A small metal fan sits at the end of the bar. A handful of mismatched tables and chairs fill the floor. Behind the counter sit a few relics — a Coney Island pennant hanging next to a painting of Jesus, a rusted scale, an old radio. A sticker on the cash register reads "I miss the old New York." The song playing from the speakers is called "NYC — Gone Gone." Almost too perfect.
It’s pretty simple inside Pearl’s Social and Billy Club, at the shady corner of St. Nicholas and Starr. Although the lease was signed nearly two years ago, it just opened its doors June 24th. Cardboard boxes sit piled at the back of the room and the bartender, Seth, is still putting decor in place while patrons sip some afternoon beverages. But it maintains the vibe of a timeless neighborhood hangout — it’s as if in the midst of a yard sale, the owners decided to sit down, invite over a few friends and just let the summer night roll in. And that’s just what owner Betsy Maher had in mind.
"I love this neighborhood," said Maher, who has bartended all over the city. "It feels like family and community to me. So the whole theme of the bar is family. It just sort of evolved on its own." The family theme extends through more than just aesthetics: the bar was opened thanks in part to her father, who left her some stock which she cashed in when the market began to crash.
The bar is named after Maher’s great-grandmother, Pearl. The story goes that Pearl would often give work to homeless men in exchange for a day’s wage. The "billy club" part of the name comes from the club Pearl kept handy, just in case any of the day-workers turned violent.
The bar’s former life was as a dank bodega, with a cage in the basement. "It was for people," Maher speculated. "I’m not sure what it was for, but my office is there now and I try not to get freaked out. So I’ll be down there burning sage."
A lot of work went into making the bar what it is now. Maher and her aunt did a lot of the restoration, pulling up four inches of flooring before getting to the original hardwood, taking down the tin ceilings, knocking down walls and getting the space business-ready.
This was thanks in no small part to friends and well-wishers. After a call to arms on Facebook asking people to come by to help, about 50 or 60 people showed up.
Much like the name and theme of the bar, the decor comes from a very personal place for Maher: her own home.
"You should have seen us, all frantic on opening day, because there was nothing on the walls," she said. "I just took everything from my apartment."
Pearl’s has a full bar, a half-dozen beers on tap, and the ability to concoct any serious cocktail you can name. Maher will soon nail down a solid drink menu — and to soften the somewhat brutal image of the bar’s namesake, donate proceeds from the fancier cocktails to an as-yet-undecided local homeless shelter.