On Monday night, longtime customers stepped inside Candle Bar on Amsterdam Avenue and said goodbye, to each other and to the last of its kind on the Upper West Side.
The low-lit establishment with a rainbow flag loosely draped from the ceiling and rock music coming from its speakers had attracted a gay clientele since it opened in the mid-1960s, when the notion of same-sex attraction still had a subversive aura.
Still, the Candle Bar's closing was tinged with nostalgia and melancholy.
“I'm very sad the bar is closing, it's the only community bar left and I have no idea where I'll go next,” said Archie Long, a longtime patron who recalls when the Upper West Side had a dozen or so gay bars.
The bar's owner, Michelle Ader, who has run the bar since 1992, sold the building and its new owner does not want to keep the Candle Bar operating, she said.
“We hope that everyone has enjoyed the community fixture and we're sorry,” said Ader.
Amonte Demarko, who's worked at Candle Bar for about 12 years, the last 10 as its manager, said bar options for gay men are dwindling.
“It's my home away from home, it's my second family” he said.
Steve Vasta, a regular customer for nearly a decade, said, “I like that I can sit here and talk to the bartenders, play video games and watch horrendous movies on the TV.”
Vasta, calling himself a 'refugee of clubs,' says most customers are unsure what bars will replace Candle Bar because alternatives are not close by.
“There were a lot more gay bars in the '80s, and they were more gay 'Cheers' where everybody knows everybody,” Vasta said.
Vasta and Demarko mentioned the Ninth Avenue Saloon as an option, as well as bars in the upper Times Square neighborhood and in Hell's Kitchen, but until a new spot is established, customers will just text each other where to meet.
The bar had its origins as the Candle Light in the 1930s, which attracted a lesbian clientele even then, Ader said.
According to Phillip Crawford Jr., the author of The Mafia and the Gays, which chronicles the history of gay bars and their ties to the mob, the state Liquor Authority, which prohibited serving alcohol to gays, closed the bar in 1959 because of “homosexual activities.”
By the early 1960s, as mores began to change even if the laws did not, bar owner Ralph Pansini refused to pay off liquor inspectors to keep the tavern open. Crawford said that led to an investigation of the Liquor Authority by the city's district attorney and, eventually, a liberalizing of liquor licensing laws in the late 1960s.
“The closing of the Candle Bar no doubt is the end of an era,” Crawford said. “The Candle Bar began as a safe haven when the gay community had nowhere else to go, and now as the gay community achieves full equality the Candle Bar is gone.”
The tavern, on Amsterdam, just below 105th Street, began to attract gay men when Robert Ader, Michelle's brother, took over in the late 1970s. He purchased the four-story building about a decade later. He and his partner ran the bar for about 15 years. Michelle took over after the two died of complications from AIDS.
Ader, who now lives in Los Angeles, said she's kept the bar open for 22 years because she recognizes there aren't any other gay bars on the Upper West Side. Ader said she's sad the bar is closing but “it's hard to sustain any individually-owned business.”
“People see this space as their living room and they want it to stay that way,” she said.