Monday, December 31, 2007

Hear Jim Guinan Sing "Danny Boy" Live

Several folks have had the foresight to record recent sessions of Irish Night. Bryan Merdler graciously edited and compiled many tracks from Nov. 29th so we all can hear them now, and forever.

I can't think of a better way to ring in 2008 than with Jim Guinan singing "Danny Boy." (After you click the link, make sure you hit "Open" to download and hear the song.)

Anyone interested in a copy of this song and other Irish Night recordings on CD can email Bryan directly at lgrthnmst(at) Discs are free; shipping is $2. Thanks goes to Bryan who says, "Being able to share these songs with people who enjoy them as much as I do is payment enough."

Bryan also took these pictures of Guinan's during the Dec. 29th session.

Meantime, another CD is being put together featuring Jim singing in a studio. Here's to a healthy and safe 2008--and don't forget to visit your chapel, wherever it may be.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ode to Guinan's: "Between the River and the Rails"

Andy Revkin is not only a star New York Times columnist with a well-received new blog called Dot Earth, he's also a Guinan's regular and songwriter with his band, Uncle Wade.

Andy and his crew wrote this tribute to Guinan's. It's called "Between the River and the Rails." As soon as there's a digital recording available, I'll post it here. Meantime, the lyrics go like this:

Sometimes when I’m so low that road-kill looks lucky,
This happens more times that you might like to hear.
There’s one destination that makes me feel better.
Down where the tide flows by just like the beer.

Between the river and the rails,
In the room behind the store,
Fireplace roaring, Guinness is pouring.
How could you ask for anything more?

Cops and stockbrokers, writers and loafers
All flock when that shamrock of neon does glow.
Toss all your worries, slow down there’s no hurry.
Come down to Guinan’s, some peace you will know.

Between the river and the rails,
In the room behind the store,
Fireplace roaring, Guinness is pouring.
How could you ask for anything more?

On the first Thursday just past the full moon,
Musicians they gather from far and from near.
Settling down for a long night of tunes,
Wild Rover and Danny Boy, jigs, airs, and reels.

Between the river and the rails,
In the room behind the store,
Fireplace roaring, Guinness is pouring.
How could you ask for anything more?

Irish Night, Dec. 27th, 2007

Last night was Irish Night -- and Jim Guinan's 82nd birthday. The joint was mobbed from early in the evening well into the night with folks spilling out of the store and onto the front porch.

A few songs were recorded from the evening; I'll try to post them when they are available. If you'd like, you can listen to a track from the November session here. (Make sure to click "Open" when asked.)

Around 10 p.m., everyone stopped the session and sang Happy Birthday. He was presented with a very cool cake that featured a photo of him from the early days at the pub.

There was a poignancy to the evening; many folks knew this might well be one of the last Irish Night (a.k.a. "Rising of the Moon) events that started several decades ago. Even after living in Garrison for six years, I still marvel every time I pull down the river landing on the first Thursday after the full moon each month and see it lined thick with cars from all over the region. So many people willing to make the trek to this tiny spot ... even on a work night.

A CD will be released soon with tracks from the musicians and Jim singing several of his best songs. I'll post a few song clips here. Meantime, here's a recording from a session two years ago. Stay tuned ...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Photo Tiles -- Last Minute Holiday Gift

If you are still looking for a last minute present (or just something cool and unique for yourself), a photographer/artist named Russ Cusick a terrific collection of signed prints and Photo Tiles -- many of them focused around Hudson River Valley haunts. (He took the one above just a few days ago.)

I own a few; and if you purchase them down at Guinan's, a portion of the proceeds go to the store. Russ will be exhibiting the tiles and images at the store over the next few days. I've got two in my house, and everyone comments on how unique and beautiful they are.

He works from his Cold Spring, N.Y. studio, In Focus Designs. While he's very busy, he occasionally does custom Photo Tile work as well.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Got Guinan's Photos? Please Share Them

Folks often email me photos of their "Guinan's Trip." I think Jim Guinan now rivals Britney Spears for most photographed celebrity, and if you've heard him belt out "Danny Boy," you know he trumps her for vocal skill.

