and be seen, but just to hang out and meet people.
I asked if she preferred to sit at the bar (where we were) or at the tables. She said she didn't care; she'd probably sat at every seat in the place. She said she was so comfortable with the staff there that she didn't mind coming in by herself and ordering a drink.
Rylee said it was too bad Andy Collins, the owner, wasn't in. She told us that he was a great guy. He owned a hot dog stand for twenty seven years, she said, and when that closed down he'd opened this place.
We asked, "Whether you go to church or not, what do you think makes for a good church?" In responses, Santina, Rylee, and MK all said they were church goers.
Santina said she only started going to church the last couple of years. She recently joined a church with a number of service times and locations, including an online option. She appreciates the convenience, she said. She likes that they have many diverse activities, even though she hasn't participated in most of them.
Rylee said she goes to the same church as Santina, but not as often. She said she would answer the question much differently now than she would have answered when she was younger. The sixteen year old her would have wanted a church with lots of people her own age and a lot of fun activities. Ten years later, she said she's more concerned about the quality of the people and the chance to be real and open. She appreciates teaching that is practical, applying the Word of God to every area of life, such as family and marriage. As compared to the church she attended as a teen, now "for me, I want to hear less about rules, more about relationships."
MK said her grandfather was a Baptist reacher who'd founded a church, but she attended Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, and nondenominational schools -- so she's had a variety of experiences. She said she prefers a smaller, more intimate kind of church. She had a time in life when she was struggling, and the pastor of her church met with her on a weekly basis, which she appreciated. She didn't feel that could happen in a mega-church. She said she "respects the faith, but would rather not get caught up in doctrine."
Rylee noticed the owner, Andy Collins, had come into the bar, so she brought him over to introduce us. We told him he and his place were much admired by the people we'd spoken to. He was appreciative, but he clarified that the "hot dog stand" he'd run was a brick and mortar institution that seated 45 people and was really a restaurant.
We asked him what made for a good bar, and he said a good blend of customers and staff. He was obviously quite proud of his bartenders, who are creative and have a good sense of what makes a good cocktail. I asked if he ever makes drinks. He said he makes himself a gin and tonic at home. At the bar, he'll perhaps shake a cocktail if the bartender had three to make, but he doesn't mix them. He said he had a good staff, and he tries to compensate them well.
We asked what makes for a good church, and he said he was born into his Greek Orthodox church. He said he appreciates that at his church they've brought in more English to go with the Greek in the service. He talked about the food festival the church holds every year, and Mindy mentioned the Greek tradition of hospitality. He agreed with her that was a thing. It might be the thing that makes The Collins Bar a quite popular place in Birmingham.
Total time spent in bar: 55 minutes
Our rough count: 33
Snacks: There's a menu for bar food like sandwiches and various nibbles. We didn't notice anybody eating, but we arrived around 4:30 pm
Visitor Treatment: We'd checked the website and were somewhat prepared to order by flavors rather than drink name. Still, the bartenders were happy to ask questions in order to mix us drinks we'd be happy with. Most people in the bar seemed to be regulars, by the way they greeted (and were greeted by) the bartenders.