Gentrification, dwindling business, a proliferation of other entertainment options -- these are all typical reasons for gay and lesbian bars to shutter these days, which they're doing in distressing numbers. But none of these descriptions are apt for the closure of the Hershee Bar, a stalwart watering hole that's served Norfolk, Va., for the past 35 years.
The threat to Hershee Bar -- or HB's, as locals refer to it -- came when the Norfolk City Council voted in February to purchase the property the bar occupies for $1.5 million; the city indicated they want to demolish the building that HB's leases. The establishment, which opened as a lesbian bar in 1983 but now caters to a more mixed crowd, is one of the few businesses operating in the immediate vicinity.
City officials "don't have any plan" for the building or the space it sits on, Hershee Bar co-owner Annette Stone tells The Advocate. "They're guessing or stating whatever they feel like at the moment."
The City Council had made no mention of the bar when it decided to buy the property. Councilwoman Mamie Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot that there were three options for that lot: turn it into a green space, a parking lot, or cut into the property to widen a turn lane. As far as Johnson was concerned, the decision to buy the property had little to do with the bar itself -- rather, it was part of a larger plan of redevelopment. Johnson did not return several emails seeking comment, and Stone said the councilwoman missed a meeting they scheduled to discuss the city's plans.
Stone, busy managing the bar and carrying for a mother with Alzheimer's, was caught off-guard by the city's purchase. "I didn't find out the way I should have; it was a done deal" by the time Stone heard of the sale. Even though there was no legal requirement to inform the businesses leasing space on the property, Stone is upset she wasn't given advance notice, especially as a tax-paying business owner who employees nearly 20 people.
"I feel like they are getting rid of us for a reason," Stone says.
It's not just the workers who will suffer because of the forced closure, but Hershee Bar customers. Patrons swamped a recent city council meeting, wearing "I AM HERSHEE BAR" shirts and pleading with the council to keep the bulldozers away. Supporters described the bar as a monument and sanctuary, and shared personal stories, describing how Stone and co-owner Bill Tyndell regularly used the bar to raise money for locals.
"Anytime one of our customers falls on a rough time or needs us in any capacity we will raise money for them," Stone says. "We do it very often. Like funerals, medical expenses, fires, somebody who might be losing their home. We come together as a community and help them any way we can."
Many LGBT people in Norfolk, a naval city close to the North Carolina border, has a warm memory of HB's.
"Hershee was the first bar, gay or straight, that I ever went in," Barbara James tells The Advocate. "It was 1987. It turned out to be amazing. It was filled with so many lovely women. It was a time with no internet, so meeting other people like me seemed a daunting task. HB's made it easy."
Stone says moving to a new location is not an option, citing lack of funds (a GoFundMe page has been established). She tried to buy the building a few years back, but "there was an issue with the toxicity level of the land and my funding pulled out."
The recent purchase agreement states the property cannot change hands from the current owner -- who Stone speaks highly of -- to the city until the Hershee Bar is demolished. Stone sees no other option than closing down HB's in October.
"I'd probably sell a kidney to keep the Hershee Bar open because I believe in my community," Stone says. "It's not the best thing in the world to open a gay bar a mile and a half from where you were raised; my parents didn't understand 35 years ago and weren't happy about it. But we prospered and expanded twice. We've all walked into a local bar and [witnessed] the camaraderie; it's like a family. It's what we had and what we're going to lose."