by Benjamin Lamb

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 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.”