Raising the Bar

For more than 50 years, Maxine Miller and her eponymous bar were Fayetteville mainstays. Now, her great-niece and a group of local business owners are keeping her name alive.
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For decades upon decades, Maxine sat at the same green stool at her eponymous Block Avenue bar.

 

The bar was smoky, extremely smoky. Gray plumes drifted lazily from the ends of cigarettes, collecting at the ceiling where they hung like rainclouds. Regulars lined the wooden bar stretching from nearly one end of the shotgun building to the other, taking up half of the one-room watering hole. Across a narrow walking lane, a group of post-finals law students reclined in a shoulder-level booth while a trio of fraternity brothers tossed back ice-cold drafts before heading out to get rowdy on Dickson. Puncturing the buzz of conversation was the sharp ding ding! of the bar’s popular bowling game, which was surrounded by a group who looked as if they might be too young to set foot in a bar—not all that uncommon in a college town like Fayetteville.

Right in the middle of it all near the cash register was, as usual, the founder, owner and namesake of the place: Maxine Miller. Sitting on her her personal stool, the only green one in a line of red bar seats, steam rising from her coffee cup, she played a set of ivory dominoes and smoked a cigarette of her own as she’d done just about every day since opening the bar in 1950. As the night started to come to a close, one of the bartenders handed Maxine a microphone, and with the big diamond rings on her fingers clicking against it, she delivered her nightly farewell message: “You have ten minutes to drink up and get the hell out.”

Clearly, Maxine was not one to mince words. Once she made up her mind about something, there was no room for argument or discussion, especially when it came to her business. And in Maxine’s defense, a hard-nosed business sensibility is exactly what she needed to start a bar as a single, 24-year-old woman in 1950s Arkansas. With women’s suffrage ratified just a few years before she was born, Maxine had more opportunities available to her than her foremothers, but women of her generation had to make determined efforts to prove they could be independently successful in what was still considered a man’s world. But in 1950, the cultural landscape of the United States was making those first tottering steps toward a precipice of great change. It wasn’t necessarily unheard of for a young woman to start a business on her own, but it was certainly rare.

Maxine Miller, however, was never one to let a little adversity stand in her way. Just a year after borrowing money from her parents to open the bar, Maxine was able to pay them back in full. “She was always just a very high-driven person,” says Andrea Foren, Maxine’s great-niece. “If she wanted something, she was going to get it.”

As a business owner, Maxine liked to keep herself close to the day-to-day operations. She would show up each day in her “dove gray” (not to be confused with silver) 1984 Lincoln Continental with the cash box to stock the till, and then she’d take her place at the stool midway down the bar. From her vantage point, she had a macro view of the Tap Room and could keep an eye on the register, the bartender and the patrons, making sure everyone was behaving as expected. After decades at that perch, the stool seat grew tattered and the wood-grain Formica boasted telltale worn spots: two where her elbows rested, one from her ash tray and one from her trademark coffee cup, an elegant clear-glass vessel taller and slimmer than a traditional mug.

Despite being the proprietor of a bar, Maxine didn’t care for alcohol, preferring instead a cold Dr. Pepper or a nice cup of joe. But Maxine didn’t play games when it came to her coffee. “If you bartended, you knew exactly how to make her coffee,” Foren says: Folgers Breakfast Blend with just the right amount of grounds and a dash of salt. “It took away the bitterness,” Foren explains. “And if you forgot the salt, she would immediately correct you, and you had to make it again.”

But underneath Maxine’s no-nonsense attitude and serious demeanor, she was known to be a very caring woman. She loaned money to bartenders who worked for her—and even to customers, when they were in dire straits—provided they agreed to work off their debt at the Tap Room. As a testament to that nurturing nature, Maxine was flooded with Mother’s Day cards each year from regulars and employees alike, although she never had children of her own. “She was shrewd,” Foren explains, “but in the sense that she was very kind if you were doing what you were supposed to be doing.” Sure, disorderly patrons were immediately ejected from the bar—but in true Maxine fashion, they were allowed to return to the premises on the grounds that they handwrite her a letter of apology as penance.

Foren developed a close relationship with the bar at an early age. She spent a good deal of her childhood at the Tap Room watching Maxine run the place, and as soon as Foren turned 21, Maxine ordered her to get to pouring drinks behind the bar. “She gave me a party on Friday, and told me my ass was coming to work tomorrow,” Foren says. Later, when Maxine’s health began to decline, Foren assumed more responsibilities looking after the bar. She soon graduated from college at the University of Arkansas and started working full-time as the purchasing agent for the City of Fayettville, a position she still holds today. But even then, the bar remained a primary concern. Eventually, Maxine pulled her great-niece aside to tell her that she intended to leave her the Tap Room in her will.

