By Rich Sheppard
Jersey City – March 18, 2007: Gimberts, a century-plus-old bar in a tough corner of Tufftown Jersey City shut its doors for good on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, 2007. I was lucky enough to make a simultaneous first (and sadly) final – visit on the “final Friday,” March 16, to soak up some warm nostalgia and more than some ice cold Miller Genuine Drafts. A trip backwards in time, and further evidence of the changes affecting Jersey City. Gimberts leaves the Jersey City scene partly as a result of the powerful economic and demographic forces sweeping over my “city in balance.” Replacing this storied tavern will be housing of an indeterminate but certain income-generating nature. Housing makes more economic sense in today’s Jersey City than an old-time auld lang saloon.
An upfront admission from a Tufftown guy who likes bars, and has been to nearly every, if not every, tavern north of Journal Square, and some beyond: I hadn’t a clue that Gimberts existed until it was mentioned recently on the Jersey City forum of nj.com. Discussion on that forum ranges from politics, trivia, local history, reminiscences, and sometimes virulent name-calling. Mostly it’s lighthearted stuff, posters getting in their two-cents on a lark. The board skews a little Greenville, several posters are Tufftowners from that section of Jersey City, which predominates the southern part of the city, bordering Bayonne, New Jersey. Then again, since posters are anonymous, “who knows?”
Sometimes the JC forum discussion gets around to drinking and drinking establishments, and one of the posters in the course of a drinking/bar thread mentioned that this tavern “Gimberts” was about to shut down. The closing date was originally posted to be about May 2007 but events moved faster than that and news appeared that the final date would be March 17, 2007, St. Patrick’s Day. The description of Gimberts as an old-time Jersey City bar, and with a wood-burning stove no less, inspired some other posters to visit the joint and sing its praises. Some even suggested Dickie L. might make a visit?
I’ve been moderating my drinking and doing that well. My present schedule permits scant free time and money to tie on the beer bag. But I myself am a little braggadocio on the JC forum about my Tufftown nature – “tru-blu JC.” I rant and pontificate on the board from my figurative perch in the Heights, the northern counterpart to Greenville. I sing my praises for my city, and my place in my city, and try to fathom my city’s search for equilibrium in the swirling and powerful economic and cultural forces dramatically affecting us JC’ers. As Greenville abuts Bayonne to the south, the Heights abuts Union City, New Jersey to the north. I posit myself a Tufftown Heights guy, I give my fellow Jersey City Tufftowners from whatever section their props. If they report Gimberts is tru-blue JC, that’s tuff-enuff said. And now tuff-enuff done.
A Tufftowner Visit to Gimberts Before Its Permanent Shuttering
Gimberts needed a visit before its permanent shuttering. I’ve seen the number of JC Heights taverns dwindle from nearly forty to just about ten over the course of my adult life, so the siren song of this disappearing JC bar pitched louder. A tavern as old as Gimberts – 106 years! – deserved a proper, if belated, send-off: some “Heights props” to a bar at the far end of my city. It really wasn’t a tuff decision to go, I made a semi-formal declaration on the JC forum I would be there, and saying so had to go.
Yet the weather was a crazy wildcard all day Friday. A cold winter moderated slightly, a tease, and then a windy, haily ice storm blew across the Metropolitan region all day Friday the 16th into evening. The late winter icy blast, the slippery roads, might have been convenient excuse to miss my date with Gimberts. My drinking abstinence might not make my heart go yonder. NO: it was never in doubt, Tufftowners don’t miss Tufftown bar closings. I didn’t.
For a Heights guy who once lived at the very highest Heights intersection (Graham Street and Summit Avenue), Gimberts is at the far far end of the Jersey City. Same city, some different latitudes and attitudes. Gimberts is down past Danforth Avenue, which is the last significant 2-way east-west thoroughfare at the south end of town. Below Danforth there are only a handful of blocks before the Jersey City-Bayonne border. Westwards below Danforth Avenue is Jersey City’s “Country Village” neighborhood, an enclave of modest- to- nicer single- and two-family homes. Gimberts sits pretty near the border of Greenville proper and “Country Village” on Romar and Lembeck Avenues. I can say with certainty that I’ve never been at that far-side-of-the-city intersection in all my JC life. In good weather, it’s about a twenty-minute drive from my place in the Heights down there. A romp down (route) 440 or rumble down Kennedy Boulevard; I took a whistle down West Side Avenue. “Final Friday’s” icy streets added only minutes and parking, a possible concern, was a snap.
A Frosty Mug of Miller Genuine Draft
I was in Gimberts just after 7pm, ordering a frosty mug of Miller Genuine Draft. Gimberts was closing, but the beer was fresh and ICE COLD, BABY. That first mug was followed by Gimberts pilsner-style glasses at two-dollars a pop. Just the right size glass: that the final swallow of an MDG in that glass was nearly as cold as the first. Yeee- UMMY!