I noticed on flickr that a few far more resourceful folks than I have been posting and tagging (think: labeling) their photos of the little chapel. Kelly Guinan's shot of the pub's old red Coca-Cola cooler is particularly lovely. And Guinan's regular Christine Ashburn took this striking violin shot at the last Irish Night.

So I added a few of my own pictures recently to flickr. And I encourage anyone who's visited Guinan's (that includes book clubs) to help complete and preserve this digital scrapbook. It's easy and free to sign up for a flickr account and only takes a few minutes to upload photos. When you are asked to "tag," please try to include some of the following phrases so they'll show up in searches by others:

little chapel
little chapel on the river
small town

Meantime, if you've been posting photos anywhere else, please let us know here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Why Is Guinan's Closing?

The better question, perhaps, is why is Guinan's still alive?

If Guinan's had followed the path of most mom and pop joints across America, when mom or pop died, the business would have soon followed. Peg Guinan died in 1988. No matter how great a man or presence Jim Guinan is, he and Peg were a team. They needed each other. The store needed both.

Yet a miraculous things in the annals of commerce happened: into the void left by a parent, stepped the children, and then the grandchildren. At first it was Jim's youngest, Christine, and her husband Mike. They upgraded fixtures, expanded inventory, doubled the store's business and gave hope. Later it was the oldest, John who sacrificed every early morning in recent years to be there for the 5 a.m. commuters, handing them umbrellas and tossing smiles and quips long before light hit the Hudson. After John got sick, came his daughter Kelly, who has put in long hours after her regular graphic design job, giving up weekends with her boyfriend and almost all personal time. Pinch hitting through the years were Kelly's brothers Sean and Casey and her uncle Jimmy wise-cracking and slinging beers when he came to town.

But above all, the backbone since her mother's death has been Jim and Peg's first daughter , Margaret. Despite a Teflon tough shell, Margaret's kindness and devotion to her family is the main reason we've had all this borrowed time. She is the why we got an extra year last January. She is the one who stepped into her mother's shoes and has kept her father healthy and in his home for so long. And she is the one who must make this final, painful decision to close the store because the time commitment is just too much.

I cannot speak for the family and of course, wish this day would never come. Perhaps some miraculous solution will appear. But I absolutely understand the Guinan children and grandchildren need and deserve their lives back. A place like this cannot run well without full-time attention. There has been so much incredible "human duct tape" of friends stepping in to help, but in the end, as I wrote in Little Chapel, "If there's not a Guinan here, well then ... yes, well then...."

It is extraordinary that three generations have stepped forward to give what they have. Rather than question why it's ending, let's spend the upcoming weeks thanking them for what we've had.

Your Chapel: Mooney's Pub, Brooklyn, N.Y.

I got an email recently from Jody Kuh, one of the riders on Braking the Cycle along with Team Guinan. (Our adventures are chronicled in the Advocate magazine.) Jody wrote to say her "local" -- Mooney's Pub in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- is poised to close like Guinan's.

"The neighborhood is definitely gentrifying but Mooney's has generally managed to negotiate the gentrification nicely - there's an incredible mix of the young and old there who all blend together and talk (much, seemingly, like Guinan's).

It really is like losing a family member. We're all a bit dazed and trying not to make it one long funeral. The good news is that they were to be out as of November 30th, but there's been a reprieve for the moment. I'm sure they will close but it's not clear when. I'll keep you posted if you'd like."

Please do. The New York Times published a nice piece recently about this Brooklyn relic, and reading it, I was struck by the similarities to Guinan's. Said one regular: “This was a very gentle place. It really was a true pub.”

Everyone in the NYC area should try to visit Mooney's soon. I know I will.

