Weathering `The Perfect Storm'

Sun Journal

Bar: The Crow's Nest has long been a gritty, no-frills fixture in the fishing town of Gloucester -- and it intends to stay that way despite hordes of tourists.

January 06, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Here at the Crow's Nest, they are missing a golden opportunity to become a tourist attraction. That doesn't seem to bother them much.

A national spotlight has been on this Main Street bar ever since "The Perfect Storm," a best-selling book set in Gloucester, hit shelves in 1997. Throngs of vacationers arrive and head straight for the visitors center to ask where they can find the Crow's Nest.

But the Crow's Nest never really wanted to be "found." And it hasn't done much to capitalize on this wave of interest.

This is a no-frills kind of place, a local watering hole in its most primitive and sacred form. No tropical drink specials. No super-nacho appetizers. Regulars, many of them fishermen, call the place a second home (some rent rooms upstairs). Folks play pool and darts and drink bottles of Budweiser under the giant lamp shaped like a bottle of Budweiser.

Everybody knows everyone.

"It's a dying type of thing, the real family type of bar," says owner Gregg Sousa. "People here are like extended family."

The tourists who now stop by fall into two camps. Many peek in the tinted windows of the place, but are unimpressed by its ordinariness, queasy about interrupting the regulars' conversation or scared of ordering an "un-Gloucester" kind of drink. They simply walk away, perhaps snapping a photo outside, and head across the street to go on a whale-watching excursion. (Whenever this happens, Crow's Nest staff joke that they really don't bite.)

Other tourists stroll in, confidently order a beer, chat, ask questions about the fishing industry, and ask about the book. These strangers are perfectly welcome here, but nobody's putting out a welcome mat.

Maybe it's that the book, written by Sebastian Junger, hit folks here way too close to home, and to make money off interest in it would be sacrilege. The book is the true story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing vessel struck by a whopper 1991 storm in the Atlantic. The crew perished, and almost everyone at the Crow's Nest were either their friends or family.

Even though it is accepted here that fishing can be a dangerous business -- an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 fishermen who have left from Gloucester harbor since 1623 have died at sea -- eight years have done little healing.

"Why would we change anything?" asks bartender Tomi Faye Sousa, the owner's cousin. "It's not gonna bring the boys back."

Or maybe Gregg Sousa wanted to take a stand against temptation. He has been to the Bull and Finch Pub in Boston, whose entrance was used in each episode of the sitcom "Cheers." He has seen the souvenirs they sell and all the posters of the characters. The Crow's Nest, he says, wasn't about to go there.

Sousa has turned away consultants who plopped their business cards on the bar and offered to market the place and help it go big-time.

"It's tough," says Sousa, whose father opened the bar in 1978. "You want to make some extra money. But some people said, make it like Cheers. I say no, no, no. As long as I'm here, it will never be that."

Walk into the Crow's Nest -- it is dark, stale and smoky at any hour -- and you can probably grab a stool next to 72-year-old Wally Tallaksen. He is, perhaps, the most regular of the regulars.

("If you go in there and don't see Wally," says the owner, "you get worried.")

Tallaksen lives at the Crow's Nest -- actually, in one of the rooms upstairs. The phone behind the bar is where you reach him when you need him.

An effervescent man -- and the closest thing the bar has to a welcome wagon -- Tallaksen fished for 30 years. He explains soberly that he emptied the Atlantic Ocean of all its swordfish and then retired. He looks like a fisherman, with rough skin and a worn complexion and, after the book came out and the media descended here, television cameras were drawn to him.

Tallaksen says that since he became so famous he has enjoyed answering questions from strangers about the fishing industry, but that some have entertained him. One asked how big waves are out at sea. ("I really can't measure them," was his response.)

Another question, Tallaksen says, he took quite seriously. A reporter asked what it would be like to die on the ocean.

"I wouldn't mind dying at sea," Tallaksen says, recalling his response, which was likely made while sipping a gin and tonic, if it was a normal day.

"I've been a fisherman all my life and if I died at sea it would be fitting."

Sousa, the owner, says he has seen just a tad more profit since the book, a lot of it from T-shirt sales. Things became crazy only this fall when filming began across the street on a movie based on the book. George Clooney, who stars, stopped by the bar occasionally and folks camped out to see him.

"I knew it would be busy," he says. "But I didn't know it would get like that. I was standing at the door fighting off 17-year-old girls."

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