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The Interview: Michelle Hill

It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole. An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for [...]
J.R. McMillan

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It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole.

An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for the typical bartender, Hill is anything but average. She wasn’t born into the family trade, nor did she set out to up-end convention or drag a doomed bar back from the brink. She actually stumbled into a business from which most patrons stumble out.

The former debate team champion had considered a career as an attorney. But when her father bought the failing Lee’s “Ten-O-Two” lounge more than two decades ago from a retired postman, it was the young Hill who soon took over daily operations on one condition — she was going to run it her way, without exceptions or apologies.

She spent her final two years at Ohio State cramming for classes and pouring pints most of her college cohorts were barely old enough to order. Sometimes sleep just didn’t fit into the schedule. It was a punishing pace and an entirely different “bar exam” than she had anticipated.

Upon graduation, Hill cashed in her sweat equity by promoting herself from bartender to owner, buying the place from her father whose original plans for a hillbilly bar never panned out — back when Italian Village was better known for boarded-up homes than budding hipsters. Hell, even stretches of the Short North were still pretty sketchy.

“There was nothing around us, just empty buildings,” recalled Hill, a Columbus native who moved to the Short North as teenager after stints in Clintonville and Gahanna. “The first time I went into a bar was with my dad at 17. We lived right behind Short North Tavern.”

Bars then are almost unrecognizable from what they have sadly become today, with strangers slipping in and out in silence after hours of staring at their phones to avoid any inadvertent eye contact. Pop swill and blaring bass fill sterile spaces with streaming music. The only influences forging the thinnest human connection are arbitrarily important sporting events spurring the most banal verbal exchanges possible. From first downs to last calls, the neighborhood bar is almost an anachronism.

What makes St. James Tavern tick isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t. There’s no pretentious patio banter, no sports bar shtick, no endless news cycle, no free wifi. If that’s what you want, go be anonymous somewhere else. A neighborhood bar knows you by name.

Michelle Hill has the fearless approach of Sam Malone, the finishing of Diane Chambers, and the old soul of Coach all rolled together. (And with her degree in psychology, you might even get a little Frasier Crane if you’re lucky.)

“There are so few places left for conversation. People have to scream over each other. Even a lot of restaurants are like that now. Some people are uncomfortable unless there’s enough noise to keep them from talking to one another.”

The bar used to have two televisions years ago, but when one fizzled out, Hill was in no hurry to replace it. People mostly stared slack-jawed at them anyway. She recalled catching someone watching a Shake-Weight infomercial once, which only left Hill shaking her head.

“I had a bartender who used to turn up the volume on the TVs during football games and pretend she couldn’t hear me. You don’t realize how invasive they are until they’re gone. Two months later, my bartender called to tell me the other one stopped working too. I remember it because it was Halloween night, “I told him, ‘Let’s do an experiment, we’ll go to the end of the year without any television and see if anyone misses it.”

Few did, Hill didn’t, and there hasn’t been a television set at St. James since. The warm, orange hues of the tavern’s knotty pine paneling are also unmistakable, perhaps to me in particular. They’re the same wooden walls my grandfather used to line the den he’d turned into a makeshift music room, likely about the time frame one of the bar’s many predecessors did as well. I remember as a kid playing my first vinyl records on his old turntable and how the whole room seemed to resonate like one giant wooden instrument. That’s what discerning musicians and astute listeners may love most about St. James. The whole place hums, and having the most meticulously curated jukebox in Columbus only amplifies it.

“When it’s all concrete and glass—that industrial chic look … maybe it works for your bar, but not for mine. It’s all empty echoes; there’s a warmth that’s lacking. I prefer the pine.”

Televisions aren’t the only amenity Hill has subtly sabotaged. The jukebox is the one hint that the bar has changed at all in the century or so that the building has been there. It’s a digital jukebox, but barely—old enough that the company that supplied it doesn’t technically service them anymore. They even have a backup hard drive just for the St. James, recognizing that to replace it entirely with anything more modern would be impossible, if not blasphemy. From the Pixies to the Replacements, she curates the soundtrack of St. James Tavern as deliberately as the taps.

“I picked every artist, every album, and every song on that jukebox. It’s part of the personality of the bar. I’ve disabled the feature that lets you search and select songs online. No one is playing Britney Spears in my bar. Tom Waits will be there forever.”

But it’s those taps that are the tavern’s claim to fame in Columbus. St. James is the oldest craft beer bar in the city, undisputedly so. (College kids were still drinking Zima when Hill took the helm.) It’s still a service industry bar that now draws in artists, musicians, and creatives who have moved into the once abandoned area as well. But the beer selection is as exclusive as it is eclectic—and not in some poser, beer snob sort of way either.