“I think she saw that passion in me and knew that I’d always treat it like my own and like she did, and that I would never sell it,” Foren explains. “She knew that if she told me she wanted me to take care of it that I would, whatever it cost.”

When Maxine passed away in 2006 after a series of strokes, folks with personal histories written at the bar had doubts that her Tap Room could continue without her. Maxine’s, after all, bore her name—but it also bore her mark.

It was her and she was it.

“Usually, anybody that came in there came in to see her,” Foren says. “There was hardly anybody that came in that didn’t speak to her.” When young college students would come in and introduce themselves, Maxine, with her sharp memory for names and faces, could immediately recall who their dad was and the last time he had visited the bar. She valued the fact that her customers wanted to come to her business, and it was important to her that they knew how much she appreciated their patronage. “If you came in there, you weren’t just a customer,” Foren explains. Her clientele was much more than that to her. And she had faith in her great-niece to run the bar in her stead.

Unfortunately, Foren ran into problems almost immediately. Just two months after Maxine’s passing, a fire broke out in the building, leaving it structurally intact but ravaging the interior. Small explosions from burst kegs destroyed a section of the bar right in the middle where Maxine used to sit, destroying her old green stool. The damages forced the Tap Room to close for more than a year, and although repairs were made as quickly as possible, it seemed business had already begun to fade. Foren desperately wanted the legacy to thrive, but she had her work cut out for her. She knew that change was inevitable, though it wouldn’t come easily. “Owning it and being so emotionally involved with it, for me it was very hard to see it as anything different,” she says. “But at the same time I recognized that it needed something different.”

Foren ultimately decided that taking a step back might be the best course of action. While retaining ownership of both the business and the building, she first tried leasing Maxine’s to an Oklahoma management company. But when the arrangement went sour, a group of fellow Block Avenue business owners stepped forward with a tentative interest in the iconic establishment.

Hannah Withers and Ben Gitchel, owners of The Little Bread Company, located directly across the street from Maxine’s, along with Rebekah and Matt Champagne who run local businesses Terra Tots and Hammer & Chisel, respectively, were eager to see the bar become relevant again. “Maxine’s is just a part of Fayetteville history,” Rebekah says. “Everybody wanted an excuse to be a regular again.” It seemed that everyone had a story about their first experience at the bar. Rebekah was first introduced to the Tap Room about ten years ago in her early twenties right after moving to Arkansas. “I could tell it was a special place,” she says. “People talked about it with a lot of wistfulness in their voice.”

Hannah stumbled onto the bar not long after Maxine passed away when she and Ben opened the bakery. They would often stop in for a cold beer after a long day in the kitchen. Hannah remembers it as dark, smoky and dive-y. There were never very many customers in the place, and it was clear to both of them that the Tap Room had become a shadow of its former self. But underneath all that, they could see its untapped potential.

“To walk into a place that is so steeped in stories, both about the owner and from customers and ex-employees of the place, you can’t help but picture it when it was bustling and full of music and laughter,” Withers says.

“Over time, Hannah developed a relationship with Andrea and just had this idea that maybe we could do something with this,” Rebekah says. The crew was brimming with excitement at the possibility, but they had their anxieties as well, particularly because Rebekah and Matt were expecting a baby in the coming months. “We were just looking at each other like, ‘This is insane. This is the worst possible timing ever, but we have to do this!’” she says. “First of all, we didn’t want to let it pass. Then second of all, it’s just worth it just to be a part of history and to start creating a new history as well.”

The group already knew Foren from collaborating on projects through the Block Street Business Association, and they were aware that she was looking to reduce her day-to-day role at the bar. “We kind of reached out to her and said, ‘We have this really great idea, and I think we can pack that place again, and I feel like Maxine would prefer it that way,’” Withers explains. “She was on board. There were some tears, and it’s a big hand-off. This is a part of her whole existence and everything growing up.”

Even under Maxine’s watch, the Tap Room had seen its share of changes in its 60-some years of existence. The original wooden building was torn down in 1963 and rebuilt by Fayetteville architect Warren Seagraves as the long non-descript brick building that houses the business to this day. The clientele evolved, too, starting out as a working-class crowd, and then shifting to local lawyers and law students, due in part to Maxine’s marriage to Fayetteville attorney Jim Miller. Maxine dipped into the college crowd by hiring burly Razorback athletes as bartenders, not just for their physical prowess, which was especially helpful when dealing with unruly customers, but also because they tended to travel in packs. And when the bar started hosting live bands, it starting pulling in all types of music lovers. Yet, despite these changes, the personality of the place never wavered—it was always a haven where you could be yourself with no apologies necessary. It could be loud and brash, but what else would you expect from a place run by person with an overwhelming character like Maxine? Like its namesake, the bar could be a little intimidating at first glance, but once you got to know it, you could really see the heart of the place.

