Friday, March 30, 2007

Last Call at the Border

In 1982 three adventurous friends trusted their instincts and put together the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, a quirky Fan District watering hole known affectionately as “The Border.”

Owners Jim Bradford (depicted above), Donna Van Winkle and Joe Seipel were rewarded with an immediate following. It evolved into an institution known widely for its wacky interior and its diverse crowd; a place where blue collars, white collars and no collars got along famously.

When word got out in early March of 1999 that the Border was being sold, old customers and ex-staffers began making pilgrimages to the place for one last drink, one last connection to a piece of their youth. Although it had been rumored the Border was for sale for some time, what isn’t these days?

When Bradford -- a tireless photo-realistic painter with a curmudgeon’s sense of humor -- died in the summer of 1997, well, the future of the restaurant became much more complicated. Of the three owners, Jim had surely been the one who spent the most time bellied up to the bar, overseeing operations.

After managing the restaurant in its salad days, Van Winkle had gone to law school, become an attorney, and moved to Fredericksburg. Fifty miles is a tough commute for a late-afternoon beer.

That left Seipel, then-chairman of VCU’s sculpture department, to hold down the Happy Hour fort in the section of the restaurant known as the Power Corner. Although Seipel’s talent for convivial conversation is considerable, he had taken on time-consuming responsibilities over the years; fatherhood not the least of them.

So, it was time to turn the page. On March 14, 1999, the last night of the original ownership’s watch, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” to close the Border down. After playing a while for the crowd on hand he marched out the door, bagpipes caterwauling passionately, and it was done.

The scene brought to mind filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s apt comment in his autobiography, “My Last Sigh,” about a good bar being like a chapel. No doubt, most who were there for the piper’s last mournful note took with them a strong sense of that sentiment.

Then new owners decided to honor a date the old owners had made with Burnt Taters (now with a different drummer they are known as The Taters) for a March 26 CD release party. That meant keeping the business open under the old banner for a few more days and putting off the renovations. As it turned out, the delay set the stage for quite a finale.

What followed was an auction event on the actual last night of operation as the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café. At six o’clock Page Wilson and Reckless Abandon gave the makeshift stage in the front of the room over to the selling off of the bar’s wild and eclectic collection of wall decorations and somewhat art-like objects. They pulled down the framed pictures, the stuffed animal heads, the signs, and you name it. What went on was part wake, part fund-raiser, part souvenir-grab and all party.

The bidding at times resembled a feeding frenzy, as people climbed over one another to throw three figures at stuff, some of which wouldn't go for five bucks at a yard sale. The crowd cheered as each bid drove the price higher.

An attractive young woman who had been a regular customer got caught up in the spirit while bidding on a stuffed squirrel’s butt. A roar went up each time she raised the stakes to best her rivals. When she won the bidding battle everyone ordered another round.

The more absurd the prices got the more fun was being had by those who were lucky enough to have been there for what was truly a one-of-a-kind event. Since the money raised from the auction all went to the Bradford Scholarship Fund at VCU, more than $10,000, the harm couldn’t be found.

The Border was a happening unique in an age of conformity. It is much missed by a saloon diaspora, who attend Happy Hour services in various bars, here and there, telling their stories about what was one of the most memorable Fan District bars in a neighborhood that has seen a few good dives.

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Note: The image above, which depicts Jim Bradford seated at the bar, is the fourth of my new Fan City Series of prints. Click on the image, itself, to enlarge it.

It is a reduced scan of Fan City Series No. 4 -- "Big in the Power Corner" -- a 13" x 19" print on archival quailty paper with a matte finish. All of the posters in the Fan City Series are going to be the same size. I can't say how delighted I am with the splendid quality of the state-of-the-art printing process that is being used. It has spawned a whole new wave of creativity.

Click here to see the other three images (which include “Fan District Cat,” “NRBQ at High on the Hog” and Thirty Good Years”). Each run is limited to 45 prints of the particular image. Each print costs just $45.00. To ask questions or to buy one of prints please contact me:

F.T. Rea
(804) 359-4864
PO Box 14761, Richmond, VA, 23221

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