(Pictured above: Mooneys bartender Ben Carlin and regulars Mike Morgan (left) and David Sheets (middle)

Reader Letter: Cadet William B. Hoelscher III

Cadet William B. Hoelscher III (pictured left)

October 20, 2005

I am probably the last demographic you and your publishers thought they would hit when you released your book. I am a Yearling at West Point and I turn 21 on November 2nd of this year. I was at home in North Carolina this past weekend, and we celebrated my birthday when I was home. I received an autographed copy of your book as my present from my parents. My grandparents moved to Garrison in 1970 and lived in an old farmhouse on Albany Post Rd. They are now buried at St. Philip's. I spent a lot of time there when I was a young. I was very close to my grandmother, and I have many great memories of Garrison from when I was younger. My mom told me that she and my dad used to buy their New York Times in Guinan's on our many visits to Garrison and had they known that they could go there for beers they would have spent a lot more time there.

I have been an avid reader ever since I was a little kid. Your book gave me a flood of memories and emotion that I had never experienced from a book before.

It reminded me that there is still something pure, and good, and alright in this world. We look around and we see all kinds of evil around us everything from Abu Ghraib to people telling me that I am a bad person for doing what I am doing. I was 16 when September 11th happened, turned 17 in November and enlisted in the NC National Guard in December because they were the only branch of the military that would take a high school junior. Since then I went to basic training as a private, West Point Prep School and now West Point. The entirety of what little adulthood I have under my belt has been spent in uniform during a time of war.

Because I was going to West Point, I was left behind when my unit deployed to Iraq; something which has haunted me ever since. I have no regrets about joining the military and I love it Sorry for the life story, but I figured that you would be able to understand me better if you saw where I was coming from…

You captured the spirit of "home" which is something many of us have been looking for. Durham is my home, and your book brings me home.

On November 5th, because I can't get out of here for a drink until then, I will be in a car with two of my best buddies heading over to Guinan's for my "first" beer. If you are around, maybe I will see you there.

CDT William B. Hoelscher III
USCC, Co. C-2

Author Note: CDT "Brad" indeed made it to Guinan's and has been a familiar face since. He graduates this May.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Video: The Last Time Guinan's Tried To Close

Last year about this time, we all thought Guinan's nearly 50-year run had come to an end. Ads were placed in the paper announcing its closing. A final party was planned.

But a turn of fate, and generous change of heart by Margaret Guinan, Jim's eldest daughter, gave us all one more year. This lovely New York Times piece by Peter Applebome chronicles how events unfolded.

So the finale party became a celebration. Here's a video shot that night from a user named "fosterhere" an posted on YouTube. It's aptly named: "Guinan's: Not the Last Night."

Your Chapel: The Happy Hooker, Ft. Morgan, Alabama

Dear Wendy,

... Even though I live in a small town in North Alabama, technology and travel have, at times, drowned out the important parts of life--like sipping a beer at a place called Guinan's and sharing life with the characters around you.

We have a vacation home on a peninsula off the Alabama Gulf Coast known as Ft. Morgan. It has been, until now, a relatively undiscovered jewel on the Gulf Coast inhabited strictly by locals--very few tourists come through. At the tiny Ft. Morgan Marina was a bar called the Happy Hooker (double entendre intended) that became my sanctuary on my trips to the coast. Wanda and Fred (a female "Fred") tended bar and kept us "part timers" up to date on what was happening while we were gone. The locals--Cajun Dave, Crazy Jerry, Normal Jerry, Dirty Dan and Fast Eddie--lined the bar every afternoon to discuss politics, sports (southern football, of course) and the evils of real-estate development. They adopted me several years ago and now refer to me as a "semi-regular."

Sadly, the Hooker never made much money, but it sat on a prime spot overlooking Mobile Bay. As surely as the Redfish feed off of "Dixie Bar," we knew it was just a matter of time. And sure enough, the Hooker was recently sold to a developer who is going to tear it down to build condos. I tell you all of this because when I tell others how deeply saddened I am by this, they simply don't understand. They don't understand how it felt to walk into the Hooker after being home in North Alabama for two or three months and having Wanda or Fred immediately reach into the cooler and hand me a cold Heineken before they even say hello. Or to have one of the bar regulars introduce me to visitors as "one of them." Or to share the sad news of an illness that had befallen one of the locals. They were my family, too.