“I think it was always a little bit rough around the edges,” Withers says. “It’s gone through lots of different lifetimes with Maxine sitting on the same stool at the bar to see it all. She was a major part of this bar’s success. I think when she passed away there was something that went with her, and it was going to take a new life to bring people back in here again.”

The tricky part, then, was how to revamp the bar, which reopened the first of April this year, in a way that would not only give it the new life it desperately needed, but also retain a sense of reverence for what the bar was and where it came from. As Rebekah puts it, the group aimed to provide “somewhere you could just go, sit, have a nice quality drink, be able to have a conversation, and that’s it. No fuss, no muss.”

A couple of dart boards have replaced the old “Ding-Ding Machine” as the new party game in the bar. Gone too are all the neon beer signs and advertisements that for so long had adorned the walls. Instead, sculptural liquor bottles are displayed on two well-lit sets of shelves behind the bar. The old deer head is still there, but he’s been classed up a bit, no longer sporting his Mardi Gras beads or sunglasses. The payphone at the end of the bar remains as well, but serves more as a decorative nostalgia piece in today’s cellular age, if it even still works.While the business still retains the original “Maxine’s Tap Room” name, another big-picture shift was a decision to focus on premium cocktails rather than beer, although Maxine’s still features several beers on tap including a selection of local craft brews.

“We’re basing it on when Maxine first opened the place,” Rebekah explains. “We thought, ‘Let’s go with that era.’” Drinks like the Old-Fashioned, Negroni and the age-old hangover remedy known as “Corpse Reviver No. II” are just a few selections from the ever-expanding cocktail list. (The bar recently added twenty more drinks to their menu.) Some of the concoctions are served in traditional copper mugs that complement what’s probably the most major renovation to the new Maxine’s: the copper bar. It’s about the same shape and length of the original bar, but the copper top gives the whole place a feeling that brings everything together—the concept, the décor, the drinks, the legacy.

Despite all the changes, Maxine’s Tap Room is really more a tribute to the woman who started it all than anything else. The layout remains relatively the same, and the walls are covered with photos of the late Maxine. There’s a photo of Maxine’s husband, Jim, tending bar in the original building, a photo of Block Avenue from the ’50s, as well as Maxine’s senior picture. There’s even one of Maxine posing next to the Budweiser Clydesdales, sent to the bar by local Budweiser distributor Bob McBride on the anniversary of the Tap Room’s opening. There’s also a drink on the menu respectfully called the Maxine—a drink of the management’s own creation containing gin, blood-orange juice and rosemary simple syrup served in a champagne coupe.

“It’s a little bit tart, and bold…but lovely. Just like Maxine,” Withers explains.

“It’s hard to change something that someone worked sixty-plus years to create,” Foren says. But the changes that we have now are absolutely amazing.”

And what would Maxine think of the renovations?

“I think if she walked into it…Well, I think she’d be pissed off because it was different,” Foren says, laughing. “But at the same time, when she saw the energy that it’s brought with everybody being in there, she’d love it at the same time.”

The bar is no longer smoky, not smoky at all. Instead, the smell of fresh-popped popcorn from the machine near the front door fills the air. Fresh flowers and bowls of fruit decorate the copper bar, where the bartender is busy serving up a Sidecar here and a Dark and Stormy there. A group of ladies at the table in the corner enjoying a Mom’s Night Out toast their round of Aperol Spritzes while a group of hipster college kids order Manhattans. The atmosphere is inviting. It has an air of class, but it’s not pretentious; it’s not dive-y, but it’s certainly comfortable. It’s the kind of place where it wouldn’t be strange to see the guy in the suit from the chamber of commerce up the street sharing a Miller High Life with a neck-tattooed local artist.

If only Maxine were here to see it. Her presence is certainly all around—her eyes gaze out from framed pictures on every wall at her baby’s newfound success, and her monogrammed stool seat is immortalized, hanging alongside the photos. The place is absolutely vibrant with her spirit. At the end of the bar where the cash register sits now is a shrine to Maxine with yet another framed portrait and a vase of flowers placed respectfully on a pedestal, just in case anyone forgets who really runs the place.

“It was exciting for us to think that maybe we could be that ‘new life,’” Rebekah says of Maxine’s rejuvenation.

“And also that we might be Maxine sixty years from now sitting on that stool,” adds Withers.

“Exactly! Yeah, ultimately, that’s the goal, right? That we’re the ones wearing out the bar stools.”

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