Rubbing elbows at Avon Lake’s Close Quarters

Avon Lake

By Bryan Wroten

When you walk into Close Quarters Pub here in Avon Lake, you learn (at least) two things. One: Your suspicions are confirmed – it is just as small as it looks on the outside. Two: It turns out the bar is much bigger than you think.

Recently named as one of the smallest bars in the world by MSNBC’s Destination Travel, I set out to learn more about this pub I pass twice a day in my commute. On the outside, the gray exterior of what appears to be a long shack does an amazing job of hiding what is a very warm and vibrant interior.

The dance floor’s a bit small, but Sharon Kohler finds a way with bar owner Harry Schindler to Leon Redbone’s “(I Want to Be) Seduced.” Press photo - Bryan Wroten

The dance floor’s a bit small, but Sharon Kohler finds a way with bar owner Harry Schindler to Leon Redbone’s “(I Want to Be) Seduced.” Press photo - Bryan Wroten

It’s a small bar, obviously, maybe only about 750 square feet. That’s just a guess, from the city’s chief building official, Tom Carleton, as there are no plans on record for the building. There are a limited number of seats, and the stools along the outer wall serve as a waiting area to jump at recently vacated chairs at the bar. Ask about tables and (with the right crowd) you may get directed to the back of the bar. Turn left and you get the bathrooms; turn right to walk outside; and turn around to see laughing faces.

It’s easy to bump elbows at the bar, but that’ll only lead to a conversation with the patron sitting next to you, regardless of whether it’s an old friend or a new face. No one stays strangers for long at Close Quarters, which is how Harry and Carole Schindler like it.

They couldn’t believe the news about their bar making the list. Harry received the call from a reporter, but he almost blew it off. He answered a couple of questions, not taking it seriously, and even told the reporter he didn’t have any pictures of the bar (those familiar with the bar know how big a whopper that is). Still, someone from a travel bureau came by and took some pictures. Then it appeared online.

“It blew our minds,” Carole said.

The couple bought the bar in 1988 after their kids were out of high school. Carole was a teacher and Harry worked for the Social Security Administration. They met while they attended Bowling Green State University. Harry was in a fraternity with Carole’s twin brothers. Harry asked them to fix him up with their sister.

“They told me to fix myself up,” he said.

In the late 1980s, they were looking to start a mom-and-pop business, perhaps a grocery store, when they came across Close Quarters, as it was called at the time.

“We were in the right place at the right time when this was ready to be bought,” Carole said.

It was just a shell, she said, but she wanted go forward with it. Harry, who had worked as a bartender at the Golden Lilly when the two attended Bowling Green, knew running a bar was a tough job. It meant 60- to 70-hour weeks, with cleaning, maintenance and ordering and preparing food and alcohol with some long days and late nights. But they bought it anyway. Twenty-three years later, it’s become an icon of Avon Lake.

Close Quarters has gone through some changes over the decades. It began as a carryout place in the 1930s for people to drive up and pick up their beer. At the time, Harry said, it sold the most beer in Lorain County. The bar came with the small house behind it, Carole said, and years ago it used to be home to a bookie.

Another form of the bar came when it was known as the Aftermath, run by a math teacher.

“He would put a problem on a board behind the bar,” Harry said. “If you could solve the problem, he’d buy you a beer.”

Before that, it was Ted’s Place, owned by Ted and Penny Tomanek.

The Schindlers have made some changes of their own, adding restrooms at the back of the bar. It used to be if nature called, it meant patrons had to walk outside, cross the parking lot and head into the basement of the house behind the bar to use the restrooms. The women always made it. The men, however, found an alternative.

“We couldn’t save the tree,” Carole said, referring to the old oak tree they had to remove.

Close Quarters serves dinner Monday through Saturday and lunch on Friday and Saturday. They offer a full menu of sandwiches, burgers, wings and sides. Both the wings and burgers come highly recommended. Carole said they had to raise their prices recently, but if you’ve never looked at the menu before, it’d be hard to tell.

They used to serve lunch every day when it was the only place on the east end of town, but they’ve cut back.

“Within a 5-mile radius, how many pizza shops are there?” Harry asked. “They just blossomed. We had to adjust to the times.”

It was a pizza place, however, that helped them expand their sales. When the owner of Pizza Cutter closed his shop on Lear Road, he offered them his liquor license, allowing them to serve more than just beer and wine. He wanted it to go to a mom-and-pop operation, not a franchise.

Carole and Harry’s kids have helped tend bar over the years. The only non-family member working there is Tom Murphy, a professional bartender who gave Harry a hand one night when he couldn’t serve and cook at the same time.

“You gotta have an Irishman for a bar,” Harry advised.

The mom-and-pop atmosphere is part of the attraction of the bar. Friday evening, the patrons had nothing but praise for the couple.

