It appears to be the end of the line for the venerable Goldfish Tavern. Longtime patrons gathered over the weekend for a potluck dinner and to bid adieu to one of the area’s oldest and most beloved watering holes. Owner Sandie Stevens shuttered her business after the last patron departed early on Thursday morning. All that is left to do is clean up and get rid of the last product on hand. “We’ll probably be drinking some beer, because I still have a license,” Stevens said earlier this week. “But I won’t be charging any money. If they want to give me a donation, that’d be fine. But I don’t want to leave them anything.” The “them” in question are building owner Carol Gore and her son, property manager John Eberhardt. Officially, the Goldfish is done. But behind the scenes the parties have been haggling over past due rent and disagreeing on the terms under which the tavern could stay open under the same iconic name.
Eberhardt said he preferred that to be the case, but he has launched tentative plans to open a new establishment at 5310 N. Pearl St. in Ruston, where the ‘Fish has stood these last eight decades. Patrons are left to wonder if their favorite pub might still be saved. “It’s been an extended family. It’s kind of like a home away from home – a ‘Cheers’ kind of deal,” said bar manager Laura Collins, also a 14-year patron who met her husband there. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen to it after this,” she said. “We just know as of Wednesday, the 31st, the bar will be closed as the Goldfish.” Stevens was awarded the Goldfish in a divorce settlement, but a lack of bar experience and her declining health often made the establishment difficult to run. “So it’s kind of left to the bartenders and the community to keep it going,” Collins said, “and finances have always been an issue. So through a lot of volunteer work from our local customers we’ve had rewiring and plumbing and all kinds of things just voluntarily done.”
Stevens said a stagnant economy and the closure of the Ruston Way Tunnel earlier this year contributed to a downturn in business. She blamed the slump and mounting personal debt for making it impossible for her to keep up with lease payments for the first time in 19 years. “I’m a basket case. I don’t know what to do,” she said earlier this week, her voice sometimes thick with emotion. “My health isn’t very well. I’ve got so much work to do, and I’m just non-functional because I’m so upset.” Eberhardt said Stevens owed three months back rent and related fees – about $3,800 – when she was served with a notice to pay or vacate last week. On Monday, Stevens said she was able to borrow $2,000 to pay part of the debt, but was unable to come up with the remainder by Tuesday’s deadline. Stevens said she found a buyer for her business, but accused Gore of raising the rent unreasonably. “There’s not going to be a settlement,” she said. “I own the name, and I own everything that’s not nailed down, which I guess isn’t a lot.”
Eberhardt said he and his mother were asking potential renters to pay $1,600 per month. “Basically, the rent hasn’t been raised, except for cost of living, for about 25 years,” he said, also mentioning a clause in the lease that required tenants to do routine maintenance. But Eberhardt said Stevens has not been evicted and that the best possible outcome would be for her to finish out the lease, which expires in 2014. “Our goal is to not have that building empty,” he said. “My mom got remarried about 12 years ago, and my stepdad passed away just last year. So she lost about $4,500 in income. Basically, she needs that income to support herself.” Eberhardt said his family would make improvements on the property and reopen under a different name in a worst-case scenario. “We’re unprepared to start a business there,” he added. “We’ve got no business plan, nothing except an empty building that we’re afraid to keep empty.”