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Behind the Glass

After 72 Years In the Same Spot, a Legendary Hollins Market Tavern Is Still Thriving--Though Its Bar Business Is All But Bellied Up.

Photos by Frank Klein
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By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/28/2006

"I don't know, Chris. I don't know, Chris. I don't know," says Kenny Davis through the Plexiglas window.

"You owe me. When you owe me, you owe me." The italics don't indicate irritation, just the tight pucker of the 47-year-old barman's East Baltimore accent. Davis doesn't appear at all irritated. That will come later. Right now it's a little past 11 in the morning, and the Sunday crush at the Hollins Street Pub is still several hours away. Plenty of time to indulge a regular customer in what passes in these parts for barroom banter.

"This ain't no credit line, Chris baby," Davis continues, never raising his voice. "This ain't a pawnshop and it ain't a credit line. You owe me change from the other night." Davis pauses to listen, running a hand through thinning brown hair. Then he cuts in again: "You do it to me constantly, Chris, arguing back and forth. This ain't turning into a long conversation."

From inside the bar, only Davis is close enough to the glass to hear Chris' responses through the neat circle of holes drilled into the carry-out window security partition. But the would-be patron's body language indicates a dawning realization that he's not copping 40 ounces of Cobra malt liquor this morning without first putting up every penny of the $1.75 asking price. Chris eventually stops hopping around in front of the window and walks out into the bright sunshine of Hollins Street, where he strikes a few acrobatic poses in the doorway, and then wanders off.

"He's not a bad cat," Davis explains a moment later. "But he's got a little bit of a tendency to come in and try to get 15 cents or something like that. He won't pay it back, and the next time he comes in, he wants to borrow 15 cents. It ain't a big deal, but people try to nickel and dime you." Davis pauses. "Of course, this is a nickel and dime business."

A successful nickel and dime business. Especially on Sunday, when liquor stores are closed and only businesses licensed as "taverns" can sell packaged booze. A lot of silver will pass through the Plexiglas turnstiles of the Hollins Street Pub today, most of it to purchase 40s of malt liquor, double-deuces of beer, fifths of fortified wine, and fistfuls of Dutch Master cigars whose draw is not, in all likelihood, the gustatory pleasure of chocolate-flavored tobacco.

Sunday is the biggest day of the week for the bar still known in this Southwest Baltimore neighborhood as "Scallio's," after the family that owned and operated it from 1934 until 1996. But few will step inside the bar. Not today and not most days, not for years now. Like many Baltimore taverns that operate in neighborhoods ravaged for decades by drug addicts and the violent dealers they keep in business, the Hollins Street Pub is basically a package-goods store entombed in security glass.

But though the vast majority of regulars will never be buzzed through the Plexiglas door and into the bar proper, there is still a proper barroom inside. There's a straight wooden bar, lined with stools and dotted with ashtrays. There are stocked shelves of booze behind the well, and some of the cleanest men's rooms you'll find in any pub anywhere. Three video poker machines, two of them working. A big TV for baseball or local news. An overhead fan. It's a dive, but somewhat more civilized inside than the exterior suggests.

There is no sign above the gray facade of 1214-1218 Hollins St., except for the massive graffito screaming R.I.P. BANG `EM slashed across the stone. Strips of plastic sheeting hang from the glassless windows on the second floor; a fire in April charred the upstairs room. The green street door is open, but opens only into a darkened and cramped vestibule where the bullet-resistant carry-out window and Plexiglas door are.

The carry-out window, with two turnstiles, is made of heavy-gauge plastic, probably a polycarbonate sheet of "high tensile" material typically marketed under trade names Lexan, Tuffak, and Hyzod. The internal security door is made of thinner, more pliable material. Liquor advertising placards, window blinds, and pasted-up cardboard cover the glass except for the areas just around and above the turnstile.

Actually, the Hollins Street Pub does have a sign. It rests on the floor in the back of the tavern, near an unplugged jukebox. The bubble-lettered sign looks almost new, which it almost is, since it's never been hung up.

