Since opening in 2002, Joe & Jo's bar has survived several robberies, an owner's deployment to Afghanistan, and divorce. It thrived almost alone in Durham's Five Points neighborhood, an island among panhandlers and construction barrels. Remarkably quickly, it became that rare thing in any modern city: a true neighborhood bar.
Despite the strong community she and her staff built, owner JoAnne Worthington had to answer a stronger call: her family.
On Monday, Worthington sold Joe & Jo's to new owners. She's headed to Ambergris Caye in Belize. Her father owns a restaurant there, right on the beach. His health is deteriorating, so she will run it for him. Neither her brothers nor her stepmother wants to do it, she says, and her sister just had a baby last year.
"I'm the one with the experience in running a restaurant, so it just made sense that I be the one to do it," she said Monday night. "And there isn't really anything to keep me in Durham—when I sat down and thought about it—long-term."
Of course, many of the customers, people who wrote on the ladies' room chalkboard walls and posted on the bar's MySpace page, would say differently.
"I've lived in 4 different apartments since I moved to Durham, but I only had one home-away-from-home!" one wrote.
"We all will miss Joe and Jo's!" wrote another. "The true beauty of the bar was that it wasn't too upscale or too skanky. It was always just right."
Many of the accurate ways to describe Joe & Jo's sound like clichés. It felt like home. The bartenders knew your name and how you liked your burger. People went there after Durham Bulls games, but it wasn't a sports bar. Gay people went there, but it wasn't a gay bar.
"All walks of life felt comfortable at Joe & Jo's," Worthington says. "It really was a very special place."
Patrons attribute that atmosphere to the staff and Worthington herself—to the fact that they made everyone feel welcome. The other great equalizer was how Worthington treated threats to the barroom's good vibe, no matter what their source: "I didn't take any shit from anybody," she says.
The result was a bar that became an institution important far beyond just the people who ate and drank there. When Joe & Jo's opened in 2002, it replaced a charming restaurant that had a lunch crowd but couldn't get enough people to come downtown for dinner. Work was still gearing up at the massive American Tobacco Campus just across the railroad tracks. Early signs of life downtown were coming from the West Village apartment project, but the rest of the Liggett & Myers cigarette plant sat empty and for sale. Downtown Durham seemed on the verge of change—but it had been there before.
Joe & Jo's became the meeting place for people who wanted to see downtown become more than either a run-down core or fancy offices and condos. An art and music community built up around it, and they developed clout. In 2004, when Worthington voiced concerns about panhandling and safety issues downtown, the city manager, police chief and others came to the bar and met with 50 other downtown residents and business owners. The result: The city created a new way to quickly report panhandlers.
On a larger scale, its success proved that small bars and restaurants were viable downtown. Now, the entire Liggett & Myers plant is beginning renovations, downtown's streets and sidewalks are getting a facelift, and investors are scurrying to find properties on all sides of the area.
As downtown blossomed, Joe & Jo's remained the preferred place to meet, whether it was before a show at the Carolina Theatre, after a meeting at the courthouse, or to celebrate on election night.
Bar regular Rachelle Sorrell says she cried when she heard the news last Wednesday. "I was devastated," she says.
A lifelong Durham resident, Sorrell says it took her a while to discover Joe & Jo's, but for the past year and a half, she's there twice a week. "Sometimes, just for dinner," she adds.
"I've always told JoAnne, if you'd told me five years ago that I'd be sitting on a sidewalk in downtown Durham having a drink, I would have said you're crazy. I wouldn't have believed it," Sorrell says. "That bar has brought so many people together. There's no difference between the staff and the customers. They make you feel so welcome there."
Joe & Jo's didn't just attract drinkers or movers-and-shakers, either—the food was great. DATA bus driver Charles Alexander was there on Friday evening—which turned out to be the bar's last—eating his usual burger for lunch. "It's the best burger in town," he says. Alexander works from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., and walks every night to the bar from the DATA bus terminal on Morgan Street for a mid-shift meal. "I just hate that they're closing," he says.
Worthington feels good about what she's accomplished. She pulled out her business plan the other day and noticed that her goals hadn't changed from when she first wrote them down. She had begun booking bands to play, but that was the only change.
"I don't regret a thing with opening up Joe & Jo's," she says. But she doesn't take credit for the community-building. "My staff—who were all customers—and the customers themselves really did it."
She had considered selling once before, during her divorce from her ex-husband and co-owner Joe Fitzgibbon in 2004. So when she heard about her father's health two months ago, Worthington says she had to ask herself: "What's the most important thing in my life? And my future?" And the answer was family—family that might include partner Caleb Southern, a Durham advocate (and a 2002 Indy Citizen Award winner). Is Durham losing Southern to points south, too? "We're gonna take that one day at a time," Worthington says.
Malachy Noone, the general manager of the new establishment, confirmed rumors that it will become an Irish pub, with Irish food and an Irish atmosphere. He and his partners are considering a name to tie its location to the historic Five Points area of Manhattan's Lower East Side—an area where many Irish immigrants made their first homes in the 1800s. He's shipping in a new bar counter that he says was more than 100 years old, and 20 church pews for seating. He hopes to open the first week in January.
"We're going to change it around a little, but we're going to keep the commitment to the neighborhood and the arts and the community," he said on Monday. He realizes the challenge ahead. "I really don't know how we're going to emulate what [Worthington has] achieved," he says. "If we could retain half of what she did in Durham, that would be fantastic."
If the wall scribblers are to be believed, the community remains skeptical. "An open letter to the new owners ..." one wrote in the ladies room. "No Duke undergrads are going to come to your new Irish pub. It's too far away ... so why not keep this place like it is while you have a built-in crowd of regulars? Eh?"
Sorrell says she doesn't know where to go now to get such good fries, or that Joe & Jo's welcome.
"None of us know," she says. "That's been the big question. We feel bad that her father's sick, but we're gonna miss the hell out of her. Where else can you go that the owner comes out and gives you a big hug?"