This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
"It’s not a dive unless they have Steel Reserve and allow smoking indoors,” says Tess, a former Louisville bartender. Adam, another friend from college, agrees as he takes a drag from his cigarette and flicks the remains into the street. We park between two basketball goals and follow a trail of litter to JR’s Bar on Camp Street in the Shelby Park neighborhood. Glass crunches beneath my boots. The (for all practical purposes) windowless, shotgun-style building first sparked my curiosity when I saw a plywood sign out front that listed “whiskey by the drink/mug time.” On this December night, the exterior leaves everything to my imagination. My nerves stir as I fling open the deceptively light door.
The entire place is roughly the size of an average living room. Two high-top tables with mismatched chairs line the left wall with a jukebox dressed in black tape that only accepts change. The snack and booze bars are along the right side of the room, with a pool table in the back between the two bathroom doors. A dart zooms past my face, warning me the board is next to the entrance. Luckily, the woman who threw it has decent aim. We are three steps in before every set of eyes is on us. There is a crowd of younger guys around the pool table. Several sets of older couples shout conversations over Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits. We barely make it to the bar before Stephanie, a tall woman dressed head to toe in U of L-themed clothing, greets us. She is not an employee at JR’s but asks for our IDs anyway. After a quick glance, she gives each of us a high-five based on our hometowns before the bartender, Billie, asks for our orders.
“Do you all have Steel Reserve?” Tess asks. Billie nods and opens a cooler.
“Will that be for here or to go?” she replies, explaining that taking it to go is actually cheaper. Tess changes her mind and orders a Budweiser in a bottle “for here.”
My eyes bounce around the room, reading each carefully handwritten sign on neon paper taped against the wood paneling. JR’s signature cocktail is a Pink Squirrel (vodka and pink lemonade), employees have to pay 50 cents for soda, and the annual Christmas party is scheduled for Saturday. There is an elegance to Billie’s signs that make the information more personal, like a handshake.
We spend the next few hours in conversation as if we’re dinner guests in a Southern household. We learn that Billie is a proud grandmother whose father-in-law was the first to use Reba McEntire’s new toilet (long story). We learn about a man named Keith who could come by the bar and shave our eyebrows for five dollars. We learn about Stephanie’s dream of becoming a massage therapist and her difficult breakup with Smiley. The older women reminisce about the younger guys around the pool table, mentioning they have known them since they were boys and watched them grow up. The conversation breaks when almost everyone in the bar rushes to the door to hug a young man who has just returned from college. We are in Camp Street’s living room, visiting the Shelby Park family.
After three bags of 50-cent Doritos and a round of pool with a sober teenager, we say our goodbyes. Stephanie walks us to our car, explaining how her fun aura makes her the life of the party. She stands under a street lamp with her arms in the air as we drive off into the night.
By: Wesley Bacon