"I don't like to rush into things," snarls Ernie Clifton, the bar's proprietor. "I've only had the sign for six years yet." Clifton says this a few days later, during a follow-up visit to his pub. Today, the lanky 65-year-old is fast asleep on a recliner in the back area that could easily fit a pool table and booths-but doesn't. Clifton lives in this space with an ankle-humping pit bull pup named Hoover.

That's why the TV isn't on this morning, so as not to disturb Clifton. Otherwise Kenny Davis would have it playing low to keep himself company during a lull in the carry-out trade. Happily, there are few lulls; business picks up shortly before noon and increases steadily throughout the afternoon.

Clifton and Davis are white, as are the few regulars who will be buzzed into the bar today (as are the four middle-aged men bellied up to it during a later visit). The carry-out customers are almost entirely African-American, but they represent a diverse clientele, each with his own category of booze. Davis, who's been working here for two years, breaks it down:

"Your younger black guys, and I hate to do it, it's stereotyping, will drink, say, Bud Ice or Colt 45," Davis explains. "They get double-deuces a lot"-22-ounce bottles. "Then you get to the old guys, your socioeconomically disadvantaged," who typically opt for the $1.75 Cobras, as do the junkies. "And then you got your real working class, your carpenters, some of those cats that come in, they'll buy the Budweisers."

The weekend brings in more women to the window. "You get a lot more chicks," Davis says. "There are BYOB parties going on, and you'll get chicks coming in to get Alizé, something kind of fruity, something with some color in it to carry around with their outfits."

Whether geezer or corner boy, Davis addresses every customer with good-natured familiarity: "What can I get you, cat/bud/baby/friend/guy/man?" He repeats each order back to the customer, Starbucks-style, and calculates the change in his head from a pile of bills and coins beside the window. The register behind the bar is used only to hold excess cash.

Davis seems taken aback when questioned about his gregarious style of customer service-notable only because Charm City carry-out joints so often seem to serve up everything with a side of insolence.

"Geez, they're my customers," Davis shrugs. "I like them." He lives one block up Hollins Street and has been in the neighborhood on and off for 15 years. "They're my neighbors. Goddamn, you know? All in all, they're pretty sweet human beings. . . . Hey, how you doing, buddy?" he says, turning back to the window. "How you doing, man? Red Bull? Two dollars."

 

Not that it's all peace and understanding on Hollins Street. Davis wouldn't work here if the security partitions weren't up, he says. He's occasionally threatened with violence by belligerent carry-out customers whom he refuses to serve because they are too drunk, or because he won't discount prices when they're short. About a year ago, a pair of thugs tried to trick Davis into opening the door by asking for some empty cardboard boxes. "It was in the evening, maybe 11 o'clock," he says. "When I moved to open the door to hand [the boxes] to them, they tried to yank the door open on me." He managed to get it closed.

More recently, Ernie Clifton wasn't so lucky. On a weekday morning this past February, the bar owner was sleeping in the back room when someone threw a heavy mover's quilt on him. "I thought I was dreaming," he says. "They wrestled me to the floor and kept kicking and beating me in the head." Then the assailants-Clifton doesn't know how many of them there were-broke into the video poker machines and cash register and left him there. An acquaintance, whom Clifton was letting sleep in the bar at the time, had stepped outside for a few minutes and left the internal security door ajar, he believes. Clifton was treated at Bon Secours Hospital for a punctured lung, broken rib, and fractured skull.

The police didn't solve the crime, Clifton says, though he suspects his acquaintance was in cahoots with the robbers. "It was more or less my fault for letting them stay here," he says. "That person don't come back no more."

Despite the attack, Clifton says he feels safer now in the neighborhood than he has in years. "It's been pretty good down here," he says. "Actually, been real good, matter of fact. The [property] prices are up. I see more working-class people moving in, and they're moving some of the Section 8 people out."

Around the corner, a dry cleaner has recently opened. There are a new bistro and a deli on the other side of Hollins Market, on Arlington Street. None has security glass. Neighborhood residents cite frequent police sweeps and the installation of security cameras around Hollins Street Market with cutting down on open-air drug dealing.

