Michelle Hill never intended to get into the bar business.
She was finishing up a psychology degree at The Ohio State University and waiting tables when she was asked to manage St. James Tavern, at 1057 N. 4th St. That was during the summer of 1996.
Fifteen years later, the James is a beloved establishment that prides itself on offering a rotating selection of tasty microbrews as well as customer favorites, such as Bell’s Two Hearted and Guinness.
To learn more about the James’ past and how Hill plans to celebrate its anniversary, keep reading.
Columbus Underground: At one time, regulars playfully called the James “the neighborhood bar without the neighborhood.” Why was the James opened in Italian Village?
Michelle Hill: My family has a long tradition of buying property in areas in transformation. My grandfather was one of the pioneers in German Village, and then he moved into Italian Village and Old Towne East in the seventies. My dad continued this tradition and bought properties farther north in IV, including the building where the bar is located.
As he didn’t have any experience in working or running a bar, nor did his partner, they asked me to run it. After obtaining my degree a couple years later, I purchased the business but continued to lease the building from my father.
CU: How has the neighborhood changed over the years?
MH: I moved to IV, just down the street from my bar, when I was 17 and fell in love with the Short North. Honestly, I love being off the beaten path. It helps assure a more diverse and dedicated clientele, I think.
In the beginning, there really was no neighborhood. Most of the houses on Detroit [Avenue] were either boarded up or burnt down. Within a few years that slowly began to change, though.
I’d like to think that creating a place that was a safe and warm environment in that area helped bring more people to the neighborhood, perhaps to live even. And now you can’t buy a house on that block for less than $150,000. So it has come a very long way since 1996!
CU: Has your customer base changed during that time?
MH: In the beginning, most of my regulars were either industry kids grabbing late night drinks after work or musicians/artists. I took pride in offering a diverse jukebox and good beers for a reasonable price, and that appealed to those folks. Being in that location was a blessing in that it really attracted the kind of interesting crowd that I wanted. I was able to be surrounded by people of a similar mindset as me, and that was a wonderful feeling.
About five to seven years ago, I noticed a shift in my regular customer base and was a bit worried. Then I realized that they didn’t abandon me; they were all just getting older and having kids! It became clear that I needed to get in touch with the 20-somethings again. Facebook, Twitter and even CU have actually helped with that. I think I still have a crowd of late 20s to early 30s most of the time, but it depends on what night you are there. I welcome all ages over 21. As long as you know how to “act right,” you are welcome at the James.
CU: So many bars today have specific themes. How has St. James, a relatively no-frills establishment, been able to compete?
MH: Well, I guess I figure I cannot be the only one out there who just likes hanging out in a place that feels genuine. I travel as much as I can and throughout the years the places I have enjoyed the most, met the most interesting people, and had the best conversations, have been bars similar to the James. From New Orleans to Paris, people just want a cozy pub for relaxing and connecting with others.
Too often I walk into a bar/restaurant and immediately sense how contrived the place is and it doesn’t make me comfortable. Many times I am downright overwhelmed by too many TVs, lights, loud music or people. That is not to say that all themed bars are that way. Certainly many do it well and thrive for many years. But I think there will always be a need for the place you can go have a pint with your pals while listening to your favorite tunes, and not leave broke at the end of the night.
CU: How will St. James’ 15th anniversary be celebrated?
MH: I have had a very hectic spring and summer, so I didn’t have the time to plan anything too elaborate for our 15th anniversary. It will be a good time, though, because I am changing over half of the handles to some pretty amazing, and a few rare, beers. We are also tapping a firkin of Ichabod Pumpkin Ale from New Holland, which will be perfect for the season. Earth’s Crust will be there serving their wonderful pizza as well.
I had some T-shirts made up to commemorate the occasion, thanks to the guys at ThoughtCo and the help of Bob Starker. It will just be a big party filled with good people, many of whom I haven’t seen in awhile, I am sure. That will be the best part− having so many of my favorite faces from past and present in the same building at once. And yes, I will probably shed a tear or two, but only out of joy, gratitude and, hopefully, laughter. It has been a great trip and I hope it lasts 15 more.
The St. James Tavern 15th Anniversary Party takes place Sept. 29 from 6 p.m. to close.
To learn more about St. James Tavern, visit StJamesTavern.com.