They opened a bar and found a community
CALLICOON, NY — It feels good to be a regular face at Rafter’s Tavern.
The trio of proprietors, known by patrons as Brewster, Molly and Keith, made sure of that, as they created an atmosphere that was quickly embraced in an area that can be finicky with new businesses. The tavern, made cozy with a fireplace, bookshelves and a professional’s precise touch, has just turned one-year old, marked with a lively celebration this past Saturday, January 11. And after just one short year, it’s already found its way into the loving arms of locals and travelers alike.
What began as an impulse has evolved into a community of musicians interacting and supporting each other; that much was clear at Rafter’s birthday party. The celebration began at 5 p.m. and featured 25-minute sets from the tavern’s “All Stars,” the open-mic regulars; the music didn’t end until 1 a.m.
“When someone walks through the door, I have the opportunity to enhance their quality of life. I try as quickly as I can to create a bond or friendship,” said Guy Brewster Smith. That attention and attitude has made it “a very supportive atmosphere.” Whether the patrons are there to perform, listen or eat, everyone interacts “like family.”
Smith and Keith Thomson (you’ll find him behind the bar) go back 26 years, meeting at a pizza place in Manhattan. They soon became coworkers at a bar in the East Village, and eventually became roommates for five years. Enter Molly Denver (you’ll spot her constantly weaving through the place). Back when the guys shared a roof, she was the manager of a band Smith was drumming for, the Subway Darwins. She would go on to have a successful career as an architect, lending her expertise to the warm, open and comfortable design of the tavern, and get married to that drummer guy.
Despite Smith once vowing to never work at a bar again, there we were, sitting and chatting at the bar he owned with his best friend and wife.
“We’re very impulsive,” he said when asked what made him and Denver buy the old Sidetracks. They wanted to get a plan rolling that would take them from the city to their farm homestead—where they have a paddling of ducks, a brood of chickens and a rafter of turkeys (check their logo)—in Callicoon full time. They were considering a few different local businesses for sale, but after Thomson got on board, they landed at the bar. Afterwards we just kinda looked at each other like, ‘what have we done?’” said Smith.
In an area where things get tough for businesses in the winter months, the team has managed to erect a community hub for musicians and artists alike—the great burgers and brews are just a bonus. “Music was always a plan,” Molly Denver said. “But I didn’t realize we were making a music venue.”
As a lifelong musician, Smith was set on building a stage and having a creative space—a space that also features artwork from a new artist each month.
“Music and art,” Thomson said of what he loves about his job. “Callicoon in general has a lot of strong personalities. Whether it’s an artist or musician or carpenter, there’s lots of individualistic people and most of them come through here. I like a strong personality, I like creativity and people who live by their own set of rules.”
As for the weekly open mic, hosted by local gem Elizabeth Rose, the level of talent is bizarre. No one could force it to be that way—it just so happens, talented musicians gravitate to the place. “And they’re all regulars, you can see them almost every week, every Sunday. It’s impressive, I think,” Smith said. And the trio shows their appreciation in many ways, including lining the top of the wall behind the stage with photographs of many of the musical regulars—and one customer, “a guy named Bob who comes every Sunday without fail.”
Hal Galper has also made a weekly home on the Rafter’s stage; it was because of him that the stage was recently expanded, to everyone’s delight. The legendary jazz pianist and composer who has played with the likes of Chet Baker, Stan Getz and John Scofield chose Rafter’s Tavern for a residency, but he required more than an electric piano. “Specifically for Hal, [we] made it a larger stage so that a baby grand piano could fit.”
Beyond being blessed with a dedicated stream of regulars, in an area with high turnover, the tavern locked down a solid staff rather quickly. Lisa Gonsalves will take your order once you take a seat, but her role at the tavern goes beyond her serving duties. “Lisa’s been so important, she comes up with a lot of the ideas,” Denver said. Gonsalves played a big hand in introducing Galper with another local jazz musician Thurman Barker, who now plays drums in the Hal Galper Trio every Sunday.
Having music all weekend, every weekend, with no cover charge, was important to the three of them. So was being there for the community.
They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but stopped short of locking the doors on Wednesday or Thursday, Smith explained, “We’d be sending a message that we’re here for the weekenders, we’re not here for the locals. We can’t have that, we don’t want that.
“Making a place where local people wanted to go… and they would think to themselves ‘What’s happening at Rafter’s Tavern tonight?’ because they know something is. That was important.”
With the weekends packed with music and trivia night on Thursdays, that just leaves Wednesday, and they have something in the works for that: a gameshow night, hosted by Smith himself. “It’ll be interactive—people come on stage and spin a huge wheel.” And it won’t be typical prizes. “A free appetizer, and maybe it’ll be a lamp. Who knows! It should be kinda fun, kinda zaney.”
Become a regular at Rafter’s and you will quickly learn, that’s the vibe the trio share—fun and zaney. Just check out their Facebook for their homemade staff videos (and events and other information) if you’re not convinced.