The regulars showed up at Sonny Walker’s Thursday night as they always have, but they knew the clock was ticking.
Cheryl Fisher had a smile on her face as the band bumped Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” But she wasn't celebrating. “There’s a hole in my heart right now,” she said.
Linda Hamilton paused to hug a friend as she entered the small, brick-walled bar. “This is where I feel like I belong,” she said, sighing. “Where else am I going to go?”
On April 1, Sonny Walker’s, a Roxbury institution that has been a haven for generations of black Bostonians, will serve its last drink. For nearly four decades, the hole-in-the-wall was helmed by Arthur “Sonny” Walker, one of the first black tavern owners in Boston. News of its closing ricocheted throughout Roxbury, and send-off events have been planned throughout the week.
In a city with few minority-owned bars, Sonny Walker’s — it was originally called C&S Tavern — was known as the “black Cheers,” said Gerry Walker, who grew up slinging drinks alongside his father. It was a place where everyone did indeed know your name (or nickname, for that matter) and your drink was always waiting at the bar. Swearing around women was discouraged, and Sonny always made sure everyone got home safe. Ground zero for the city’s Juneteenth celebrations, it was where you could shoot a round of pool or grab a fruit punch and watch the game.
Sonny retired five years ago, and now Gerry and his sister, Andrea Walker, are ready to move on.
Andrea said the decision to close was bittersweet.
“I wanted to do right by my dad, and I’ve done that,” she said. But she and her brother faced a problem: They knew the bar’s full liquor license could draw over $400,000 on the open market in Boston’s competitive restaurant industry. But anyone able to pay that amount was unlikely to want to take over the lease for a 1,000-square-foot bar in Roxbury. So to get the full return on their investment, she risked gutting the very community that her family had served.
Ultimately, she and Gerry sold the license to Del Frisco’s, a national chain of steakhouses that plans to open a restaurant on Boylston Street in the Back Bay. The siblings will turn the building lease over to a budding restaurateur who does not initially need a full liquor license.
Community activists say the Walkers’ situation is indicative of larger problems in a broken licensing system. And beyond the end of an era, the bar’s closure is also seen by many as a microcosm of the state of black business ownership in Boston.
As he tells it, Sonny’s transition from barber to barman took all of 15 minutes.
The year was 1969, and Sonny and his partner, Charles Canada, ran a barbershop in Grove Hall when one of their regular customers, the Irish owner of the M&M Tavern, came in. The neighborhood was changing, and following recent riots, he was looking to sell.
The partners mulled it over for just minutes before deciding to get in the game. Hairstyle trends played a factor: More black men were growing out afros, meaning fewer haircuts. Booze, however, was a sure bet.
“We were like, here we go,” said Walker, who still possesses a sharp wit and will celebrate his 93rd birthday at the end of the month.
That decision led Walker and Canada to become the first black tavern owners in Boston, according to the family. In 1980, he and Canada bought a second bar, on Warren Street, which they renamed the C&S Tavern, combining the initials of their first names. It was later renamed Sonny Walker’s.
By 1985, the duo had gone in with another black businessman to purchase a city block in Grove Hall that was dubbed the “wonder block,” a name that, depending on whom you talked to, reflected either their heroic efforts to revitalize the neighborhood or questions about whether they could succeed.
“It was a mess when they bought it,” said Joyce Stanley, the executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets. “But Sonny and Charlie developed it and they attracted businesses there.”
Canada died in 1994, and their families divided up ownership of the two bars nearly a decade later. In 2013, Walker’s children, who had taken over operations, renamed the C&S after their father. Until he was 89, Sonny would walk three miles from his home in Randolph to catch a bus to Roxbury, where he’d assume his place behind the bar in his signature sweater, lending an ear to a legion of working-class blacks.
“You could talk to Sonny about anything,” said Lem Taylor, 67, a retired tradesman who has known Sonny since his barbering days. (Sonny trimmed Taylor’s hair before his prom.) The bar was a de facto community center, with the Walker family routinely helping those facing hard times.
“It was our best-kept secret. It was ours, you know what I’m saying?” Taylor said.
For politicians, Sonny’s was a must-stop, on the campaign trail and off. The bar hosted candidate forums, and its patrons were a sounding board for a spectrum of political issues, said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
“There’s no way that they’re not going to roll up in there and not get some honest feedback from the people,” he said, with a laugh. “They don’t play.”
“It’s been where I have had some of my toughest questions as a candidate,” said at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has made the distribution of new liquor licenses to the city’s underserved neighborhoods a signature issue, holding Sonny Walker’s up as an example of what a bar or restaurant can contribute to a city.
“Every community deserves to have places where they can build community and celebrate life’s milestones,” she said. Enabling restaurants and bars to open in underrepresented neighborhood can have a twofold effect, she said. It helps with neighborhood development, while providing an opportunity for minority business owners to build wealth. “As much as it’s about geography, it’s also about who’s owning those licenses,” she said.
In 2014, Pressley helped pass legislation that led to the release of 75 new liquor licenses for outlying city neighborhoods. This past week, she submitted a petition to create 153 new licenses for Boston, the vast majority of which would be tied to Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, Mission Hill, and East Boston. That ordinance will ultimately go before the state for approval.
Sonny Walker’s, she said, “embodies what I’m aspiring to realize, but in greater numbers.”
Andrea said she, too, has a vision for life beyond Sonny Walker’s. Instead of selling the bar, she’s working to help Roxbury native Royal Smith, a 33-year-old chef who most recently managed Darryl’s Corner Bar, take over the lease.
Smith said he has struggled with a chicken-and-egg scenario as he’s looked to open his own place: Because he has never owned a restaurant, he can’t secure the loan he needs to own his first restaurant.
He hopes to get a beer and wine license, which is much less expensive than the full license attached to Sonny Walker’s, and reopen the space under a new name, District 7 Tavern.
He sees it as a springboard to open more restaurants in neighborhoods that need them.
“The big restaurant groups aren’t interested in minority dollars, but I am,” he said. “And more importantly, I’m interested in minority growth.”
It’s something the Walker’s hope can be part of their legacy.
“We’re trying to hand it down to another generation that will do the same thing we’ve done,” Andrea said. “The community needs that.”