Upper Deck Tavern's owner on fostering artists, a changing city, and creating a "safe nest" of a bar

"When you come to the Upper Deck people are looking into you instead of only at you"

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It's been four days since we broke the news that, due to a lost lease, Upper Deck is shuttering at the end of the month. In that time the floodgates of grief have flung open and years of patrons have taken to the internet to mourn and pay their respects. There have been a lot of "NOOOOOO!" posts as well as more than one "Why did you have to report this?"
And we get it. It's shitty news. Upper Deck Tavern was our own favorite misfit island too and we can't help but feel like the closure of the dive bar is a harbinger of Charleston's Anytown, USA doom.

That said, the doors haven't closed yet and all of the details behind the closure still aren't entirely clear.

Josif Tsveer, the owner of the building (and also the owner of Peter & Sons Shoe Repair), told us that he doesn't manage the building's tenants, rather Gilroy's owner Brian Wolter handles that. Wolter, whose pizza joint sits street level below UDT, has the master lease on the building and leased Upper Deck to owner Ken Newman. When reached by phone today, Wolter said he couldn't share more details on the end of UDT's lease right now, but added, "There is more to the story." Wolter did assure fans, however, that Gilroy's isn't going anywhere and that people shouldn't be concerned about a new high-end store going in to 353 King St.



"That's not the case," Wolter says.

What is the case? Well, in less than two weeks, UDT will be gone and with that in mind, Newman sat down with City Paper to reflect on his bar's legacy. One hour transcription later, we've distilled the conversation into 16 Newmanisms on everything from fostering community to serving PBR in baby bottles to mark UDT's 16 years.

On refusing to use the word bartender:
I never had any use for the word bartender. All of your friends behind the bar I call producers because they have carte blanche to take care of their nights, friends, customers, and the people who I give this title and responsibility are as good as it is I am. They make friends, give you a safe place, spend time listening to your lives and sharing theirs. In some cases grow older together. I don't say grow old, grow older together.

On the best moments as a bar owner:
The proudest moments I've had are when people celebrate anniversaries or I'm invited to the hospital to be the first one to hold the baby or when people recognize that that's a cause Ken will support.

On celebrating Obama's inauguration at UDT:
When people chose to be [at UDT] there for a change in our in our country's government, it wasn't just to a spirit or race or drink, it was because it was to cement more with each other and we hope that that group that we were with that night was going to seize a piece of peaceful history, a very peaceful history and hopeful history.

On the Charleston of yore:
My experience in Charleston is that when I arrived Charleston was going through a wilder time. There was the Treehouse, AC's, Big John's, Myskyn's, Capone's, Red Tomatoes, the ones I knew the best, we were wilder then, but we were trying to also figure out what kind of future we'd like to have.

On how Charleston has changed:
What I think has changed in Charleston is that Charleston has become more protestant, but the people that I'm in contact with have became more proletariat.

On watching his patrons grow up:

We had very few artists or people who could stand out in a crowd as artists. And we had enough people who were trying to be rock and roll musicians but not that many musicians and artists or singers and songwriters and so look at the creativity that's come with the galleries the culture of Charleston School of Art, the theater, the smaller theaters.

When I opened up my business, my first business [Horse & Cart Cafe], mothers and fathers used to just drop their kids off in my care like a babysitter downtown. Mt. Pleasant kids would get dropped off and the other kids in Charleston would hang out. It kind of cemented a young future for us from the people who wanted to get involved or express themselves and I showed them with a poetry night and a drum circle and an Irish jam and music on Thursday Friday and Saturday and karaoke that there was a punk rock Sundays, that there was a day for everybody and enough room for anybody's agenda to stop, look, and listen to the expressions.

Come as you are. R.I.P. #UDT

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On Charleston's development:
We're too interested in becoming gentrification symbolized by sidewalk for sidewalk cafes. We don't want to give up the cars to make that happen. We don't want to become pedestrian to become more life like.

On UDT's epic bathroom grafitti:
Twice I've gone in and put polyurethane over the women's bathroom doors and walls so it doesn't go away. It has more than three layers on the doors. Once it gets to a certain patina, it's not marked up anymore, it's decorated. It's filled with a kind of a life.

On UDT's grime:
It's amazing what you can live with.

On UDT being a safe nest:
A safe nest, that's exactly what it's supposed to be. we never ask anybody to drink. We ask them what they want. If they only want water for today, or the next month, that's OK too. What do you got to say that's interesting? Do you want to play a game with me? Do you want to be a little outrageous? Do you want to discuss politics? What's your favorite team? What do you think about today's news?

On the loss of UDT for its patrons:
They'll be happy when I open something else up downtown. I would like to, you know what the rents are now and how longer possible that impossible that is. I need to get lucky.

So you're not retiring?
I'm not retiring until I'm 80. That's Feb. 12, 2029.

On what to expect from the final days of UDT:
From now on everything is going to be final and big. We've had everything up there from kiddie pools to lesbian speed dating. We're ready to break ground with something else. Gotta be creative. one of my favorites was the MUSC Children's Center benefit. Andrew went out and got baby bottles and you could buy your baby bottle and fill it up with beer as many times as you want. Baby bottle had PBR labels. It was a good cause and we had fun.

On becoming visible at UDT:
I think we're invisible. In the worst cases you're invisible to the person you're passing on the street. Not the nod or the eye contact, not even an excuse me on the sidewalk to get around somebody. But Charleston has the fortune of being just the right size where we know so many people and there's a courtesy involved in that and its a real interesting, nice courtesy. We remain civil and the better thing is we can remain more of ourselves. And when you come to the Upper Deck — this is why it's a safe nest — people are looking into you instead of only at you. And showing themselves and letting you look into them instead of only at them. There's recognition.

On UDT's business plan:
When you go to the Upper Deck you feel, whew, I can leave my coat on the stool and whatever armor I have is not necessary here and whatever aura I have is not necessary here. Now who starts a business plan with that?

On continuing the UDT dream:
I don't think I've stopped dreaming. That's been key to what I've done. Sometimes I've fallen too deep asleep and neglected my businesses, family, and friends, but I'd like to continue to dream and be more of myself and let the businesses feel like that.

The Upper Deck will close its doors at the end of the month.

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