“We don’t have the most handles. Some places have 40 or more, but 13 is enough for us,” Hill explained. “People get overwhelmed. There are even studies that show too many options make people less satisfied with their decisions. But if you give people ‘chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry,’ they’re confident in their choice. We have something for everyone.”

Taverns have historically been hotbeds for political action. The American Revolution was practically organized in one. St. James is no exception. It’s as much a part of the bar’s personality as the pine walls and Hill herself. Where some business owners shy away and stay on the sidelines, Hill embraces causes close to her heart and those of her clientele. From serious to snarky, the bar has become a platform for social change. (In fact, if you’re still looking for a new calendar of not-quite-nude dudes, proceeds from the annual “Men of St. James” help Women Have Options ensure abortion access.) After a career setting trends and ignoring others, St. James Tavern nearly met an untimely end this past August.

“I closed the bar up the night before, got home around 3:30, and fell asleep around 4 like always. We were supposed to have a Rhinegeist tap takeover scheduled that day as a benefit for CHOICES, to assist victims of domestic violence. We’d been planning it for months. I got up at around 10:30 to do one last blast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I wasn’t even really awake yet when my phone started blowing up with texts, ‘YOUR BAR IS ON FIRE.’”

Hill raced to St. James in time to see thick smoke pouring into the sultry summer sun. Once firefighters gave her the okay to go in and survey the damage, she wasn’t sure what she’d find.

“It was the most frightened and relieved I’ve ever felt, all within a few seconds. It looked awful, but the fire was contained to just that one storeroom. Every painting from a local artist was untouched. That’s when I started to cry.

That local love would soon be repaid. By luck alone, a couple leaving Fox in the Snow had walked into Mission Coffee that morning and asked if they were roasting because there was smoke coming up from between the buildings in the strip they share with the tavern. Fire trucks were there within minutes. If it had been 4 or 5 in the morning, firefighters said, the whole building would have been gone. Hill spent the whole day grabbing whatever she could from the fire, with coffee and water provided by her pals at Seventh Son next door. Collin Castore, one of the brewery’s owners, pulled her aside to make sure she was okay, and told her that all the local brewers were already lined up to throw a benefit for her and the St. James. It was an unexpected gesture that Hill, always on the other side of such events, was reluctant to receive. While the insurance would cover the fire, Castore persisted—”so let’s do it for your employees”—and by the following day, nearly two dozen breweries were eager to ensure the entire St. James staff would also be covered until the bar reopened. A little more than a week later, on the same afternoon as the solar eclipse, brewers who are fierce competitors on any other day came together to make sure St. James Tavern didn’t go dark as well. Craft brewers know when someone picks up a six-pack in Columbus, there’s a good chance they had it first at the St. James, and they have Michelle Hill to thank for it. So they did.

“It was emotionally exhausting because the place is a huge part of who I am. We were closed for seven weeks, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. A bar can be rebuilt, but it’s the brewers and our customers who made sure we would recover.”

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Community

A Columbus icon has announced his retirement

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The man who has been synonymous with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for decades is stepping down after 42 years of service.

Since 1978, Jungle Jack Hanna has played a pivotal role in inspiring positive change in the local and global zoo communities. His work as a wildlife ambassador and conservationist has transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium into one of the world’s best since he took on the job. Hanna will still be recognized as the zoo’s director emeritus, a title he’s held since 1992.

Hanna had this to say in a press release:

As I approach my mid-70s with more than four decades at the Columbus Zoo, I believe it is time to wind down and officially step back while CEO Tom Stalf and the Zoo’s great leadership team continue to guide the Zoo into the future. Together with many friends and partners, we’ve come a long way to make the world a better place for people and wildlife!

Jack Hanna

Hanna wore many other hats throughout his 42-year career. Those include television personality, author, and all-around pop culture icon. As he steps away from his professional role, Hanna says that he still plans to maintain a close relationship with the zoo as its “No. 1 fan.”

At 73-years old, Hanna is the father of three and grandfather of six. His retirement will be made official on Dec. 31.

The Zoo will host special events dedicated to Hanna through the remainder of the year. Those include:

  • Jack Hanna Weekend – Oct. 3 and 4
  • Jack Hanna’s Home for the Holidays – Dec. 12

The Zoo reopens to the public on Monday.