... I only wish I could visit Guinans. I was actually across the Hudson at West Point on a trip with my fourteen year-old son last year. Had I only known!! Maybe I will make the trip again. Who knows--maybe we could share a beer and a story. I have told my friends what you said in your "Author's Note"--"To anyone who has ever known a spot like this, a spot that makes you feel more at home sometimes than home itself.....go there if you still can. And don't wait for tomorrow. Go today." Profound words.......

Thank you for sharing your story, and that of all the regulars at Guinans. If you get a chance, tell them there is a southern fellow who lifts a glass and thinks of them often.....just like family.

Calvin Brown
Decatur, Alabama

UPDATE: As of this posting, Calvin reports: "The Happy Hooker has not closed yet. The developer who bought the property has given them a little longer to operate. Thankfully, the place is staying true to its roots and the regulars are maintaining the joint as they always have. I haven't been down to the beach in a couple of months, so I am overdue for a visit."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Your Guinan's Story...

Often I get emails from someone telling me their "Guinan's Story." People have come to visit from Arkansas, Washington state, Ohio, Oklahoma and all around the country.

Rather than have those tales gather virtual dust in my email in-box, I'll share them here.

Here are excerpts from Robert Carow of Brooklyn, N.Y. (printed with permission).

"...I took the 10:51 Saturday morning out of Grand Central to Garrison. After a wonderful trip up the river I disembarked at Garrison and THERE IT WAS!

I had a couple of Sam Adams while perched on a bar stool by the window and heard some terrific stories from John. I could see his dad back in his kitchen drying a dish.

Later I purchased a ham and cheese sandwich and sat out front of Guinan's to enjoy the view. Lou Lou sidled up to me, put [her] chin on my knee and agreed to sharae my sandwich which he ate with great enjoyment.

I caught the 2:03 and was back in home sweet Brooklyn by 4 -- with your book in hand ...

Thank you for pointing me to Garrison and Guinan's. It is all that you said ... and more ...

Very Best Wishes,

Bob Carow

Readers, what's your Guinan's story?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chapel Lesson: Separating Coffee Cup Lids

Over Thanksgiving, I stopped at a sprawling gas station convenience store on my way to Rhode Island. I was juggling snacks and my wallet while trying, with difficulty, to get lids on two cups of super hot coffee.

Problem was, all the lids were stuck together. So I was dropping everything else on the sticky floor trying to get them separated.

It reminded me of one of the first lessons John Guinan taught me about the inner workings of his family's store: "You've got to pull apart lids for the coffee cups so they aren't all stuck together because people are already juggling briefcases and umbrellas and whatever else they're lugging around so they don't have time to fumble for a lid."

When was the last time someone gave you their seat on the subway or bus? Or stopped to let you into a lane of traffic? Or another tiny gesture of courtesy that made an ordinary day just a little easier?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Book Club: Walden, N.Y.--Can You Love the Pub But Not the Booze?

The Josephine-Louise Library in Walden, N.Y. reminds me of our library here in Garrison, N.Y. -- stately, calm, technologically up-to-date, but in a quiet way that makes you still want to turn off the cellphone and unplug for a while in an armchair.

The Walden book club pictured here invited me to a meeting recently where they discussed Little Chapel on the River. At one point, a member said she was a recovering alcoholic who loved reading about Guinan's because it was a safe way to be inside a pub again.

I told her I'd once gotten an email from a writer I respect telling me she couldn't recommend Little Chapel because that would be like glorifying alcohol. (The writer is a also a recovering alcoholic.) I asked this Walden reader why she didn't feel the same way.

There is so much more to places like Guinan's than alcohol, she told me. The pints might loosen the wheels, but the real intimacy comes with seeing the same people day after day, week after week, year after year and knowing you can depend on their presence even if the rest of the world has gone silent and distant or let you down.