But promises of revitalization have come and gone from Southwest Baltimore before, and Clifton says he has no intention of removing the Plexiglas barrier that he inherited when he bought the tavern with a partner in 1998. The glass was put up around 1990, during the waning years of an earlier period of proto-gentrification, when the neighborhood-which informally adopted the aspirational moniker Sowebo-was playing host to a surge of young artists and boasted a smattering of hip restaurants and performance spaces. Scallio's Tavern was then still a lively watering hole serving 50 cent glasses of National Bohemian beer, and was popular with both old-timers and newcomers.

"We put the bulletproof glass in because we had five robberies in two years," says former owner Frank Scallio, 74, by phone from his Arbutus home. The installation of the glass cost about $3,000, he says, which was less than the take from just one of those armed robberies.

"To me [the glass] was a very negative thing, and I was really against it," Scallio says. "But it was a question of either that or just getting out of the place. One Sunday morning I got hit over the head with a gun and got 10 stitches. Them kids with them guns, so help me . . . my brother had a gun put right to his chest, and they pulled a trigger." The gun either had an empty chamber or it malfunctioned, but the episode shook up Frank and brother Sonny Scallio enough that they felt they had to create a physical barrier between themselves and the carry-out customers who have increasingly made up the bulk of the bar's business since the 1960s.

Gross revenue in the mid-1990s was around $600,000 a year, Scallio says, making the bar a desirable target for increasingly brazen criminals. "I told the guy who put it up, I said, `If my brother gets shot through this glass, I'm gonna shot you, and if I get shot, he's gonna shoot you.'" Nobody ever did shoot the glass, "but that thing has taken cinder blocks, bricks, coconuts, been hit with a two-by-four, and didn't do nothing to it."

The city liquor board doesn't track how many city taverns have erected security partitions. "Too many," says chief liquor inspector Samuel Daniels, who believes the bulk went up during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. "It certainly dehumanizes the customer, to an extent," Daniels says. "Although I think we've all gotten used to that by now. On a practical level, it suggests, `this is not a bar,' and it offers a discouragement, not an inducement, for on-site drinking."

A bar that discourages on-site customers is effectively operating as a liquor store, but with as much as a 32-hour advantage over "Class A" licensed liquor stores, when factoring in late-night and Sunday hours allowed only to taverns. (The Hollins Street Pub opens at 9 or 10 each morning and closes at 2 a.m.) To try and even the competitive playing field, the liquor board prohibits "any new installation of bullet proof partitioning, Plexiglas or the like on premises where a Class BD7 [tavern] license is to be operated," according to its rules and regulations. Daniels says the rule has been in place at least since he joined the board in 1987, meaning that the Scallio brothers probably illegally installed the partitions, though the chief inspector acknowledges that his regulatory agency does not typically enforce the rule.

"The unfortunate thing is no one is taking responsibility of ordering [tavern] operators to remove the glass, for fear of safety issues," Daniels says. "Far be it from us to say, `We want that out,' and the next week an operator is slain in a robbery."

Frank Scallio takes issue with the assumption that a security door necessarily inhibits on-premises drinking. "I think people actually liked it, they felt safer," he says. Having to gain formal access to the bar may have even enhanced the feeling of "belonging" to what Scallio calls "a poor man's country club."

The real reason in-store business at his old joint has slowed to a trickle, Scallio says, is new management. "That place is nothing like we had," he says, claiming to be "really insulted" that people in the neighborhood still refer to it as "Scallio's." "It's just a package store. I don't like the way it's run now. They don't cater to people to come into the place . . . they don't even have draft beers."

According to the liquor board's rules, "The bar/lounge area [of a tavern] must be operative for business at all times the premises is open to the public," which may be why the issue is a delicate one for Kenny Davis, who asks not to be questioned about the bar's admission policy.

But that doesn't stop Paul Kane from speaking his mind.

 

"They're really discriminatory here," Kane says in a conspiratorial whisper. "Not by race, by people. They're pretty selective in who they let in."

It's a little before 1 in the afternoon now. Kane is the first customer to be buzzed into the bar today, though "customer" may be the wrong word. The 58-year-old bartender at the nearby Opposite Sidewalk Saloon has come into the Hollins Street Pub to eat a sandwich from the New York Fried Chicken outlet on Baltimore Street. He's even brought in his own can of Coke.

