Diving for pearls

Jul 15, 2009 at 12:00 am

Meant, as always, in the most loving sense of the word, Tom's is a true dive. Open mostly on weekends, the old "house bar" opened when founder Tom Lucas bought the building in 1928, back when Prohibition was the law of the land, and when Seven Mile was still a dirt road. An astonishing 81 years later, Tom's survives, despite a lot of problems. In just the last 10 years, they've dealt with failed city lighting, a half-dozen break-ins, stolen power hookups, cut gas and water lines and, a few years ago, a car crash that caved in the front of the tavern and killed a woman on the sidewalk. How does it go on living? It's because the tavern's loyal patrons step into the breach whenever the bar is endangered, as volunteers and benefactors. It helps that the tavern has always had a knack for attracting interesting people, and its customers have included celebrity news anchor Bill Bonds and pizza baron Mike Ilitch, who bought materials to help rebuild after a 1979 fire.

Over the years, the bar has been built and rebuilt so many times that it's uneven enough to make you feel you're drunker than you are. The roof's ridgepole sags into a bow. Gaps in the old brick-face siding show wood beneath. (It's the only bar in town you know is open when you can see the light peeking through the wall.) Inside, the floor slopes down as you walk in, and the bar tips back alarmingly. It's in a perpetual state of reconstruction, with fresh work next to ramshackle glory. Owner Ron Gurdjian, who bought the place from Lucas in 2001, has overseen some radical effort to keep the building safe, and says, after almost a decade of work, it's "almost ready for bad weather." 

Gurdjian notes, "In the 1950s, every business on Seven Mile wanted this bar obliterated. They called it an eyesore." Now, all those businesses are gone, but Tom's lives on. It's most crowded around Babe Ruth's birthday, when the walls are decked out with Ruth-related quotes and history (with the sauciest factoids on display in the men's room, natch). But on a quiet day, it's a pleasure to hear Gurdjian retell Tom's stories, such as how the Purple Gang once delivered the bar's liquor in a long black limousine, dressed in razor-sharp suits and wide-brimmed hats. Gurdjian says, according to Lucas, the gangsters would stand at the end of the bar and ask, "Tom, do you need help with anything? Do you want us to help you in any way?" Now that's pure Detroit history.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]