The future of 74-year-old pool hall and dive bar Melrose Billiards was certainly a hot topic over the weekend. News broke this past Friday afternoon that current owners Jim and Jerry Chandler's lease would not be renewed, and that Austin Ray and his A. Ray Hospitality group (which owns and operates The Sutler and M.L. Rose) would be taking over the space starting in October, with plans to re-open it by the end of the year.
In an interview with The Nashville Scene, the Chandlers were clearly upset by the decision, directing much of their frustration at Joe Parkes, the name partner in development firm Parkes Company and half of the property's ownership group, who also happens to be partners with Ray in The Sutler, located right next door:
"The owner of the building is partners in the restaurant, and they’re hijacking our place," says Jim Chandler. "They’re stealing our business. We’ve been here 47 years, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The worst thing is, they could have given us six months' notice and we could have found something."
Despite Ray stating that he intends to keep the bar much the way it currently is, outside of some needed structural work, rumors still made the rounds this weekend regarding Melrose Billiards' future. So earlier today Ray looked to help set the record straight on his involvement up to this point, and what his plans are for the beloved dive bar going forward, by publishing the following open letter on The Sutler's website:
Aug 22, 2016
An Open Letter To Anyone Who Cares About Melrose Billiards:
It’s no secret that change is afoot in Melrose. My company, A.Ray Hospitality, which owns M.L.Rose and The Sutler was offered a new lease on the Melrose Billiards space beginning in October 2016, and we have accepted. I do not own the building and I did not make the decision whether to let the current tenants stay. I was presented with the opportunity to take over the space, and my decision to take it on has not been an easy one. I accepted this challenge knowing that it could otherwise go on the open market for lease.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that Melrose Billiards will close next month. That’s a bit misleading. It will close temporarily for some building updates and careful tweaking, and then reopen. As funny as I think the tiki bar rumor is, it isn’t true. It will be a gritty, well-loved, worn-in bar where you can still drink cold beer out of a plastic cup, play ping pong and pool, listen to great music, and get a decent drink (served by someone who will pay attention to you, but not wearing suspenders). We want you to walk down those stairs in a few months and still get that soothing feeling that you are “home”, leaving the surface world behind.
I don’t know what this pool hall was like when it first opened in 1942. The current operators didn’t own it then, and neither did I. I do know the place decomposed enough over some period of time to become known as a dive bar – and I like dive bars. It took 70 years of Nashville to make this place what it is today, through changes in neighbors, customers, economies, and ownership. Now it’s my charge to carry the torch forward and make sure it’s around for another 70 years. If I do it right, I won’t own it forever either.
A lot of us wish we could turn the clock back in Melrose. A little back story on the building that I think it’s important to understand - the current owner of the building bought it from someone else who, between [roughly] 2008 and 2012:
• Evicted and razed Melrose Lanes with no apparent plan to replace what was there
• Evicted the original Sutler
• Was working on a deal to put a Starbucks in where locally owned Sinema is today
• There was a deal being considered to demolish the entire building and put a major grocery store and new retail center in
In 2008, I risked everything I had to open M.L.Rose when there was almost nothing nearby, besides Melrose Billiards, but fast food places, corporate pawn shops, and other places that can truly destroy the culture of a neighborhood. The M.L. location in Sylvan Park salvaged a 1920’s era service station when it would have been more cost effective to demolish it and start over. Whether you like what we did with The Sutler or not, it was dead and gone for 8 years before we took a chance on that project. The memory of the place was all but gone. We reopened - not as the same place - but as a place that pays homage to the 30-year history there.
There are several physical factors at the Billiards space that will allow us to stay pretty close to the current vibe, which is exciting to me. I don’t expect everyone to like the finished product. When you do anything to a long-beloved dive bar it will set some people off, and I get that. I’m willing to take the hits. It’s that important to me.
I was born at Baptist Hospital, grew up about a mile from Melrose, went to Hillsboro High, and bowled with my family and friends at Melrose Lanes as a kid. Now I’m emotionally and financially invested in, like it or not, a “new Nashville” market that requires us to make money and pay higher rents to stay alive. The meteoric change in Nashville isn’t happening in the way we would all like it to. It can’t. Change comes whether we like it or not, but sometimes we get lucky enough to influence how it happens and keep some things alive that might otherwise fade away forever.
I hope to see you down those stairs in a few months and I also hope you take the rumor mill with a grain of salt. This has all happened quickly and we’re working hard to get the details right. All I ask is for a little trust from my fellow natives in the meantime.
So with that, be sure to check back for more updates as things continue to progress.