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Chumley's Operator Defends Historic Bar's Return to Village

By Danielle Tcholakian | February 25, 2014 2:51pm | Updated on February 25, 2014 8:03pm
 The walls of the old Chumley's were lined with photos of the literary greats that were rumored to have imbibed at the speakeasy.
The walls of the old Chumley's were lined with photos of the literary greats that were rumored to have imbibed at the speakeasy.
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Jim Miller

WEST VILLAGE — The man behind Chumley's, the historic bar that once helped Ernest Hemingway slake his thirst, insists his literary watering hole is "part of the character of the neighborhood" and called a lawsuit to revoke its liquor license "vindictive."

James Miller, the former speakeasy's longtime operator, told DNAinfo New York on Tuesday that the court action is littered with hyperbole that misrepresents the pub.

"They often refer to us as a drinking establishment, but we had an incredible menu there," Miller said. "We were really a restaurant."

"Personally, I do find it vindictive," he added.

Chumley's, which is on a registry of literary landmarks, shut down in 2007 after 80 years of service, when the facade of the building crumbled. Miller spent years on renovations and hopes to reopen it soon.

West Village residents are suing the State Liquor Authority to scuttle plans to revive Chumley's, a shuttered establishment that once served literary greats, including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Willa Cather.

But Miller said while "people grew to enjoy our selection of craft beers," Chumley's was never "a loud drinking establishment."

The bar had to reapply for a liquor license to reopen after a round of renovations restored the Prohibition era pub's facade.

But neighbors have argued that the bar is devoid of historic value, and most recently served as "a major destination for tourists, undergraduates and barhopping bridge-and-tunnel partygoers," according to the lawsuit.

Miller disagrees.

"NYU students are underage — we never had NYU students there," he said. "Maybe NYU professors."

"It was a very eclectic blend of people," he added, recalling tourists "coming from literally all over the world," as well as a Lower Manhattan after-work crowd and people in the local Village arts scene.

One issue he acknowledged was that the bar used to get crowded when people had to wait for tables. But measures have been taken to address that.

"We did everything they asked of us," Miller said. "Everything from adding security to cutting our hours to expanding the kitchen to be able to handle our operating quicker and turn people over faster."

He said he and his partners offered to meet with residents who felt their demands hadn't been met.

"I don't know what more we can do beyond that," Miller said. "I think there are some people who would like to see us closed and there's nothing we can do about that."

The lawsuit argues the SLA never should have given Chumley's another liquor license, because there are already three or more bars within 500 feet of the venue, which means new licenses in the area require additional review.

The area "has more than enough places to eat and drink," the lawsuit argues, adding that letting Chumley's move back in "will establish a precedent of allowing additional licenses on already vulnerable narrow, historic residential streets."

There are five restaurants on Bedford Street, all of which close by 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on the weekends. No bars have been opened on the block yet, since Chumley's was forced to close after the collapse.

Miller said Chumley's always had a 4 a.m. liquor license, but would do last call during the week at 11:30 p.m. to be closed by midnight and on weekends at 1:30 a.m. to be closed by 2 a.m. The owners have agreed to cut their hours even shorter now.

"The people behind this have no intention of bringing anything but a respectful, quiet operation," he said. "We want to return Chumley's to the way it was with all respect to the surroundings."

The lawsuit claims neither the SLA nor Chumley's proved the bar is in the public's best interest. But Miller said Chumley's has always been a boon for the Village: Its 40-person staff was comprised of actors and artists from the neighborhood.

Chumley's has been around for more than 80 years. Miller said according to unconfirmed lore, it was one of the first establishments to be issued a liquor license after Prohibition.

"The legend goes Lee Chumley ran down and had the third legal liquor license issued in the city of New York the minute Prohibition was repealed," he recounted. "Chumley's was woven into the fabric of Greenwich Village. We were there before anybody."