Earlier this month, it was announced that the building that houses Bert's — an Eastern Market institution famous for its barbecue, soulful music, and lively Saturday gatherings — would be going up for auction in July.
71-year-old Bert Dearing Jr., who has owned the building since 2003 and operated out of the space since 1987, says trouble started earlier this year when he fell behind on his mortgage payments. In April, he had to have an aneurism operation, and by the time he got back on his feet the mortgage company foreclosed on the building and sold it to a group of investors.
Dearing says while he was trying to sort everything out, a story came out in National Geographic in which Bert's was featured prominently. "So apparently the partners saw that and they came up here about three weeks ago," he says. "The first Tuesday in June, they had a photographer here taking pictures for the landlord. On that Friday, it was on auction.com listed for $50,000. On Sunday, it was listed for $700,000."
While Dearing says Bert's isn't in imminent danger of closing — the venue's lease runs through February 2017 — he is gearing up to attempt to purchase the building back when it goes up for auction on July 20.
To help raise funds, Dearing is selling "SAVE BERT'S" T-shirts, and has also launched a GoFundMe campaign. While speaking with us, Dearing introduced us to his grandaughter, Melba, who he says started helping out with the business side of things a few years ago. (Based on her demeanor, we thought she must be college-aged. She is 17.)
Melba shared a letter about the plight of Bert's and the "heartless, big-money people" trying to profit off of her family's legacy. We have reprinted it with her permission below:
My grandfather always told me, "Jazz is universal. Music is universal. NEVER let music die." Our family's fifth generation entrepreneur, Bert Dearing Jr., has owned businesses all over the city of Detroit for 47 years, centered around the worldwide phenomenon, jazz. Bert's Market Place Entertainment Complex is located in the heart of the Eastern Market, where people come from all over for the freshest fruits and vegetables. We've helped make this area such a big attraction. 30-feet long grills filled with ribs and rib tips seasoned to perfection, footlong polish sausages, and 1-pound "Oh My God Burgers" created an irresistible smoke that everyone smells as soon as they get off the I-75 freeway. Live entertainment in every room ranging from Sweet Willie Tea's down south blues to live karaoke on the streets welcoming anyone in the area. That's exactly what my grandfather is about: his area, his community, his city.
Unfortunately, Bert had open heart surgery last April, and with the tragic incident we fell behind on a few months' payments on our mortgage. Leaving our lease in the hands of the bank, who soon sold it to heartless, big-money people. Days later after buying it, we found our business on the auction block. Our family's blood, sweat, and tears, taken right in front of our eyes. We've established more than a business, but a home to everyone we encounter. So many great artists have used our clubs as stepping stones to the next level of stardom. Ralph Armstrong, James Carter, even Kid Rock have all indulged in music and soul food at Bert's. My grandfather not only helps the upcoming stars, but he is always advocating for his city. We host an annual Health Fair Screening for the impoverished and homeless, give away dinner baskets during all the holiday season, and has employed over hundreds of young people to help make a difference.
My grandfather is the wisest person I've ever met. He's taught my father, my uncle, and I so many lessons to carry on in our lives, it's amazing the work that we can accomplish. My father, Jai-Lee, opened Rockefellers Oyster Bar and Grill, which is known for its fresh oysters and live jazz. My uncle, Bert III, travels and participates in festivals sharing our one-of-a-kind taste of heaven to cities other than Detroit. I plan to attend a historically black college to study business management to come home and franchise our legacy.
It's heartbreaking that we are in the situation that we are. They don't want our money — they want our land and they are willing to do anything to get it. Not many black businesses with the history we have has lasted through similar situations like this. We would like to be the family to reverse the statistics. This is more than a Detroit problem. This is a problem for the black community along with the music community. I refuse to let jazz die in our establishment in my grandfather's namesake. I am preparing myself for whatever price this auction lands in order to keep my grandfather's word. We've created a GoFundMe account to accept donations to assist with the preparing of the monetary actions soon to take place. The link to donate is gofundme.com/saveberts. Every penny makes a difference. Thank you for saving a legend.