If you work at Chuck E. Cheese, you’re going to see many birthday parties for five year olds. If you work at a laser tag course, you’re going to see many birthday parties for ten year olds. And if you work at a college bar, you’re going to see the birthdays of many twenty one year old students.
The night we went to Harry’s Chocolate Shop near Purdue University, a young woman at the bar wore a sash announcing that this was her twenty first birthday. There are traditions for this celebration at Harry’s. I talked to a table of guys who said they all experienced the Birthday Shot at Harry’s. This drink’s ingredients are a bar secret, but are rumored to include tabasco sauce, hot pepper infused liquor and something or other that turns the drink green. This drink has the express purpose of clearing room in the stomach so twenty one shots can go down (and some up) the throat of the birthday boy or girl over the course of the birthday celebration.
But Harry’s isn’t just a college bar. I had an opportunity to sit down with Herschel Cook II, the owner of Harry’s. He pointed out that Harry’s has always been a neighborhood bar, too. In 1919, Harry Marack opened Harry’s Chocolate Shop in West Lafayette. At that time there was chocolate because the place was a soda fountain. The clientele was not primarily from the college because until just after World War II, Purdue University was small (Cook guessed there were only 300 students); there certainly weren’t enough students to keep the place open.
After Prohibition ended, Harry’s got a liquor license. The place was to be owned by the Marack family until 1977, and Harry Jr. ran it. But the Shop wasn’t flourishing, and when Cook offered to take it over, the two men agreed on a price. It was still a soda shop as well as a bar then, but sadly, Cook said, he could no longer find anyone to repair or maintain the soda equipment, which used a gas refrigeration system.
Cook said that Harry’s was a neighborhood bar, and it still is. He said on Sunday afternoons, he always sees many locals, and even on the Thursday night when we visited, I saw a number of people who were no longer college age greet Cook. But on nights like the one when we visited, a substantial majority in the bar appeared to be college students.
Cook said he appreciates the students that come to the bar. The staff treats them with respect, and the students respond in kind. Cook spoke very highly of his staff, saying he’s appreciated the people who have worked with him through the years. Many of them still keep in touch, and he said that his clientele also stays in touch. Cook noted that Harry’s is known throughout the world because Purdue alumni have gone throughout the world, and they do at times return. One of Cook’s first customers when he took over the bar was a priest from St. John’s who stays in touch nearly forty years later.
I asked Cook what advice he would have for someone who was starting a new bar. He said he would have no idea what to tell such a person, because he would have no idea what to do if he was doing it all again. As a senior in high school he knew he wanted to go into the bar business, and it’s easy to see he still loves the place.
And I could see why. The night we were there the crowd was lively, speaking loudly to be heard over the hits of the seventies and eighties. The walls are covered with memorabilia of Purdue past. There is are photos of football greats and names signed on the walls. Names are carved into the tables downstairs. The decades of history still seem to be alive, and yet they blend with fresh young faces arriving every school year.
So we decided to ask a couple of fresh questions. If you’ve read this blog before, you know we usually ask what makes for a good bar and what makes a good church. But this time we asked two different things, “What advice would you give someone going to a bar for the first time?” and “If you were going to a church for the first time, what would you want to know about it?”
Of course we had to talk to the birthday girl, thinking perhaps she might have bar advice fresh in her mind. Her name was Jackie, and she said she was told to eat well before going to the bar and to drink water. She also said she was told not to worry about buying drinks on her birthday because people would buy them for her.
We received other advice for first time bar patrons. Mindy talked to Eric, who was checking I.D.s at the door. He also advised, “Eat first or eat here.” He added, “Wear comfy shoes. Pace thy self.”
I talked to Tim, who was obviously not of college age (sorry, Tim). He said he would advise a first time bar visitor to “know the reputation of the place. This place, most of the college bars are safe. But there are places in some parts of town you wouldn’t want to go into.”
Lisa, who also at the window seats near the door, said she would tell someone going to a bar for the first time, “Live in the moment, have fun.”
I talked to a group of guys sitting around a table in the back. They spoke highly of Harry’s, telling me about the coveted window seats that people wait for and pounce on when they become free. They told me about famous Purdue alumni who return to Harry’s such as Drew Brees and Neil Armstrong (though they admitted Neil’s return was unlikely). I asked them for advice for first timers.
Carson said, “Watch out for the birthday shot, it will bite you.”
Tyler said, “Avoid franchise bars.” He spoke for the superiority of neighborhood bars.
Blake said, “Don’t go to a bar alone.”
Brayden said, “Don’t leave a bar alone.”
Braden said, “Keep a glass of water handy.”
Sarah joined us at the table, and she said that she would tell a first time bar attendee, “Be openminded. Try to talk to everyone because there are so many cool people. Have fun. Wear appropriate attire. Be yourself.”
It seemed people struggled some with our new church question, “If you were going to a church for the first time, what would you want to know about it?” (Possibly because we didn’t formulate a very good question). People had some interesting answers none the less.
Several said they would want to know what religion the church was -- a reasonable response.
Juan, who was also working near the door, told Mindy he would want to know if there was “more of a community aspect, how close people are, (if it was) more of a family thing”.
Jackie, the birthday girl, said she’d ask, “Are you a cult? I’m a Catholic, I already know all about it.” One of her friends said he’d want to be sure there was no human sacrifice involved. Another friend of Jackie’s, Stacy, would want to know if the church was “accepting, no matter what you believe.”
Lisa said she’d like to know about the preaching style.
Blake would want to know if it was a big or small church.
Tyler said he preferred a small church, “because if a pastor is speaking at my funeral, I’d like for him to have known me.”
Sarah said, “I’d like to know what they stand for, what they teach. I’d like to be sure they weren’t judgemental and hypocritical.”
It can be intimidating going to a new place, whether it’s a bar or a church. But the people at Harry’s Chocolate Shop made us feel welcome. (Even though they didn’t have chocolate. Which was, frankly, a little disappointing.)