The Tavern closes; building's fate to be determined

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During his 30 years as owner and manager of The Tavern, Shelly Gordon served three types of people at his lodge-style, UVA-bedazzled diner: students, tourists, and townspeople. Last week, when I stopped in for my final Tavern breakfast—pecan pancakes, salty bacon, a gallon of coffee—Gordon’s crowd seemed largely unchanged.

I ran into a C-VILLE photographer and asked if he was on assignment, only to hear that he came because the joint was closing. A classmate I hadn’t seen in six years told me she’d moved back to Charlottesville for graduate school, and used to eat at The Tavern as an undergrad. “I used to come in here hungover,” she said.

At The Tavern, managed by Shelly Gordon (pictured) for more than 30 years, “each booth was an intensely private space,” said a UVA alum.

“Each booth was an intensely private space,” wrote an old UVA friend who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. “The huge public university disappeared when you slipped in, and conversations became strangely conspiratorial.”

This week, however, one of the city’s biggest small spaces closes its doors for good. A sign posted on the door thanked customers for their support, and noted the December 24 closing date. “Miss Clarabelle [sic] Wheeler says it’s time to close,” read the sign, in reference to The Tavern’s landlord. “Bye bye, Miss American Pie. This will be the day that we die.”

Contrary to the sign, both Tavern and Gordon seemed lively. During my breakfast, an aproned Gordon moved swiftly through the restaurant, greeted diners and sent students off. “One more week,” he told the morning delivery man.

Gordon’s family came to Charlottesville in 1947. His father had worked at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, and his mother wanted to live near a university. Five years after the Gordons came to Charlottesville, Harry and Mary Wheeler built the Meadowbrook Shopping Center, which hosts many of the same businesses it attracted decades ago—Anderson’s Carriage Food House and Meadowbrook Pharmacy among them. The Tavern was built in 1954, according to Dr. Clara Belle Wheeler, the landlord named in Gordon’s sign.

In 2002, C-VILLE Weekly published a feature about civil suits between Wheeler’s Meadowbrook Shopping Center LLC and several tenants, including Meadowbrook Hardware and Carriage House owners Edwin and Jean Anderson. At the time, Meadowbrook sought to terminate the Andersons’ lease. In the story, several Meadowbrook tenants mentioned that their rent had been raised beyond their capabilities. In June 2010, a civil suit regarding “common area maintenance” fees sent Wheeler and the Andersons back to court for more than a year before it was resolved.

Gordon told C-VILLE that his rent had increased for each of the last five years. He also said that, a few months ago, he met with Wheeler to discuss his lease and was offered an extension, but didn’t accept. “I thought it was an insult,” he said.

Wheeler and Gordon do not necessarily share perspectives on the rent increases, although both agreed that Gordon turned down a short-term lease extension. Where Gordon has tradition and nostalgia on his side, Wheeler has the building’s location, in a prominent business corridor near UVA’s entrance, and practical considerations about the structure itself to consider.

“The building was built in 1954, and there are things that need to be massively overhauled,” said Wheeler.

“There are people looking at it. There are other restaurateurs looking at it,” she added. What remains unresolved at the moment is whether the building should be rehabilitated, or demolished and rebuilt—a matter that might depend on the building’s next tenant.
The building’s location also has some wondering, as they did in 2002, whether Wheeler might partner in a sale with a neighboring landlord: Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw.

Parcels occupied by ALC Copies and AAMCO Transmissions & Auto Service, which sit on either side of Wheeler’s holdings, belong to Capshaw. Should a buyer wish to purchase the southeast corner of Emmet Street and Barracks Road, Capshaw and Wheeler would both need to negotiate sales. Wheeler told C-VILLE that she would like to see a locally owned business in the center.

Meanwhile, ALC Copies owner Shane Thomas said Capshaw has been “the best landlord anybody could ever imagine.”

“There’s always been something that was going to go on here,” said Thomas. “We came here with the understanding that if something was going to happen here, we would graciously bow out. And he has the same understanding.”

So, what do we do when nostalgia and business butt heads? In the best scenario, we eat with our neighbors and try to sort things out, because a city like Charlottesville needs both fond memories and healthy bottom lines.

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