It took just that first beer to appreciate Gimberts’ wood burning stove (this final stove the last of a string of previous woodies), and replace the outdoor chill & damp within the warm confines of this historic Tufftown tavern. Gimberts is not a sterile upscale “Tofftown” joint. Gimberts is an unapologetic mish-mash of ancient and contemporary slanting ancient and proud for it. Strings of modern plastic triangular pennants promoting beer brands, attached to worn wooden walls, hang below Gimberts fine old pressed-tin ceiling. Arrears from Gimberts well-worn and dusty front taproom/bar, a brighter modish backroom/hall extends into a modern addition. I was deeply committed to spending the majority of my evening under that pressed-tin ceiling, near those taps, and among the Gimberts faithful there to toast a passing.
‘Get me da May-yuh!’ Gimberts phone booth
One Tufftown old-timer, JC thru-n-thru arrived and sat alongside. Nearly eighty years old, he mentioned he’s been a Gimberts habitué for forty-six years! That’s nearly the span of this chronicler’s life, an awesome record of saloon loyalty. I described my curiosity in being present, my Tufftown bonafides. He was, to my good fortune, just the Tufftowner I suspected would be present at Gimberts. An ideal guide for my belated Gimberts tour.
Indicating the tin ceiling he offered, “Look at the ceiling. The last time Walter (Walter Gimbert, the father of that evening’s middle-ageish bartender, George) painted that ceiling, he painted it white. Look at it now!” I did so, considering the deep brown hue of the tin top. “You know why’s it brown? That’s nicotine, fifty years of nicotine! Billions (he used that number) of cigarettes!” And so that tar-and-nicotine caked ceiling did encapsulate some vast number of puffed and burning-out cigarettes. And you wonder, if that thick glaze adorns that ceiling, about the lungs of past & present Gimbert-goers.
A Sense of History Abounds
In the rear hall area, I noticed a framed collection of very very old, very very quaint and awesome documents. Old electric bills, bowling league notices (Gimberts once houses some duckpin bowling lanes and, of all things, a hay-backstopped archery). Lovely decades – and in some case nearly century-old – keepsakes. A bank draft from early last century. A letter from a Vietnam-stationed soldier to the “Front Line” club, which my Old-time Tufftowner explained was a WWI Veteran’s group that met upstairs in the brick Gimberts building. Amazing documents, preserving what was ordinary for those past days down through today, where a wondrous saloon patron can imagine those distant days, even as the saloon housing them becomes history too.
The wood pattern on Gimberts’ worn bar, so worn that the wood soaks up any moisture instead of beading it, seems familiar. I couldn’t place it, until my Tufftown guide pointed out, “this bar used to be the Shuffleboard, which ran along that wall behind us.” I gazed the length of the bar both ways, visualizing metal pucks whizzing down that board decades ago. Times happy and times sad, you hope some good, you realize some bad.
Another patron recalled his first drinks in Gimberts, when you could get a glass of beer and a shot for $1.10. That wasn’t as long ago as we might imagine, as my two-dollar glasses of beer attest.
An old-time accordion door phone booth occupies a corner. “The original phone that used to be in there,” explained my Oldtimer, “was taken out years ago from some bigshot from Bell Telephone. That phone is in the Verizon Building in Newark.”
Why wouldn’t it be? A large, eagle-bedecked painting, aging yellow, dominates a wall near the entrance. Someone mentioned it’s being donated to West Point, one hopes they see value and others might see it too.
Two Pipers, Two Drummers, Snare, and Bass
About a half-hour after I arrived, the doors suddenly opened to the cold and in marched two pipers, and two drummers: snare and bass. Members of a local public safety Pipes band, they arrived to add some pomp to Gimberts penultimate night. It was a lovely touch, hard-bit beer and shot drinkers gaping and toasting the Scots-bedecked musicians.
The crowd mainly comprised the regulars, familiar among themselves, but friendly to a curious stranger. I chatted amicably with some Tufftown peers, sending beers and shots their way as needed, needing nothing in return but their recollections. The lady of one couple mentioned she was a bartender at a Downtown JC tavern called Sheila’s. Downtown JC, along with the adjoining waterfront, is the heart and engine of JC’s “Toff-town” aspirations. Having not visited Sheila’s, I’ll predict that it is not a Gimberts-type ginmill. I teased her a little, asking her if it was a “Tofftown” kind of bar, with upscalish pretensions. She took my banter with the humor intended. I told her that by being in Gimberts in its final days, she was a link from Jersey City’s Tufftown past and present to its Tofftown future. She invited me to visit Sheila’s, and that could happen, too, if only to complete a link of sorts for myself.
Being in Gimberts was fun and easy, and time winged. The beers were fresh and ice-cold, baby! But I was tiring, and eventually slowing my intake. I shared a closing chat with a weepy woman who arrived late-ish and appreciated my curiosity, which only reminded her why she was weepy (fun guy, me). She was Tufftown, yearning for simpler, more understandable times. Like me, she did not look like she would be living a “waterfront lifestyle w/amenities” anytime soon if ever. We commiserated passing times and places, and I made a fairly crisp exit before night turned to morning. Had I stayed passed midnight I could claim to be among Gimberts “final day” patrons. It’s tru-er to leave those memories and that claim for the genuine Gimberts patrons. I’m pleased and lucky I was able spend time in an Auld Lang Saloon, a tru-blu, Tufftown Jersey City bar. To Gimberts. A worthy relic now a memory. Never, I surmise, will transforming Jersey City see its like again.