Tom Eblen

Al’s Bar is for sale. Live music, poetry venue ‘has been such a cultural phenomenon.’

94th Holler Poets Series showing at Al’s bar

The Holler Poet Series held at Al's Bar on North Limestone held its 94th showing on Wednesday evening, which featured poets Crystal Wilkinson, owner of Wild Fig books shop, and Christopher McCurry, Accents Publishing editor.
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The Holler Poet Series held at Al's Bar on North Limestone held its 94th showing on Wednesday evening, which featured poets Crystal Wilkinson, owner of Wild Fig books shop, and Christopher McCurry, Accents Publishing editor.

Four partners who transformed rowdy Al’s Bar on North Limestone into a well-known venue for live music, poetry and local food, are putting the business up for sale.

“We are not intending to close,” said Lester Miller, who with his wife, Aumaine Mott, and business partner Paul Holbook also own Stella’s Kentucky Deli on Jefferson Street. “It’s just that we never intended to have Al’s this long.

“It’s been awesome, but we’re just over-burdened,” he added. “I want to focus more on Stella’s. We have three young kids we want to see.”

The fourth partner, Miller’s brother Josh, is now a lawyer in the public defender’s office. He and his wife, Rachel, have two small children.

Fida Noel, a native of Haiti who for the past year has operated Caribbean Café inside Al’s Bar, will soon be moving her daytime food operation to a yellow house at 109 West Sixth Street the partners own behind the bar. She will continuing to serve food in the bar at night, Miller said.

Miller said the partners prefer to sell only the Al’s Bar business, and not the building, but would consider offers for both.

They also are looking for a tenant to lease property they own next door, which has a beer garden, tap room and space where they operated another bar, Al’s Sidecar, until 2014.

Miller and Mott met through the Gaines Fellowship program at the University of Kentucky. That’s also where they met Holbrook, a Harvard-educated philosophy professor, King Library Press director and chef who bakes the pies at Stella’s.

Miller and Mott bought an old house on North Limestone and began renovating it in 2004. Their home was three doors up from Al’s Bar, which they quickly discovered was not a good neighbor.

The corner of Sixth and Limestone was then a place of violence, prostitution and drug dealing, thanks partly to Al’s Bar. Later that year, Spalding’s Bakery closed its original location there after then-owner James Spalding was robbed and beaten.

Al’s Bar went up for sale in 2007. Miller, Mott, Holbrook and silent partner Griffin VanMeter had bought Stella’s just a few months earlier, but the couple felt they also needed to buy Al’s Bar in self-defense.

“Our big reason for buying it was to clean up the corner,” Miller said. “The early times were crazy. Our first weekend we had 13 fights. We meant to just run it for a few years and close it and do something else.”

But soon the downtown block that housed The Dame, Lexington’s hottest live music venue, was demolished to make way for the long-delayed CentrePointe project, now called City Center.

Al’s Bar, which had had occasional Bluegrass shows, suddenly became a major live music venue. “We were just overrun with requests to play,” Miller said.

In 2008, poet Eric Scott Sutherland approached Miller about sponsoring a monthly poetry reading called Holler Poets. It also became a sensation, attracting a literary crowd from all over Central and Eastern Kentucky.

Other music venues have since opened around town to compete with Al’s. Holler Poets had its last monthly reading in 2016. Al’s business has been up and down ever since.

But the neighborhood’s fortunes have risen. Developer Chad Needham restored the old Spalding’s Bakery, now Arcadium bar, and the liquor store across the street, now North Lime Coffee & Donuts and artist John Lackey’s Homegrown Press studio.

“We just don’t have the time and energy to invest in making Al’s as great as it could be,” Miller said. “It has been such a cultural phenomenon in Lexington that somebody out there will want to do a great job with it, and I’d like to see that happen.”

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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