Davis doesn't seem to mind. Traffic at the carry-out window has heated up, and he's kept busy between working the window and rushing to restock the glass case with 40s from a cooler case behind the bar.

Kane, who lives a few blocks away on Carrollton Avenue, says he's been a regular at the Hollins Street Pub for about eight years. "This is a bad part of town, Southwest Baltimore," Kane says. "I've been mugged three times since I've lived here. Eighty percent of the people in this neighborhood are good, but the ones who are bad are terrible." For that reason, Kane says, he appreciates that the Hollins Street Pub "only lets a certain amount of people in," unlike the bar where he works, which he says welcomes a "sleazier" in-store clientele.

That sentiment is echoed by John Dunaway, a 30-year neighborhood resident who has been patronizing the Hollins Street Pub for about 20 years. Dunaway showed up today for carry-out, but Davis buzzes him in so the middle-aged black man can testify to the pub's positive impact on the neighborhood.

"This bar, if anything, has added to the neighborhood's appeal," Dunaway says. "I'm not saying it because me and Ernie are close friends," he adds, as Davis hands him a bottle of red Manischewitz wine. "You would have nobody that's willing to take that stand that sometimes can be threatening. He'll take it. He'll come right out there and say [to drug dealers and loiterers], `You all need to take this somewhere else.'"

Dunaway comes in every weekend for a bottle of the wine, which he says the pub keeps in stock just for him. "I drink red Manischewitz when I'm eating steak," he explains, "and I drink white Manischewitz when I'm eating seafood."

"You are the ultimate minority," Kane pipes in.

"How about that?" Dunaway shoots back. "I'm a kosher wine man."

In 2003, the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association asked the Community Law Center, a public-interest law firm, to help investigate whether drug problems in the area were stemming from the Hollins Street Pub. The law firm appealed to a Baltimore Police Department task force targeting problem bars, but after several months the investigation yielded only charges of minor health-code violations. "There was a change in leadership at the neighborhood association, and it appears the community lost interest in the topic," says the Community Law Center's executive director, Kristine Dunkerton, who was not involved in the investigation.

The conventional assumption that inner-city liquor stores that cater to low-income customers have an inherently symbiotic relationship with the illicit drug trade clearly irks Dunaway, who credits Ernie Clifton with keeping the block cleaner than it would be otherwise.

"It's not the bars, per se," Dunaway says. "It's what they have in the neighborhood that seems to make them unstable. Like those rehab centers. People need rehabilitation, OK. But to put a rehabilitation center in a community, you're bringing about a certain atmosphere that follows that rehabilitation center. Yeah, they need services, but recognize that those services bring the problem into the area. Don't just point out that the area is bad."

And while Kenny Davis and Ernie Clifton both acknowledge that dealers and addicts number among their regular carry-out customers, Dunaway insists that the bar is a "safe haven" on the block: "If somebody out there have a problem in the street, if they came in here, they would be as apt to feel as safe in here as they would in a church or probably even a police station. Because Ernie is not gonna let nobody bother them."

Dunaway relates an incident late one night when a visitor to the neighborhood ran out of gas near the bar. "You can tell when a person is looking a little leery," he says of the stranded motorist. "Ernie came out there and took his truck and gave the guy [some gas] and a hotshot, to start him up, to get him away from here. He didn't have to do that. But he knows that if he had stayed, that the atmosphere changes, especially after he closes, and no telling what might have happened."

In a conversation several days later, Clifton will gruffly brush off the "heart of gold" label some of his customers want to affix to him. Neither will he claim any bravery about negotiating an understanding between his pub and drug dealers: "I just tell them to take it elsewhere, and they move. If not, I call 311."

Is he afraid of them?

"I'm 65," Clifton says. "I ain't afraid of nothing."

Dunaway takes his red Manischewitz and walks home to his wife and, presumably, a steak. It's hot outside. Neighbors sit on their steps, and on chairs throughout Stockton Street, the alley that bisects Hollins between Carrollton and Carey streets. A group of five or six teenagers in tall tees and capris hold court on a stoop several doors down. Across the street from the bar a woman of ample size is squeezed into a plastic chair on the sidewalk. "We don't fuck with them, and they don't fuck with us," she says, in response to a question about the community's relationship with the Hollins Street Pub.

