Gene Masters stands in the doorway of Smokey’s Tavern, leaning over the barricaded sidewalk that’s blanketed with concrete dust — remains of the former BB&T garage next door.
Traipsing back inside, he takes a seat on a black swivel stool and gazes down the musty hall. The air is thick with decades of brews, whiskey and cigars — memories caught in cracks of aging wood.
“After 32 years, it’s going to be hard to come back downtown,” says Masters, his voice shaking. “I don’t know if I will come back. It’s just about broken my heart.”
Smokey’s brands itself as Asheville’s oldest continuously operating bar — “same location, same name, same everything” since the 1950s, Masters says. But after 60 years of beer and booze, Smokey’s is losing its lease: The downtown fixture will close forever on April 15.
“Business was starting to pick up; we had a good future ahead of us,” he says. “But that’s all gone now. It’s going to be lost history.”
Rough and tumble
Hired as a bouncer and bartender at Smokey’s in 1983, Masters remembers a much different Asheville. “When I started here, it was pretty much the only place on this street.”
Back in the ’80s, he continues, Smokey’s Tavern was “just a very, very redneck bar. We had a lot of problems, but we handled our own problems back then,” which often meant throwing dangerous drunks out onto the street.
Lifting his shirt, Masters reveals a deep scar across his abdomen, the aftermath of a brutal 1986 bar fight. “I got stabbed here 13 times,” he says, pointing to his chest. “Most were superficial, but the one in the belly put me in the hospital for two days.”
And in 2001, when longtime building and bar owner Cecil Cassada passed away, his wife, Pauline, rewarded a loyal employee by giving Masters the bar. In honor of his friendship with Cassada, Masters kept the bar just as it was for his first year — “same records on the jukebox; nothing was changed,” he says.
But then, seeking to rid the place of its shady characters, rough drunks and violent outbreaks, Masters turned Smokey’s Tavern into Smokey’s After Dark, a private LGBT club. “I’d always wanted to have a private club to serve mixed drinks, and in the process I decided to make it a gay club too,” he explains. “I’ve earned my right to be here and do anything I want to here. I’ve got a right to make it a private club if I want to — and gay at that.”
Hard times come again
“I’ve been cut and stabbed and everything back when it was the old way, but … I’ve had very few problems in the last 14 years,” says Masters.
Just as he finishes speaking, though, the whole building starts to shake. Masters rests his head in his palm against the bar, waiting for the tremor to cease.
Smokey’s started running into problems late last year, when demolition began on the adjacent parking garage, making way for a Marriott AC Hotel. The construction crew barricaded the sidewalk from College Street down to the bar’s entrance on Broadway, making it hard to access the building — even more so if you don’t know it’s there.
“My back entrance is blocked off, and from the front, it looks like we’re almost completely closed too,” he explains. So when customers head over to Smokey’s, “They’re either going to have to jaywalk or go all the way to the corner and come back up. They’re routing customers away from me. We usually get a lot of walk-ins that see or hear that we have karaoke and come in. Well, if they’re on the other side of the street, they don’t know what we’re doing over here.”
But the problems didn’t stop there.
“They’re jackhammering the [foundation] of the building, and all that shaking stopped up my plumbing,” Masters explains. “They don’t [work] at night, but you can’t run a club without plumbing.”
Another loud bang hits the premises, sending the century-old building into a wobble, the liquor bottles behind the bar clinking together. Amid the commotion, bar manager Ashley Michaels walks in.
In February, “We had to close for nine full days and four half-days,” Michaels says. “So that put us in a huge bind, because in this business, the winter is horrible anyway.”
Masters adds: “January, February and March of every year, it’s so hard to meet the bills. Those three months are the coldest. And downtown at nighttime? People aren’t going to walk two or three blocks to get to this bar in that kind of weather,” especially if the sidewalk is blocked. During that period, Smokey’s fell behind on the rent, but the pair believed they could straighten things out.
“I had a vision,” Michaels explains, “and I told Gene that with the new hotel opening [next door], we could remodel. We could open upstairs. I think business could be really, really good.”
But around the same time the demolition began, building owner Pauline Cassada handed over power of attorney to her daughter, Shirley Fender, whom both Masters and Michaels allege has been against the bar from the beginning, even when it was her father’s.
“I’ve always known when she got control, I would get kicked out,” says Masters, claiming Fender is against serving alcohol in her building. “And sure enough, that’s what happened.”
Fender declined to speak with Xpress on the lease termination, explaining that her lawyer advised her not to comment at this time.
Masters, however, suspects that it’s not just the rent and the alcohol. “The downtown properties have gotten so valuable. … I think they realized there’s more money to be made,” he says. “And I always knew they could get more, but in the meantime they’re going to have to do so much work on the building, it’s probably going to take their lifetime to get that money back.”
In the meantime, after being closed for more than nine days and spending about $1,000 trying to fix the faulty pipes, the bar was even further in the red. “Hardly any business can go two weeks with no income without falling behind,” Masters says. “My employees were just working for tips trying to help me stay open.”
It wasn’t the first time this had happened, Michaels explains. “Gene’s been behind on rent before, but him and Polly always worked it out. I guess, with all the construction, she decided that she didn’t want to handle it anymore and handed it over to her daughter.”
Meanwhile, Masters and Michaels sought outside financing and found someone who was willing to lend the money needed to keep Smokey’s going.
But on Feb. 15, Masters explains, Fender told him she wasn’t renewing his lease. “She would do nothing but 30 days at a time, and there’s no way [the investor] would loan me money with only a 30-day window to pay it back,” he says. “I could have [the rent and bills] paid, up to date and everything, if she had only given me a year’s lease, but she’d rather lose the money than let me stay here — I mean, that’s obvious. The only thing I asked for was a 12-month lease, and two or three of those months are going to be over with by the time they get me out of here.”
Michaels speculates that Fender “thinks it’s a gold mine because of the hotel coming in next door. And Gene’s so passive that she probably thought she would just tell him to move, and he would.”
Frustrated, exhausted and confused, Masters throws his hands in the air, realizing he’s about to lose everything he’s known for the last 32 years. “I just said, ‘You’ll just have to throw me out then, because I’m not going to walk out voluntarily.’ I’ve been here over half of my life, six to seven days a week.”
At that point, Masters stands up to leave. “It’s too depressing,” he says, as he walks out the door.
“Poor Gene,” says Michaels. “This has really killed him.”
But amid the chaos of packing up, Michaels has some good news to share: Plans for a new bar are already underway, though the name and location are a secret for now.
“It’s not that Smokey’s is dying,” says Michaels, who’ll co-own the new venture with Masters. “It’s just time for something new — a new start, a new journey.”
Smokey’s recently launched a Go Fund Me campaign for the new bar. To contribute, click here or visit the bar on April 10 or 11.