J.K.'s Pub, local mainstay, is for sale

August 03, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Englishman Mick Lye bypassed J. K.'s Pub, his usual haunt, for another local tavern that has cable television so that he could catch a World Cup soccer tournament game recently.

His pub-hopping experiment didn't last long. He couldn't force himself to stay past halftime.

"It was like drinking in an airport," said Mr. Lye, one of the regulars at J. K.'s Pub who often engages in debate with other loyal J. K.'s patrons on the merits of soccer vs. American football.

The 16-year-old Wilde Lake Village Green tavern, which Mr. Lye considers the closest thing in the region to an English pub because of its camaraderie and unpretentious atmosphere, has been put up for sale by its owners, Columbia residents John and Claire Lea.

The Leas say they no longer have the time or energy to operate J. K.'s Pub the way they have always run it.

"We set out to do this and we accomplished it very well. What you see is what we wanted," said Mr. Lea, 61, who left a position as a speech and drama professor at the University of Maryland College Park to launch the business. "This is a younger person's business."

After working full time at the pub since it opened in 1978, Mrs. Lea, 55, decided to go in a "different direction" three years ago. She earned a bachelor's degree in May in women's studies and aging from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and now works at Winter Growth, a Columbia adult day care center.

J. K.'s patrons say they hope a change in ownership won't alter the pub's friendly character.

"This is an establishment. It's like Philadelphia selling the Liberty Bell," said Joe Sherrock, a Wilde Lake resident who has been coming to J. K.'s for 13 years.

"You can come in here and meet people of all classes and distinctions," said Mr. Sherrock, 47, an avionics materials manager at Westinghouse Corp. in Linthicum. "I sit next to guys, and I don't know what they do, and they don't know what I do. And I'd die for those guys."

Stopping on the way home from work, patrons talk about and debate anything that's "important" except their own work -- sports, politics, religion, ethnicity, said Mr. Sherrock. "We all have our opinions, and everyone's respected."

Even so, Mr. Sherrock said, he wouldn't allow himself to watch a World Cup game on network television at J. K.'s while Mr. Lye was at the bar because of their continuing debate over soccer's virtues compared to more popular American sports.

But J. K.'s is not only a place for men, Mrs. Lea emphasized. The owners sought to create an atmosphere in which "women could come by themselves and feel comfortable," she said.

Mrs. Lea describes the pub more as an "outgrowth of the neighborhood" than a business: It has been the site for weddings and the beginnings of relationships; dart players from across Howard County compete there; many neighborhood parents accompanied their children there for their first legal drink when the drinking age was 18; and many college students from the community have earned tuition money through jobs at J. K.'s.

The Leas say they have 30 to 50 regulars, some with their own bar stools.

"We were 'Cheers' before they were," said Mrs. Lea, referring to the popular television show about a Boston bar. "We have our Norm, our Cliff, our Frasier. But we don't have our own Sam and Diane. Maybe if we were younger we would have been Sam and Diane."

The genesis for J. K.'s Pub came from the Leas' 1976-1977 sabbatical in England, where they found that pubs were exactly as they had envisioned -- the "living room of the neighborhood" where everyone would congregate on "equal terms," regardless of occupation or social status.

"It's a great leveler," Mr. Lye said of J. K.'s.

Eager to find a more permanent setting for the frequent bashes put on in the early days of Harper's Choice village, Mr. Lea had attempted to open a pub in that village in the early 1970s but couldn't swing a deal. After the stay in England, Mr. Lea said, he concluded that "the idea had lain fallow too long."

Mr. Lea leased space at the Wilde Lake center from the Rouse Co. and decorated J. K.'s in Burgundy, mahogany and brass, after the English pubs he had frequented.

He set a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches and appointed himself the publican, whose job it is to greet customers and lend the place a personality.

His personal stamp still pervades.

"I don't want any music in here composed after 1957," he jokes, adding that Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald are more his style than rap.

It is up to the Leas to bring forward potential buyers, said Jody Clark, a Rouse Co. vice president.

A buyer would acquire the fixtures, furniture and the unexpired lease, the Leas said.

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