 

"Hang on, Philly," Davis says through the carry-out window, reaching over to push the doorbell button that clicks open the security door.

It's a little after 2 in the afternoon now and Paul Kane has left. Phil Minion comes in, beaming and bearing gifts from a recent trip to Cooperstown, N.Y. He's got a couple of microbrew beers for Clifton and a souvenir shot glass for Davis.

"You are all right," says Davis, pleased. "You are all right."

"I'm not a just a pretty face," Minion grins through his bushy beard and orders a Coke. "Two things that were wonderful," he tells Davis about his trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "I didn't see a single football or basketball jersey, hat, or anything. Every single thing was baseball, and every single restaurant had Labatt's Blue on draft and Labatt's Blue in the bottle."

"Got to love it, man," Davis says, and returns to the carry-out window, to tend to a quickly growing line of customers.

Minion, 47, is Davis' friend and landlord. Though he only comes in about once a week these days, times were when Minion was a nightly fixture at Scallio's.

"Oh, we were all poor, young people at one time in the middle '80s," he says, chuckling at his own nostalgia. "And this neighborhood, this bar, you had a bunch of old people sitting on this side and the new people who'd just moved in hung out in the back." He nods toward the back room where Clifton is still asleep. "We played Scrabble there," Minion continues. "Tons of bands played. Sonny [Scallio] used to give away Ritz crackers with cheddar cheese and caviar. It was a hoot. It was a fun little area at the time," he says of the neighborhood. "Everybody thought the area was going to take off, and then it didn't in the '90s, and it's starting to take off now."

(Frank Scallio laughs a few days later when he hears about Minion's optimism for the neighborhood's rebound: "The people that bought houses are always optimistic. Believe me, because they've been stuck for 20 years.")

A half-hour later, Minion is joined inside the bar by Chris Robb, another of Minion's tenants and a Scallio's veteran of 20 years, who says he still stops by almost every day. Robb orders a Budweiser, the first alcoholic beverage ordered at the bar this Sunday.

As they nurse their drinks, Robb and Minion's conversation meanders from speculation about the neighborhood's direction to memories of happier times: the Scallio's-sponsored softball team, the tradition of 75 cent shots of Jamieson's Irish whiskey on St. Patrick's Day, the treasured wall of boxing portraits that mysteriously disappeared after the Scallio brothers closed the place in 1996.

A carry-out customer named Vince periodically runs up to the window to shout out the score of the ongoing Orioles-Yankees game, eliciting approval from Minion (the Orioles are up).

For the first time today, the place starts to feel like a neighborhood bar.

"Hey!"

Davis, who has turned away from the carry-out window to tend to some restocking, swivels back around to face the customer. "I know your momma taught you better than that," he says.

"What did you say about my momma?" asks the customer, a young black man wearing a doo rag.

"I didn't say nothing about your momma," Davis replies. "I said I know your momma taught you better than being rude like that."

"Don't talk about my momma."

"I didn't say anything about your momma, sir."

A short line has formed behind the young man. He puts his hand on the security-door handle and pulls. "Let me come in there," he says. "I want to talk to you."

"No," Davis says. "You're not welcome here."

"Let me in," says the customer. "I want to come in there and use the bathroom."

"No, sir. Use the bathroom somewhere else."

"Where am I supposed to use the bathroom?"

"I don't know, but you ain't coming in here."

After a few tense seconds, the would-be customer leaves. "My pet peeve is when people yell `hey,' instead of `excuse me,'" Davis says a moment later, hardly rattled. "There's no excuse. There's no excuse, man. It's one of those things that in an evening you've heard it like 50 times, and it really starts to get at the back of your neck. It really starts to grate on you." He returns to the window. "What can I get you, bud?"

At the bar, Phil Minion and Chris Robb continue talking, oblivious to the dispute. Outside, the young man with the doo rag returns to his friends sitting on the nearby stoop. A police cruiser pulls up beside them, sending them scattering in different directions. The patrol car continues down the street; the men return to the stoop.

In the back of the Hollins Street Pub, Ernie Clifton is still sleeping. After a long afternoon of ankle humping, so is Hoover.

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