WILMINGTON, N.C. – As Hurricane Florence blew into Wilmington, about two dozen locals gathered behind the boarded-up windows of a bar that's survived its share of squalls and tempests. There they raised their glasses Thursday in a toast and a shout: “Here's to Wilmington!”
The Barbary Coast, described as the oldest bar in this North Carolina city, has a time-honored custom of staying open in tropical storms.
“It's a tradition. People would be mad if we weren't open,” said owner Eli Ellsworth. “People are under a lot of stress. It's therapy.”
Seated at the well-worn bar under a stamped metal ceiling at Thursday's happy hour, Rick Bonney sipped on his fourth Bell's Two Hearted Ale. He and his wife figured it was their last chance to get out before hunkering down for days. The center of the hurricane was predicted to barrel through the city sometime today.
“We were boarded up, watching TV and I said: 'Let's go see some humans because we're going to be stuck inside for the next 48 hours,' ” he said. “You always know the Barbary is going to be open.”
The bar has initials carved into the wood and name plates bearing regulars' names, such as the ones that read, “Jim Clark RIP” or “Boney Tony.” The jukebox playing the Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band and Steve Miller Band, was loud enough to make people forget about the trees swaying outside. Several people brought their dogs.
At a booth, downtown resident Steven Harrington and two of his friends chased tequila shots with Tecate beer. On the walls around them were Pabst Blue Ribbon neon signs, old circular life preservers and a surf board. Seated next to him, Michael Ussery said he'd eaten two of the chocolate cupcakes donated by the bakery across the street before it shuttered for the storm.
“No one wants to be cooped up in their house for hours,” Harrington said.
A the same booth, Kathryn Cloniger-Kirk was hopeful that goodwill among strangers hunkering down together up and down the coast – whether in hotels, shelters or the occasional dive bar – would extend past the tense hours of dangerous weather.
“It would be nice after the storm for people to remember how we got along and continue to have that compassion,” she said.
It was about then that the bar erupted into the toast to the resilience of the Port City – and to the local watering hole.
Ellsworth, the owner, said the bar is 77 years old. He's owned it for the last 11. He said he stocked up ahead of Florence and expects to sell as many as 480 Pabst Blue Ribbons before the storm departs – the bar's flagship beer.
And beer, after all, is what really powers an establishment like his – not electricity: “If we lose power, we have candles,” he said.
As two journalists walked out into the rain, a woman shouted, “Port City Strong!”