Michelle Hill and St. James Tavern will (hopefully) see you next summer

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
St. James Tavern owner Michelle Hill

On Saturday, March 14, St. James Tavern owner Michelle Hill filled in for a sick employee, working a rare night shift. At the time, it hadn’t registered on Hill that it was the weekend leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, so she was initially caught off-guard when the Italian Village bar started filling with unfamiliar, green-clad patrons. This despite early public warnings that the coronavirus had become a growing threat in the city.

“It was sometime after 11 [p.m.] when the door opened up and tons of people, not regulars, started rolling in with all their green crap on … and it was like, ‘Oh, no. Not this nightmare,’” Hill said, and laughed. “I hadn’t worked a St. Paddy’s in forever on purpose, right? But they didn’t seem to care and they were really being rude, and that’s when I had the realization that I couldn’t stay open, that no one was going to listen, no one was going to social distance. We didn’t know what was going to happen [with the virus], but I just knew it would be a disaster. And that’s when I decided to close.”

The beloved local dive hasn’t opened its doors since, remaining closed as Gov. Mike DeWine issued his initial statewide stay-at-home order on March 22, through a summer when numerous businesses expanded carry-out services and outdoor dining, and into a fall and winter during which COVID-19 caseloads have spiked dramatically. 

At times, particularly in the summer, Hill considered what a limited reopening could look like. Perhaps the tavern could severely limit the number of patrons? Or host private, small group parties? But each time an idea arose, Hill would survey the space and opt against inviting anyone back inside. 

“Once more information started to come out about [COVID-19] and how it’s spread, there was just no reason for me to have anybody inside that space,” said Hill, who initially paid her employees for three weeks following the closure, after which she starteda GoFundMe campaign, raising $5,000 which she then distributed to staffers. “[The bar] is tiny, so even if I did limit people and social distance, it’s going to kill the vibe and no one is going to want to be there. I don’t sell food, so there’s no reason to be open, since I don’t offer anything ‘essential.’ And then even if I did try it, and I spaced the place out, I could only bring in like 10 or 12 people and I’m not going to make any money. Why would I risk the community’s health, my staff’s health, my health to maybe break even or make a few bucks? Anyway I looked at it, it didn’t make sense.”

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Financially, Hill was helped by a number of factors. She owns the building that houses St. James and paid it off a decade ago, so when the coronavirus hit she was fortunate to have no debt. She also applied for and received a PPP loan, in addition to grant money, which, combined with existing savings, should allow Hill to keep the bar closed well into next year. Ideally, Hill said, she would like to open in the summer, pending lower case numbers and the promise offered by current vaccines, which are rapidly approaching approval. Worst case, she said, she could stay closed into the fall of 2021 before finances become unsustainable.

In the early weeks following the bar’s closure, Hill spent most of her time focused on her employees, making sure they were all OK. After that, she spent months wrestling with big picture finances, describing the anxieties that settled in as she realized the shutdown could stretch into 2021. 

“Mentally, it was a rollercoaster: panic, sadness, fear,” said Hill. “But by August, once I realized the bar was funded, I started to look at it a little differently, like, 'It’s not the end of the world. You’re just not in business.'”

Forced to take time off from an occupation that had consumed roughly half of her life, Hill started to focus more intently on her own wellness (prior to COVID, the longest stretch Hill spent away from the daily grind of business consisted of the two months following a 2017 fire). She started sleeping more regular hours, taking long walks along the Scioto River and practicing yoga, in addition to preparing healthy, homemade meals. Hill also embraced the time to reconnect with old friends with whom she had lost touch, which she described as a silver lining in what has been, in many ways, a lost year.

“When you feel powerless with your business, you have to do something to stay positive, so I started focusing on taking care of myself,” Hill said. “I talked to an old friend, someone who has known me since the bar opened [24 years ago], and she was like, ‘I’ve thought about you a lot during this because [the bar] is a big part of who you are, but it isn’t entirely who you are.’ But, yeah, there was some separation anxiety, and some thought maybe I should try a different career now.”

Ultimately, though, Hill has decided to carry on, for now, joking that she’s “not even hireable at this point” following more than two decades in the bar business.

Regardless, Hill is approaching the prospect of reopening with a mix of excitement and fear, accepting that she’ll essentially be building the business for the second time, and doing so amid some big, still-unanswerable questions.

“I don’t know howI’m going to feel about hanging out in bars and restaurants for a while, so who knows if or when people will be ready to come back,” said Hill, who is still figuring out how St. James can adapt not only to a post-coronavirus business landscape, but also a rapidly changing Italian Village neighborhood. “I’m definitely looking at the bar where it doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but I still don’t know what that’s going to be. Maybe we’re only open five days a week and we close on Sunday and Monday. … I don’t think it’ll be something where I open the doors ... and within a month it’s like, ‘OK, everything is back to the way it was!’ I don’t think it’s ever going to be that way, which isn’t something I can fix. It’s more wait and see. I don’t have that crystal ball, even if I wish I did.”