To me, Guinan's has always felt like a place that sometimes feels more like home than home itself; the beer was just another product sold, albeit one that had a social element to it.

What you think? Can you love pubs as much if you don't drink alcohol?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Journal-News: "Guinan family delays Garrison bar's last call"

Guinan family delays Garrison bar's last call
Barbara Livingston Nackman
784 words
1 February 2007
The Journal News (White Plains, NY)

GARRISON - It was unusual for Midge Willett, an 82-year-old retired teacher, to be in a bar downing a bottle of beer at 1 p.m.

But the Cold Spring resident who once taught first grade said she came to Guinan's, a bar and convenience store at the train station, to bid a final, sad farewell to a friendly outpost where she often bought newspapers and sometimes listened to Irish music.

After almost 48 years in business, the store was set for its last day yesterday - closing because of family illness. Instead, Guinan's rallied, and the family said this week that the cozy landmark along the Hudson would be open another year.

"I came to say goodbye. But now that it is staying it makes me happy. I felt it was worth a drink," she said, simulating a toast. With her black wool coat buttoned and her red scarf loosened, she caught a glimpse of the water and got warm from a fire in a stone fireplace.

Institutions in this river hamlet don't fade easily into the past.

Almost two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, the Garrison post office was abruptly shut down when a local woman crashed into the building. The woman, 80, told Putnam County sheriff's deputies that she mistakenly put the vehicle in drive instead of reverse and plowed into the post office for ZIP code 10564 that has been there since 1964.

Window service is suspended for at least a month while repairs take place. Customers who need service and stamps must go to Cold Spring or Peekskill in the meantime.

Owners of the 417 boxes inside can, though, get their mail there by ringing a bell.
"It is nice to see postal workers," said Caroline Kasterine of Garrison, adding that the community has unique gathering spots that carry on despite obstacles. "We are a special place in many ways. I just heard the good news about Guinan's," said the media producer who, after getting her mail, planned to get a newspaper by the train station.

At Guinan's, its 81-year-old founder who has been battling complications from diabetes for years was holding court.
He greeted a larger than usual throng of customers - some who came to say goodbye and others who had heard of its reprieve.

"I knew it wouldn't be closed down, not when I have a breath in my body, my dear," said Jim Guinan, who came to America from Ireland after a stop in England in 1958 with his wife and four children, the youngest of whom was 15 months old.

He opened the store in 1959, handing out coffee and newspapers to morning commuters and chilled libations - beer only - in the evenings. And once a month on the Thursday after a full moon, there's an Irish songfest with live musicians. His two grown children living nearby had been running the place. But his son, John, is recovering from a brain tumor ,and his daughter, Margaret, a police officer, has a tight work schedule. Guinan's grandchildren often work in the bar and a cadre of friends and customers have volunteered to help. His daughter said she would find a way to keep it going.

Gwendolyn Bounds, a Wall Street Journal columnist, made the place famous beyond its local reach with her book, "Little Chapel on the River." Following the 9/11 attacks, she came to the hamlet and was warmed by the friendliness of the community at Guinan's. She became so attached to the place that, at one point, she tended bar and helped open the store in the mornings.

"Like so many people, it really cut to the bone," she said yesterday of its closing. "I understood the family and felt an incredible depth of sadness."

She, like others, felt relief at hearing that it was not Guinan's last call and that the patriarch would still live in an apartment at the back of the store.
Garrison newcomer Charlotte Rowe was thrilled, too, that her midday sandwich stop with her daughters, Anna, 4, and Chloe, 2, wouldn't be their last.

"This is a place they can be themselves," she said of her daughters, who gobbled cheese sandwiches and leaned against old-fashioned wooden cabinets.

"Everyone is so nice and welcoming," added the pregnant woman who's due in March. "We moved here this summer and I've been waiting to deliver to finally have a beer at the bar!"

Keep 'em cold, Mr. Guinan.

Reach Barbara Livingston Nackman at or 845-228-2272.