On an odd little side street in Birmingham, there was once a bar — cozy, warm and dark. Patrons of the bar remember it as the kind of place that felt like the home of a close friend. They recall how just inside the dimly lit room, owner Marty Eagle stood and greeted people for decades in his bar called Marty’s.
But as it goes, Eagle died last year from cancer on Feb. 1, 2013. For those who knew him, it seemed as if tears fell over Birmingham; he was everyone’s friend, even if they didn’t know it. Scott Ward, who tended bar at Marty’s for well over a decade, passed away in January.
Without Ward and Eagle, who were the heart and soul of the place, will the burgers taste the same? Will the drinks still be served in cheap plastic cups? Will there be live music every night? And what about the mirrors and old dingy carpet? It’s hard to say.
Now, one year after his death, Marty’s is under new management and is slated to open in the near future. In light of the recent news, it is impossible not to remember the man whose (oftentimes blunt) honesty and wry smile served as a late night beacon for people from all walks of life, from regular barflies to stressed-out students trying desperately to take the edge off with a late night whiskey.
The new management has declined to comment on when the bar will be opened, or anything about the reopening, at least until the place is officially up and running again. (One longtime patron suspected the new management’s silence might be cautionary, staving off a jinx.) Regardless, patrons can’t help but reflect on the life of the simple man whom the place is named after.
“Marty was just the kind of guy that you felt like, even if you didn’t know him at all, you felt like you could sit down and have a beer with him and just talk about anything,” Larry Kinney, a Birmingham resident and self-proclaimed “late-night warrior” said.
“I remember one time, when I didn’t even really know him, Marty just came up to our table and started talking to us like we were old friends,” Kinney said. “He was just a really nice guy. There really is no other way to put it.”
It’s hard to say what kind of impact a bar can have on a community, but judging by the overwhelming turnout of last year’s Party for Marty, a fundraiser and celebration of Eagle’s life, the dive bar’s impact was far reaching.
Even for people who weren’t drinkers, Marty’s offered some of the finest after-hours food in the city, according to Kinney. “Personally speaking, I went there for the patty melt. I mean, it’s just the best in town. Now I’m just counting down the days until I can get another one,” Kinney said.
In the narrow corridor that led to the bathroom, patrons recall a large shelf full of books — romance novels, mysteries, thrillers, even a Bible or two. These books were for patrons to pick up and read. There was an honesty policy at Marty’s: take a book, read it, return it and don’t be a jerk. Eagle had no tolerance for jerks, especially ones who didn’t return the books they borrowed.
“He didn’t ever put up with jerks,” Angela Evans, a longtime Marty’s patron, said. “If you were acting a fool, or going to sleep, you were gone. No questions asked,” Evans said.
Eagle’s establishment, which operated for nearly two decades before closing the doors after his death, will not be the same without his presence, or his books. Patrons, however, are still visibly excited to hear that Marty’s will be reopening under the same name (whether or not the books will still be there is unclear).
“He was always reading,” Tonya West, a patron of Marty’s for many years, said of Eagle, who used to book her band to play late night shows. She hopes the books are still there as reminders of him. “He would come into where I worked every week and eat brunch. He always had a book with him. I just loved that,” West said.
“I played many, many shows there. I loved it and I loved him,” West said. “He was kind and very giving, very supportive of local establishments. He was just a good guy.”
And then there was the music. More often than not, there was always live music being played there, whether it was an open mic type of thing or a local band playing to a few late-night wanderers. The music was a big part of the little place. With any luck, this will remain the same.
Evans recalled the manner in which Eagle conducted business with the musicians he booked.
“I remember something about that place that I really liked was that the musicians got paid all of the door,” Evans said. “Sometimes, since I knew him pretty well, he would pay my cover to come in. He would take five dollars out of his pocket. He didn’t want to short the musicians by letting his friends in the door. He always said that wasn’t his money to give away.”
Aside from being fair to the musicians who were such a vital part of his business, he also gave back to local establishments, Evans explained. “He was just everywhere. He was a firm believer of supporting local businesses.”
Something else that Evans said was that his honesty, albeit blunt, was one of his most endearing qualities, which was reflected in his little hole-in-the-wall bar. “He was brutally honest. I remember one time this guy came up to Marty, a scraggly looking dude, and told him about this time that Marty had loaned him 50 bucks when he was down and out like 20 years ago. I mean he was really adamant about it. And Marty just looked at the guy and said, ‘That wasn’t me. I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have loaned you money.’”
Something that parallels the honesty of the place was the simplicity, the cheap liquor and the plastic cups. The menu consisted of a burger, a patty melt or a grilled cheese. Patrons paid in cash, something that not everyone agreed with, but according to Evans, it made doing business easier for Eagle — and kept things simple.
“He operated on a cash-only basis, which I mean when you really think about it from a business standpoint, it’s a great idea,” Evans said. “He didn’t want to complicate things by having to go through credit card companies because they are just so expensive. I know a lot of people didn’t like that, but it made things so simple for the business. He even paid all the workers each night with cash so he never owed anyone any money.”
But Kinney contends that by operating on a cash-only basis, it would oftentimes alienate customers who only had plastic in their pockets. There was an ATM just inside the door at Marty’s, but not everyone wanted to use it, Kinney said.
But perhaps it was this simple fact that kept Marty’s so quaint — it weeded out the people who didn’t really want to be there, or didn’t know better. “The thing about that place is that it could be really peaceful and a calm atmosphere, or it could be loud and full of rowdy people. You just could never tell. And I loved that,” Kinney said.
Charles Patrick, a bartender at Dreamland, said that he was glad to hear that Marty’s would be opening back up soon. “I’m just glad it’s not going to be turned into a parking lot,” Patrick said. “When three o’clock in the morning hits, there aren’t that many places to go. Marty’s was the place,” Patrick explained.
“My hope is that the name carries on, because it was well deserved,” West said of her old friend. “In my life I’ve learned to never have many expectations, but my hope is that it will continue to thrive and that it carries on Marty’s name.”
No word has been said about exactly when the new Marty’s will be open, other than it is expected to be “soon,” according to the kitchen manager J.P. Hutchinson. He wouldn’t or couldn’t say anything else.