PROSPECT HEIGHTS – Bar Sepia was packed Wednesday as neighbors and patrons filled the beloved venue on its final night.
Delissa Reynolds, Bar Sepia’s owner, announced in January that the landlord of 234 Underhill Avenue, where the business has been located for the past 14 years, was looking to sell the property and that her bar would be shuttering as a result.
The news came as a disappointment to many in the Prospect Heights community who have been coming to the bar since its debut and consider it a home away from home.
Sitting at a table by the entrance Wednesday evening were Tanisha, Leshane, and Marcus, who all met at the bar back when it first opened.
“This is devastating,” Leshane said. “I’ve been coming here for 13 years. I feel like I gave this bar some of my best years. If I write my biography, there would have to be a chapter called, ‘Sepia.'”
“There would be three chapters called ‘Sepia,'” Marcus added laughing.
“It’s bittersweet,” Tanisha said about the closing. “Prospect Heights has changed and it’s still changing and that’s the nature of this city. It’s unfortunate that people are displaced. It’s unfortunate that our society is structured the way it is where small business is losing in this city—the thing that makes New York interesting is being eroded.”
Tanisha said she finds it unfortunate that after 14 years the building’s owner didn’t give Reynolds the opportunity to purchase the property. “Delissa took care of this building when the owner didn’t, and the fact that she wouldn’t even allow her to have a seat at the table is just unkind,” she stated.
“When I came here, no one wanted to be here,” Reynolds told BKLYNER in January. “This commercial space stayed empty for a very long time and it took a lot of effort and money to renovate, but I knew it was worth it.” Bar Sepia opened in 2004 and has served as a popular meeting place and events space over the years.
“More than anything it’s a community. You see the people that come in and out of this bar—it’s a cross-section,” Tanisha continued. “It’s like old New York in that way…unpretentious. It was a safe place to come [for] different kinds of people from all walks of life.”
Tiffany, a former Prospect Heights resident and Bar Sepia regular, moved to South Carolina more than four years ago but made a special trip back to the city to say goodbye to her old local bar. “The loss is incalculable,” she said.
She recalls Bar Sepia as being the kind of place you could go to after a long day, where people knew you, “where people cared about each other” and formed an extended family.
Created as the neighborhood was gentrifying, the bar attracted “this wonderful blending of people from all walks of life, all races, all religions—a community,” Tiffany said, noting the symbolism of the bar’s closing now, at a point when New York has “become unaffordable for all the people who made these neighborhoods, these communities, what they were.”
“I love [this neighborhood]. It’s in my heart. It will always be there and it makes me so sad,” she concluded.
It wasn’t easy pulling Reynolds away from the many well-wishers at the bar to speak with her in private. Despite her efforts to try to purchase the building from the landlord, Reynolds confirmed that 234 Underhill is currently in contract with another buyer but added when the sale is finalized, she will reach out to the purchaser to see if Bar Sepia can stay put.
“I am definitely committed to follow through with it,” she said, adding that the experience has brought on another mission for her. “I’m also committed to standing up for small businesses and our neighborhoods and to see if I can get legislation passed for a small business/job safety act. I think it’s really important that we find protections for small businesses and lease holders so there’s a minimum option for a ten-year lease, there’s the right of first refusal, there are more tax incentives, there are more employee incentives.” Reynolds believes a small business owner should be given the right of first offer to purchase a property after an owner decides to sell because “small businesses get nothing and we invest money into someone else’s property.”
“I understand [the building owner] wants to sell her property, and I do not begrudge her that. I wish her all the best,” Reynolds said. “This is our home though, and I really want to stand up for it and protect it,” she added.
Despite it being the bar’s final night of business, Reynolds was positive. “I feel really great. I’m looking at the love in the room and I’m humbled by it and I appreciate it. It’s feelings like this that create place, and the importance of place in our lives, and how that constitutes what builds a community and a neighborhood. It’s validating.”
Bar Sepia received a temporary liquor license for Saturday, March 3, so Reynolds and her team will be able to host a party to celebrate the 14th anniversary of the bar’s opening.