Harry’s a sweetheart, Ethel Marsh, of Avon Lake, said. A friend introduced her to Close Quarters a few years ago,  and when her husband wanted to find a small, cozy bar to go to, she said, “I know exactly where to go.”

Her husband, Bill, enjoys the back-and-forth he has with Harry, who cooks and serves during the evening. Harry also has a habit of taking people’s pictures during the night and then posting them on the bar’s wall.

“When he takes our picture, he’ll tell me to get out of there so he’ll just have her,” Bill said.

The customers, while also providing for their livelihood, are also the entertainment for Carole and Harry. Play “(I Want to Be) Seduced” by Leon Redbone on the jukebox and they’ll flip on the disco ball from the Tropicana. More often than not, one of the women patrons will get behind the bar and dance with Harry.

Years ago, a group somehow stole one of the pelican statues from the bar. The thieves teased the Schindlers with cards and photos of the pelican, including a shot of the bird with a dancer at a strip club in Cleveland. Eventually, the couple were promised the bird back, but only if they threw a party in honor of the statue’s return.

Along with streamers and other decorations, the bar offered shots of “pelican poop,” which included, among other ingredients, Peach Schnapps and raisins. The raisins, by design, stuck to the bottom of the shot glasses.

“You had to dig them out with your finger,” Harry said.

Finally, the guest of honor arrived in a box. The man carrying the box tripped and dropped it on the ground. Carole’s face went from shock and horror to delight as the box revealed it contained a large rock. A second man came in with the real pelican.

The Schindlers couldn’t remember who was responsible for taking the pelican. Neither could any of the people I spoke to Friday night, but I do have a source working on it for me.

Another attraction is the saco de toro hanging above the bar, which some men will try to get women new to the bar to touch before telling them what it is.

“We’re the only place in town that has one of them,” Harry said proudly.

The entertainment Friday night ranged from general conversation to looking at all the strange hats women wore to the royal wedding to a game of spin the lighter and the folded paper fortune teller (all of the answers were aimed at teasing the bartender).

Walk around with a reporter’s notebook long enough and someone’s bound to think you’re taking orders for the bar. After explaining I was working on a story and taking a couple of quotes from Janice and Jim Dwyer of Westlake, who stop at the bar as part of their circle tour with their old convertible, their friend later on handed me a ripped $10 bill and, with a knowing smile, asked for a chardonnay, a Kettel One with Diet Coke and two Labatt’s Blues in bottles. After some debate within the group whether a torn up $10 actually counted twice, she handed me a $5. Why not, right? I made a quarter tip out of the deal.

Even with the hanging bull parts, pelican poop and signs that advertise showers for $1 (but it’s $2 to peek), Close Quarters is a place to which many people bring their families.

Katie Szambecki, there Friday night with her husband, Lee, said she used to come with her dad and his friends when she was younger for potstickers and Coke.

“Our dads would make us cover our eyes and said not to look at the walls in the bathroom,” she said.

The man who has come to be known as Farmer Ray (or Ray Jupina) brings about an annual attraction to the bar: deep-fried sweet corn. Farmer Ray, who works for Nagel Farms and operates the stand outside John Christ Winery on Walker Road, began bringing in sweet corn about 20 years ago. As Ray tells it, Harry started deep frying Twinkies and just about everything else he could find. They eventually settled on trying the corn. After figuring out the correct amount of time to let it fry, with numbers ranging from 35 to 45 seconds, the item has become a mainstay at the bar.

“It came out fantastic,” Ray said.

Now that they’ve owned the bar for 23 years, the Schindlers are seeing the kids of their first customers coming in for their own drinks. Wedding parties come by between the ceremony and reception, so they receive free sparkling wine and have their pictures taken by Harry.

With all the love Harry and Carole show their customers, their customers show it right back. Men take out the trash for Harry, who has had two heart attacks. Women have gone behind the bar to wash dishes for them when it gets too busy. They’ll even write down the license plate number of a drunken fellow who takes a T-shirt without paying. (The police contacted the man’s local department in Michigan, who in turn contacted his wife. She was so embarrassed by her husband, she mailed the bar a check for the shirt.)

As busy as they get, Harry and Carole make it a point to take a couple weeks off during the year. Every time they do, however, rumors circulate about them closing or selling the place.

“God, we’ve never even discussed selling,” Harry said.

They’re in their 70s now, he said, and, God willing, they’ll continue on into their 80s.

That’s good news, as I intend to come back, without my notebook, but with my wife and now 8-month-old. I received too many requests to “Bring your women” and baby to decline. The burger I ordered Friday night was one of the best I’ve had in quite a long time. Next time, I think it’s time to try the wings. It’s a small place, but I’m sure they’ll find room for three more.

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