by Elizabeth Coady
After serving up draft and bottled brews and mixed drinks for six decades, the owners of Towey’s Tavern are announcing a “last call” to the Chestnut Hill neighborhood as the old-school bar closes at 2 a.m. Oct. 29 for the final time.
Beset by changing drinking habits and the craft brew craze, the wood-paneled bar at 7829 Germantown Avenue is shuttering its doors after at least 63 years in business. The pub has been around so long that family members aren’t positive of the year it opened. Moving in to its location will be The Foodery, touting itself as “Philadelphia’s premier bottle shop.”
“This was my husband’s family legacy,’’ said Lois Towey, 73, a widow whose father-in-law Frank founded the bar in a rented space across the street from its current location at the bottom of the hill.
“This is not a decision I ever wanted to have to make,” she said. “At first you don’t feel like it’s your right, and then you realize you’re the only one [left].”
Three generations of the Towey family have operated the tavern, where patrons could play pinball, virtual golf or pool on a blue-felt-top table in the back room. With the exception of the mirrors on the walls promoting different brews, the physical space is exactly the same as when it opened, with a bar running the length of the front parlor and dark paneling on the walls.. The air is often thick with smoke as the tavern possesses a permit to allow smoking inside.
John Towey took over the bar from his father, Frank, then John’s daughter Lyn Russo took over, managing the business after he died seven years ago at the age of 70.
The bar has been an ever-present backdrop in Lyn’s life, now 51.
“We had a great big juke box,’’ she remembered. “I would be pumping quarters into the juke box and eating maraschino cherries while my parents were cleaning.”
Lyn recalled how her always-indulgent father invited her friend, a teenaged Elvis impersonator, to perform at the bar when she was about 13.
“He brought speakers and the whole shebang,’’ she said, laughing. “I don’t know how my dad put up with us.”
Russo called the closing “bittersweet’’ and the result of the drinking public’s move to craft brews.
“If people were still coming in the way they used to even five to 10 years ago, we would stick it out as long as we could,’’ she said. Closing, she added, “was a decision that made sense, but it still wasn’t an easy decision.’’
Central to the bar’s legacy is how good a man John Towey is remembered to have been. He died suddenly from a heart ailment.
“I miss him,” Lois said. “I was talking to him and then he was gone.” The couple was married 47 years. “We would have lasted even longer if he hung around.”
“Honestly, I never ever heard my dad say a bad thing about anything,’’ said Lyn, who has a twin sister, Mary Beth, and a younger brother, Kevin.
“I mean he wasn’t overly affectionate or gregarious,” she said. “He was really smart, and he was just a nice guy. Everybody there liked him.”
“He was a great guy, one of the best people I ever worked for,’’ said David Marcolina, 63, who has been working for the Toweys since 1987. He started out as a part-time bartender and ended up co-manager with Lyn, whom he refers to as his “sister from another mother.”
After his own parents died, he considered Lois and John surrogate parents. He began working at the bar after John Towey knocked on the door of the apartment Marcolina rented upstairs and asked if he was interested in a part-time gig. The bar’s closing will bring an abrupt end to his happenstance career.
“I thought I would take [the job] until I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,’’ Marcolina said, “and I guess this was it.”
That knock was fortuitous for both parties. “We are extremely lucky to have had him all that time,’’ said Lyn Russo of her managing partner. “In this business it’s hard to find someone you can trust.”
“I’ve loved my job. I never regretted coming here one day,’’ Marcolina claimed. “I always had a great rapport with everyone and I hope they had it with me.”
He’s “extremely sad’’ that the bar is closing.
“My career is coming to an end,” he said.
News of the closing has also hit hard regular David Glenn, whom the Toweys and Marcolina affectionately refer to as the bar’s “Norm,’’ after the regular on the TV sitcom “Cheers.”
”He sits in the same place basically every – right in the middle of the bar in front of the TV,’’ said Marcolina.
“How’s anybody feel about it? – nobody likes it,’’ said Glenn, drinking a Miller High Life at the bar one afternoon last week.”This is where I come to relax.”
Though sad about the tavern’s closing, he is looking forward to the blowout goodbye the family is planning for Oct.28. Food will be provided, a live band will play music, and the family hopes patrons of current and past generations pop by for the tavern’s swan song.
“It will be our last actual night of business, but I’m hoping to have a very festive party atmosphere,’’ said Lyn.
“I’ll be here until the last day,’’ said Glenn, 62, a roofer by trade. “I’m not going to miss that. There’s going to be a lot of people here I haven’t seen in a long time.’’
But nobody seems as emotional as Lois Towey who’s keenly aware that she’s closing the Towey family’s legacy. In an interview, she expressed gratitude to Marcolina for his longtime loyalty, sang the praises of a long-gone previous manager, Pat Gallagher, (“My father-in-law adored that man”) and even called back to put in kudos for the other four night bartenders, John, Frank, Eve and Megan.
“I just want to thank them for their hard work and staying with us until the end,” she said.
And both mother and daughter are especially grateful to the tavern’s neighbors in Chestnut Hill for letting them coexist peacefully.
“We are right smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood,’’ Lyn said. “We’re very aware … that people are living right next door to us and [stay] aware of that and take that into consideration. We wouldn’t have been able to survive as long as we have without them.”
The bar enabled the Toweys to provide happy and stable childhoods for Lois and John’s three children who grew up in Havertown and spent summers at their mom’s parent’s home in Sea Isle City, N.J.
“It was so much fun,’’ recalled Lyn, who has three grown children of her own. “Our kitchen there was a table big enough to feed 20 people at a time. It was great.”
Although reaching the decision to sell wasn’t easy, Lois says she’s sure that the she has the support of the Toweys who’ve gone on to the next plane.
“Once I made [the decision], I felt like I was getting a little tap on the head from those Toweys up there, saying, ‘You can do this. You’re okay.’”
Now comes what seems the easiest part for her: expressing gratitude to the community.
“A lot of good people came and went in that place,’’ she said. “Chestnut Hill and the whole area have been very good to the Towey family, and I’d just like to say thank you … very much. We’ve had some wonderful years there.