BOYSTOWN — The oldest gay bar in Boystown is closing its doors for good Thursday night after 45 years in business.
Little Jim’s Tavern, 3501 N. Halsted St., is in negotiations to be sold to Howard Brown Health so the LGBTQ-affirming health center can build a new clinic that would double the capacity of its nearby center at 3245 N. Halsted St.
Often described as the gay Cheers, Little Jim’s opened in 1975 and was the first gay bar in Boystown and the second-oldest gay bar in Chicago. At the time, it had darkened windows to protect the safety of its customers, according to a Chicago Magazine feature on the tavern.
LGBTQ activist Rick Garcia said he’d visit Little Jim’s every night after moving to Chicago in the ‘80s.
“I had to be there,” Garcia said. “I was afraid in my youth that I’d miss something if I wasn’t there every night. It’s bittersweet to think back on those memories.”
Garcia said “the neighborhood was rough” when Little Jim’s first opened, but it “started the whole trend on Halsted Street.”
Soon after its opening, more gay bars followed and the divey, late-night spot became both a Boystown institution and one of the longest-running independently owned bars in the neighborhood.
Garcia said Jim Gates, the tavern’s original owner, was actively involved in the LGBTQ community, helping fund Equality Illinois at its beginning and donating to local social service agencies or gay rights organizations.
The Tavern’s legacy is that it was the first and only bar on Halsted Street to be fully integrated, Garcia said.
While other bars had strict dress codes or music restrictions that targeted Black and Latino people — some of which still exist in recent years — the tavern always stayed above it, according to Garcia.
“Other bars talk a good game about fighting racism and all that, but Little Jim’s truly lived what they believed: everybody is welcome,” Garcia said. “Latino, white and Black people all mingled and socialized there. Little Jim’s never had drama.”
Tully Bertorelli, a bartender at Little Jim’s, said that welcoming atmosphere was the driving force behind the bar’s staying-power.
“People can just be themselves here. They don’t have to be fake,” Bertorelli said. “We welcome everybody and no one cares if you’re bi, trans, or any sexuality, gender or race. I’m going to miss seeing the room full of different colors of the rainbow coming together in one place.”
Bertorelli has worked at the tavern for almost three years, but he’s been coming to the bar for more than a decade.
“I’m bisexual, so it’s the place I always felt comfortable taking dudes on dates,” Bertorelli said. “And when I went sober, people really respected it and I’ve found a lot of support here. Little Jim’s was my safe place.”
Matthew Gutowski, another bartender at Little Jim’s, said he also found a sense of family when he moved to Chicago and started working at the bar almost three years ago.
“This was my first home, and I became really close with all my regulars,” Gutowski said. “Even during the pandemic, my Tuesday regulars and I would get on Zoom every week for our celebratory shot.”
Gutowski said the bar fosters a tight-knit and welcoming community.
“With all that’s happened in Boystown, Little Jim’s has always been very inclusive and open to everybody,” Gutowski said. “It’s sad because we’re not only losing history, but we’re losing that kind of space.”
Regulars who had been going to the tavern for years started swinging by Wednesday afternoon to pay their respects.
“Walking into Little Jim’s is stepping into our history,” said Wade Guzman, a bartender at Hydrate who would visit the bar with coworkers to wind down after long shifts. “I’m sad for people who never got the chance to come here because they were pulled away to the glitz and glamour of other gay bars.”
Guzman and his coworker Dio Alatriste went to Little Jim’s Wednesday afternoon for one last round of drinks at the iconic spot.
“Little Jim’s is one of those places where you can walk in and instantly have a smile,” Alatriste said. “It’s a comfortable atmosphere where the staff knows you and the people are good.”
Susan Small, a neighbor and regular at the tavern, said Little Jim’s became her go-to bar after moving to Boystown from Houston.
“I did all the HIV testing in Texas in the ‘80s, so I just feel comfortable in Boystown,” Small said. “As soon as I walked into Little Jim’s for the first time, everybody introduced themselves and I felt at home with family.”
Bar staffers said regulars of Little Jim’s are invited to swing by Thursday for one last hurrah before closing for good at 11 p.m.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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