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Coronavirus

Penzone shares: what to expect with salons

Julian Foglietti

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With the closing of Hair Salons on March 18th, buzz cuts and bowl cuts have made an appearance on the heads of Ohioans, young and old. Luckily for those desperate for a do, Dewine has announced that hair salons may begin to reopen on May 15th. To guide us through the transition, I spoke with Debbie Penzone, President and CEO of Penzone Salons, about serving on the Governor's salon advisory board, dealing with the business effect of the virus, and what we can expect from hair salons moving forward. 

I understand that you served as the chair of the Governor's committee board regarding reopening salons. What did you do in that role? 

On the committee, my role was pulling from my experience as a cosmetologist and business owner to assemble a group of individuals that represent our business in Ohio. We had everyone from 10 person salons to one person barbershops. braiding salons and nail salons, to schools and three health commissioners. From there, the job was building an agenda and listening to members while consulting health professionals on how to expand upon existing sanitation guidelines.  The Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has been enforcing for years. Beyond that, it was a lot of keeping time, guiding the conversations, gathering information and reporting it.  We also wanted to build plans if something did happen in a salon, and make sure that everyone could abide by these practices so we can remain safe and open.

In what ways has the virus caused you to rethink the way salons will function moving forward?

One of the things we did was go through a COVID specific certification process with Barbicide, which produces a lot of the sanitation products already used in salons and barber shops. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Ohio Administrative Code, there are very specific sanitation guidelines that you have to follow when you get your license, and there is a major component of constantly learning new sanitation practices all the time. The main difference you’ll see is us taking that sanitation to the next level: social distancing between booths, or barriers put in place, as well as reduced capacities in many salons. There will be more emphasis on reducing contact points and sanitizing things like doorknobs and counters as well. The biggest change will be the way we interact with our clients. We're a very emotional industry. We’re huggers, and we’re very close with the people we work with. Our clients are like family to us, so having to distance ourselves and not engage in that way will be different. 

What has been the greatest challenge to overcome over the past months? 

It’s really been adapting to the constant change we're all facing. We might spend all this energy sharing with our team new knowledge, but the next week it will change again. It’s been difficult to coordinate and continue to train everyone and update them with the new practices, as well as provide support for them while we're all distanced from each other. We're all scared right now, and it’s important to not lose our community so we can give each other confidence in the direction we’re heading in.

What have you witnessed over the past few months that gave you hope?

The biggest hope for me was serving on this committee. I’ve always felt so strong about our industry, so bringing so many people together and supporting one another during this difficult time. This whole thing has really brought us together as an industry, and shown that we can work together to support each other and raise each other up. There's enough clients for everybody, and it’s beautiful to see the incredible diversity of salons and see us all coming together to work with one another.

Are you worried about customers returning?

We’ve opened our booking today, but were not opening on the 15th, because we want to have a few days to go over the new procedures with our teams before we start to bring clients in. Every salon will only be operating at 50% capacity, and then we’re extending the hours to make sure everyone has the same hours they used to, and some of them are already booked out to July.

What would you say to ease the concerns of customers?

Really that we’re regulated by the state board and have so many sanitation practices in place. We have printouts posted showing the guidelines for clients that come to the stores, and for those who are high-risk, we are opening up early so they can be the first people to come in right after the salon is sanitized. What's important to remember about salons is that the regulators randomly check our spaces to make sure we're complying, and as we build on regulations, these checks are going to be taken to the next level. 

As a hairstylist, do you see any hairstyle trends emerging from this?

I definitely think there's gonna be a boom for bobs and pixie cuts, ‘cause people are just done. Maybe some bold colors, because everyone just wants to come out and say, “I’m back, baby.” Maybe just a little more attitude with the cuts people are getting.



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Coronavirus

Meet the Saviors: from doctors on the front line to PPE makers

Mitch Hooper

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While searching for Columbus’ helpers, we found that they come in many different shapes and sizes. And this month, we are telling as many of their stories as we can.

These are the stories of the saviors on the front line, working at hospitals, and assisting patients on a day-to-day basis. Or these saviors are at home and providing essential resources to these same folks on the front line. These efforts are quite literally saving lives and risking their own in the process.

Saviors: Pauline Vales, COVID-19 ICU Nurse at Riverside

It was just a little more than a week before Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would be going into social distancing orders when Pauline Vale and her husband had already begun leaving for a vacation to Texas. And when she returned home on March 10, the events preceding have been a rollercoaster ride of long days and nights, moments of sacrifice, and above all, bravery in the face of danger.

