It wasn’t a “dive bar,” initially. It was just a bar, one of many in a stretch of the Back Bay that was sketchy even by 1970s Boston standards. The rest of those bars are long gone, but T.C.’s Lounge hung on, earning its “dive bar” status — one of the last gritty bars in downtown Boston — simply by surviving.
But now, to the shock and dismay of many, T.C.’s Lounge is gone, too. All that is left are the ghostly outlines of the detritus that covered its walls, the kind of silhouettes you can get only from marinating a windowless space in 42 years of nicotine and whiskey breath and bad perfume. And smoke. It was the fire that was the beginning of the end.
It wasn’t a big fire, just a compressor in a beer cooler right next to the front door that blew at 4:30 on an afternoon in March. The owners figured they could fix the damage for about $8,000. What was most historically significant about it at the time was the fact that an hour-and-a-half later, just a block away, an NStar transformer exploded, leaving the entire neighborhood in darkness for days. It was a weird afternoon in the Back Bay. But no one thought it would be the end of T.C.’s. No one, it seems, except the landlords.
The bar’s owners, “Big Tony” and “Little Tony” Consalvi — the second and third generations of T.C.’s to run the place — announced they would rebuild it just as it was: grungy and cluttered. The video game Buck Hunter would come back. So would the claw machine game filled with weird Japanese porn and sex toys. And the famous Polaroids, the record of life in a seedy bar that opened in an unquestionably seedy neighborhood.
But the Consalvis had a clause in their lease that allowed their landlords — the building is a co-op, so essentially their neighbors — to terminate their tenancy in the case of a fire. And they did. Since that time, according to the Consalvis, the First Fenway Cooperative, which owns the building on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, has had no interest in discussing the matter with them. This hurt Big Tony Consalvi immensely; he had been there so long that he had seen the tenants upstairs grow up, had been to their weddings and some funerals. “Now they won’t even talk to me,” he said of the tenants above him. The Mackin Group, a Brookline management company that represents the co-op, will say only that the landlords are reexamining the property and looking at different alternatives.
For T.C.’s regulars, the loss of the bar is more than just sad; it is symptomatic.
“It’s like watching what happened to Times Square. We’re losing part of the grit of the city,” said Jamie Bissonnette, the chef and owner at Toro and Coppa, who has spoken with the Consalvis about doing “pop-up” T.C.’s nights at other bars.
“It harkened back to a Boston that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Lawson Clarke, who works in advertising and is better known by his award-winning Internet persona, Male Copywriter. “What does the world need, another Starbucks? There’s so few of these bars out there that are just institutions. We don’t need another bar meant to look like an old bar. There are already too many of those places. T.C.’s was the antidote to everything in Boston that has become soulless.”
Whatever goes in T.C.’s space, it probably won’t be a Starbucks, that favored symbol of gentrification. That’s because there is already one in the building.
Back when Big Tony’s father poured the first drink in 1970, this section of the Back Bay was decidedly not a latte place. Right across the street was Penelope’s, where the wise guys hung out. Pimps and hookers worked out of the adult bookstore on the corner. Just across Mass. Ave. was the Sherry Biltmore Hotel, a favored hangout for some shady-looking dudes.
But the hotel became the main building of the Berklee College of Music, and the Back Bay — and all of downtown Boston — was slowly washed. The neighborhood bars that survived, the kind of places that served Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon before those labels were hip, became cherished symbols of authenticity, places where CEOs and criminals could sit side by side and complain about the Red Sox. But the years and the rising rents caught up with the dives and, one by one, they have disappeared. The Other Side Cafe, a Newbury Street dive just across the Mass. Pike from T.C.’s, shut its doors in April.
On a recent afternoon, as the Consalvis and a couple of members of the staff finished the herculean task of packing up a lifetime of clutter, they were having a hard time believing it was over.
“It’s like getting thrown out of my house,” Big Tony Consalvi, 68, said incredulously. “This is terrible. You know that feeling in your stomach when you’re going down in an elevator? That’s how I feel. I feel empty inside. The end was so shocking; a little thing turned out to be a very big thing.”
With each object he touched in the dismantling, Little Tony Consalvi was washed in memories. He is 43 and grew up in this tiny, odd-shaped place with the low ceilings and an impossible-to-navigate men’s room that seemed designed by someone who didn’t understand geometry.
‘It’s like watching what happened to Times Square. We’re losing part of the grit of the city.’
Each day, people come by and ask when T.C.’s will reopen. The answer, according to the Consalvis, is that they will — they are just not sure where or when. They are looking for a new spot in the Back Bay or the Fenway and want to bring back T.C.’s because they still believe that a real neighborhood needs a real neighborhood bar.
“People have told us they’ll follow us to the ends of the earth,” Big Tony Consalvi said. “There’s always a place for a dive bar, where the average person can come in, have a beer, and let themselves go.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.