EAST LANSDOWNE — Jerry McArdle laments what has become of the neighborhood bar.
These institutions of neighborly connections fueled by beer and conversation dotted many towns, but have slowly started to disappear in the county as chain restaurants and trendy gastropubs and craft beer bars spring up around us. McArdle has seen it happening ever since he opened Jerry’s Bar, at 707 E. Baltimore Ave. in East Lansdowne, back in 1983. Where he at one time counted 10 neighborhood bars within walking distance of his own tap when he started, there are now four.
“To me, what makes a good neighborhood bar is the customer and the good interaction between people,” said McArdle Friday morning. “That is going away. It’s like a changing of the guard, bars like this are kind of going by the wayside.”
McArdle isn’t letting Jerry’s succumb to the same fate, but this week he officially signed off on plans to sell the business to a new owner. After 36 years, McArdle has decided to hang it up on the first bar he ever opened at just 21 years old. He says he never plans to retire, but running three bars, including Jerry’s, at the still young age of 57, he said he had to start slowing down.
“I never could actually pull the trigger on it,” said McArdle who had the idea floating in his head for around five years before taking action this spring. Jerry’s bartender Weycheck Mohammed and his wife, Vera Carney, bought the East Lansdowne landmark and are reportedly going to keep the status quo. “He wants to run it the same way that I do because why mess with success if you’ve been here for 36 years? Why change it because it works?”
McArdle has always been interested in the bar and liquor sales business. His parents, Frank and May McArdle, ran the snack bar and banquet hall at the Paxon Hollow Country Club for a number of years in the ‘70s when Jerry was growing up. In true Delco fashion, attorney John McCreesh helped McArdle with the transfer of his license to the new bar owners. He also helped secure the liquor license for the country club under Frank and May’s tenures. McArdle began his career in liquor sales as a clerk at a state store and by tending a local bar.
In the early ‘80s he invested $54,000 to buy a spot in East Lansdowne, but at the time it was the site of a former bar called Oakie's that had been closed for two years following a fire that damaged the premises. He resigned from his union position as a clerk with the state Liquor Control Board and took the plunge by investing in a community he did not knowing anything about.
“I was thinking about that the other day, and I guess I was just young and too dumb to worry about it,” said McArdle, looking back at his 21-year-old self. “I didn’t have a problem with business since the day this place opened.”
McArdle’s integration into the blue-collar working community of East Lansdowne ushered in a loyal clientele, though many of the people who were there from the start have since passed on. Memories of friends, old and new, line the walls of the bar, with dozens of pictures of joyous occasions, studded here and there with newspaper clippings of the patrons, armed forces and local police departments.
But the photos on the wall aren’t the only reminder of the bar’s frequent patron: A former bartender at Jerry’s, John Corbett, has his own permanent seat.
Corbett, a man well into his ‘80s, dresses in his best whenever he steps into the bar. On a warm Friday morning Corbett walked in with a small stack of newspapers folded under his cardigan sweater and button-down dress shirt, the ensemble completed with fresh dress slacks. He was ready to sit in for a few hours to catch up on the news, do the crossword puzzles, smoke his cigarettes and have a cold beer. Even on his off days he would come into the bar, a tradition that goes back well over 15 years that he's been frequenting Jerry’s.
“If I’m making money here, I might as well spend it here,” he said of his time working at Jerry’s.
The camaraderie is what McArdle loves about being a bar owner.
“That definitely is the number one thing I love about this bar and this neighborhood is the people,” he said. “It was very hard, and I don’t like to talk about it, but it was very hard for me to sell this place. I’ve been coming here almost daily for 36 years. It’s like somebody who retires from a job. But I’ve never considered this a job, never. I don’t look at what I do for a living as a job."
McArdle continued moments later, “The main thing is thank you to my customers. I’ve educated two children (J.R. and Anita) and I’ve got no complaints. I’ve never looked at this as a job or work. I enjoyed it and still do every day. Without customers you’re nothing."