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The bar at 380 Warren St. is small enough that they have to move the pool table to make room for the band. And if you’re on your way to the bathroom, you might just brush shoulders with the lead singer. So last week, when Andrea Walker rose to greet a packed house, the audience was close enough to touch.
"Welcome to Sonny Walker’s. I just want to welcome you for one of the final Friday night shows. We've been here 38 years and it's time."
The Walker family has run bars in this neighborhood for half a century. When Arthur "Sonny" Walker and his partner bought the now-closed M&M Tavern in Grove Hall in 1969, there were hardly any black-owned drinking establishments in the city. Later, they bought a second bar on Warren Street in 1980, which Andrea and her brother Gerry later renamed in their father's honor: Sonny Walker's. But now, the family is getting ready to shut down the business on April 1.
Andrea Walker wanted to explain the decision to last Friday night's crowd: "It's not cause we have to. It's not cause we were forced out — nothing like that at all. Everybody gets to retire, so that's what we've decided to do."
Now, with the closing day approaching, they wanted to honor his legacy with a party. Or rather, with two weeks of parties. It's their way of thanking the community that has made this place a Roxbury institution.
She passed the mic off to local soul singer Leon Beal. Like a lot of people there that night, Beal grew up in the neighborhood, and as long as he could remember, there was a bar on the spot.
"Sonny Walker's is one of the last of a dying breed, and unfortunately, we're gonna suffer now that it's leaving," says Beal. "But I understand she has to live her life."
Gillian van Delft sat at the bar with a friend. The two women shared the feeling that all the neighborhood spots are closing.
"Sometimes you just wanna hang out after work and have a couple of drinks. I feel like this is one of the last ones around. Especially in the black community, this is about it. I don't know what's left after this."
What's left? That's a question that Andrea Walker can't help but think about. As much as she is ready to step away from the business, she knows that she's leaving behind a void that may be impossible to fill.
Particularly because she sold the bar's liquor license to a chain restaurant opening in the Back Bay, rather than to another neighborhood spot.
"So the problem is, because we’re the last bastion, and a lot of the other licenses have been sold as mine has, you can’t replace them because the market value of the license doesn’t financially allow people to come in and recoup the money," she said. "So that was part of my dilemma of closing too."
That dilemma was made even more difficult by the fact that for Walker, her employees and customers make up a kind of extended family. Lem Taylor, who used to tend bar at Sonny Walker's, is a perfect example of that.
"I always liked to call it ‘one of Roxbury’s best kept secrets,’ " Taylor said. "It wasn’t that it was a secret, but it was just ours."
Now he’s just one of the customers, but he says Andrea Walker told him to keep his keys.
"When she’s late opening up, my favorite line is 'I call her up and I say, "What time is this joint opening?” And she says, "You got keys, open it up!” ' You know, how many places would do that?"
It seems like every person who wandered by was an old friend. And inevitably, the conversation turned to Sonny Walker's and what this place means.
Taylor spoke with another regular, Greg Simpson, who was trying to imagine what it’ll be like when the bar shuts down.
“Man I don’t know. I really don’t hang out no where else, man, you know what I’m saying? I’m 54 years old and I don’t go to clubs no more," he said. "This is like my little rest haven. So I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’ll figure it out as I go along.”
Both men were silent for a moment, as conversations continued around them.
"It will never be replaced," Taylor said. "There may be another place here, but it will never be replaced."
This article was originally published on March 30, 2018.
This segment aired on March 30, 2018.
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