“We have to be mindful about what we need to do each time we enter a patient room because we can’t just run in and out when we need something. It’s harder to connect with our patients because they can’t see our faces, we can’t hold their hands without gloves on, and it’s harder for them to hear us talking through a mask,” Vales explained. “It seems like there is something new every single day, so we have had to adapt and evolve many times over in the last weeks. And there is just more stress and worry in general, but my unit has really come together as a team and done so many amazing things.”

The challenges are seemingly endless for nurses in the ICU like Vales. She said beyond medical professionals having limited contact with patience, hospitals are not allowing visitors unless it's a life situation or fits a different protocol.

There’s also the battle of resources; now more than ever, folks on the front line need protection like gloves and N95 face masks. Luckily, that call is being heard by larger corporations who can do something, such as Battelle. Battelle now works with hospitals, including Riverside, to decontaminate face masks for these front line workers.  And coincidentally, Vale’s husband works as a virologist at Battelle while she was also a former microbiologist for Battelle.

“I have been able to share my knowledge about virus research and testing with my co-workers at the hospital. It has been very helpful to understand the challenges in developing reliable testing and treatments,” she said. “When we first realized that PPE supplies were a real concern, we were worried about how we would be able to protect ourselves and still care for our patients. The relief of having enough PPE available was really palpable on the unit.”

Vales also faces challenges in her personal life. As a mother to a six-year-old boy, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely changed his day-to-day without much preparation. Like most young children, social distancing is stopping him from going out and playing like he normally would.

“It’s difficult to convey the situation without scaring him,” she said.

But still, Vales and the rest of the team at Riverside continue to fight on the front line, day-in and day-out. And through all the adversity and tough times, she is still taking a moment to recognize the silver lining on these cloudy days.

“The outpouring of support for health care workers has been amazing and people have been so generous to our unit. We have gotten sweet treats, thank you cards, coffee, and so many encouraging words, which has been very much appreciated,” she said. “Different departments in the hospital have been doing kind things for each other, and our food service staff have been a huge support. I have seen many kind acts across Columbus as well. Food drives, to organizing financial help for families in need, to the support of local businesses. It has been great to see so many people doing what they can to help others.”

***

Saviors: Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP

Sometimes the battle against COVID-19 in Columbus means taking your talents elsewhere; and that’s what Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP, is doing. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with is that I’ve been applying and registering to help New York City for multiple weeks,” Ulmer said. “But extensive red tape has prevented me from being where the healthcare workers are truly overwhelmed and need us the most.”

Ulmer specializes in emergency medicine here in Central Ohio. As someone who has worked on the front lines here, he’s been reminded of the importance physicians like himself can have—especially during an international pandemic. And all the extra steps medical workers have made to further protect their families, he said the outbreak has been eye-opening within his own life.

“I will never take for granted the impact and importance of being present for our families when we are home,” he said.

But, while there have been many struggles, he’s found the silver lining in moments like this.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen is that so many people appreciate the entire medical staff, not just us as physicians. There is an incredible workforce that collectively cares for patients. I am so glad they are being recognized and appreciated for the heroes that they are.”

***

Saviors: Kim and Kallie Mallett, Mask Makers

Life was normal for Kim and Kallie Mallett just a few months ago. While Kim worked at Burn Boot Camp, Kallie was busy as an American Sign Language interpreter. And then in a flash, as it has been for most of us, life was far from normal.

Gyms were one of the first of businesses to close due to COVID-19 so Kim was out of work. And Kallie was also temporarily laid off from her position. Though the financial losses have been tough to manage, the biggest thing the two said they miss is getting to interact with and help all the people they meet through their jobs. So it makes sense that the two found a way, even through social distancing and shelter-in-place, to help by making face masks.

“I have been sewing off and on for years so when an EMT friend expressed a need for homemade masks as a way to extend the life of hers and her fire stations N95 masks, we felt called to help,” Kim said. “We quickly realized how significant the shortage of PPE was across all essential workers and just kept going. In the three weeks we’ve been making masks, we have completed almost 700.”

Through mask making, they’ve been able to raise more than $900 in donations—$700 of which will be donated to the Mid Ohio Food Bank and the rest will be used to purchase more fabrics to make more masks.

“It’s been amazing to see Ohio come together and lend a helping hand to their neighbors—from six feet away, of course,” Kim said.

“I’m further reminded of how interconnected we all are and how we need to continue to rely on each other because we truly are all in this together.”

And of course, they’ve learned lessons along the way.

“I’ve learned to take it slowly and one day at a time,” Kalie said “I will be more appreciative of time with friends, the ability to workout with my gym family—really, just normal life in general.”

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