From Sunday's New York Times
Farewell to a Pub, and Maybe to an Era
By PETER APPLEBOME
(photos and music here)
There are a few rules for Irish Night at Guinan’s, held the first Thursday after each full moon — outside along the Hudson in the summer, in the tiny green barroom, by the fireplace with the off-center shamrock, in cold weather.
No amplified anything. Almost all Irish music, with perhaps a ringer or two like “Folsom Prison Blues” or something by Pete Seeger. If you have an instrument — a pennywhistle or Irish harp, guitar or banjo, flute or bodhran drum — you’re welcome to play. Everyone can pound the walls or stomp on the floor during “The Wild Rover” — it only looks like the whole rickety assemblage could collapse and tumble into the river.
And most important, people can yak all they want, but when Jim Guinan, the 82-year-old paterfamilias of Planet Guinan’s, stands up to sing “Danny Boy,” everyone shuts up and listens.
As it turned out, there were far too many people crammed into Guinan’s on Thursday to guarantee that any rules would be followed when the faithful turned out to say goodbye to a place, a family, and probably an era on the Hudson that will end when Guinan’s closes at the end of the month, after operating since 1959.
But after a few false starts, about 11:30 the place became so quiet you could almost hear the river outside, and Mr. Guinan began to sing in a light baritone that somehow has gotten stronger as he has aged. First, was “The Dying Rebel,” then “Galway Bay,” then, of course, “Danny Boy.” Someone yelled out, “Three cheers for Jimmy Guinan”; three cheers there were. And then the tumult resumed and continued until about 3:30 in the morning, when the last die-hards were gently pushed out the door an hour before the store had to reopen for the commuters on the first train to New York.
As they say, Harp Lager: $3.50. Slim Jim: 25 cents. Liverwurst sub: $5.25. Hearing Jim Guinan on the last Irish Night at Guinan’s: priceless.
When we last left Guinan’s, a combination deli, general store and pub between the Garrison railroad station and the east bank of the Hudson across from West Point, it had received an unexpected reprieve after the current reigning Guinan, Jim’s son John, was hospitalized with a brain tumor that left him unable to work. Rather than have it close, his sister, Margaret, a police detective, agreed to run it for another year with friends, neighbors and assorted regulars pitching in to help.
It was a wondrous gift, but a finite one. Over the year it became clear the place could keep going, but it also became clear the Guinans had given all they could give, hence the decision to close.
It’s just a humble general store and beer bar, but, in ways people are still struggling to understand, it’s become a lot more. Partly that’s because it was the subject of a book, “Little Chapel on the River,” by Gwendolyn Bounds, that helped people see the wonder that was under their noses.
Mostly, it’s the glorious anachronism Guinan’s remained, a family-owned joint, channeling the majesty of the river, where everyone is welcome and everything is real.
The music is real. The horseshoe above the entrance to the bar is real. The Irish biscuits and jellies and oatmeal are real. The slightly unnerving slope of the barroom floor is real. The police and fire patches behind the bar are real. The shrine to Lou-Lou Yannitelli, 1992-2007, beloved hound dog, is real. The chili made every morning, the way people care about each other, Jim getting too old to run it, John’s cancer. Good and bad, all real.
Nostalgia can be cheap. We’re not all soulless now, and we weren’t all noble then. The barista at Starbucks might have a heart of gold and the old-timer running the local bar might be a jerk. But in ways that are far more true than not, Guinan’s came to stand for cherished values — family ties, friendship, community, authenticity, localism — seen as being in steady decline. That’s why everyone and his dog who ever had a beer there, ever made it across the river from West Point, ever sat in the morning with a cup of coffee and a boiled egg enjoying the Hudson, every member of the Guinan’s universe who could make it, was there to say goodbye.
Whether it’s the end of the store remains to be seen. The property owners will no doubt refurbish the building, where the family has lived as well as worked. But the store is a natural use for it, and one regular, Mary Ellen Yannitelli, whose husband’s family ran it before the Guinans, is already lobbying to reopen it as something Guinan’s-esque.
Lord knows there’s a ready clientele, maybe even a mission. John Guinan, miraculously robust after three brain operations, thinks of a hiker, given a sandwich lunch he didn’t have money for, who showed up two years later, with the exact amount of money to pay his bill.
“I’m not sure exactly how, but we became a comfort zone for people,” he said, “a place that reminds people of a place they went to when they were young, something that makes them think good thoughts. People need a place like this, but the reward you get for the kindness you provide is worth much more than whatever you give out. It blows me away to be a part of it.”
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