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Last call at a Mystic mainstay

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Mystic — Patrons boisterously stomped on the ground and danced in circles to the sounds of fiddle, banjo, violin, guitar and upright bass coming from the 10 or so musicians sitting unpretentiously in the corner.

Beneath a glowing Guinness sign, the window bearing the name John’s perspired. Some patrons pounded on the tables to the music, and some pounded their cue sticks into the billiard balls. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the Falcons-Buccaneers game on the TV.

It was a Saturday-worthy crowd for a Monday night. Bank Square Books manager John Francisconi calls it “old-timey music night,” and it has been a tradition in recent months for him and his fellow booksellers.

The music happens every week, but the crowd was larger than usual, as people came to their favorite neighborhood bar for one last hurrah.

After 50 years in business, John’s Mystic River Tavern closed on Tuesday, as its home at 9 Cottrell St. has been sold. Details of the sale have not yet been recorded in the town clerk’s office. Tim Murray, owner of John’s since late 2005, declined to comment on the reason for the sale or the buyer.

“There are a lot of bars in Mystic, but there is literally no place that will replace this place,” said Steve Wakeman, who could walk to John’s and had been going there for 35 years. He added, “Historically, it was never really operated as a business. It was operated as an act of love.”

Ask anyone for a story about John’s and you might hear about how former owner John Lowe got into a spat with the Budweiser distributor and refused to continue carrying the beer.

A sign went up of a Budweiser can with a line through it, and the brand was never seen there again.

Or you might hear about the intolerance that John, who died in July 2009, had for swearing.

Bartender Bruce MacMahon spoke of another bartender who would slap a small baseball bat on the bar when someone swore — there are marks on the countertop to this day — and have the offender put money in a jar.

John donated that money to the Jimmy Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money for cancer care and research.

Along with the common stories, you might also hear personal ones. Michelle Sylvester Drake grew up around John’s, considering her parents owned French Cleaners two doors down, in what is now Rochelle’s.

John’s was the first place where Drake, 48, went when she turned 21. And it was where her son, who died in a car accident last year, had his first legal drink.

Bob Heivly met his wife, Pat, at John’s 15 years ago — and they’re not alone.

“We sat down there Friday at their last happy hour, and I counted five couples that had met in there or through there, and ended up getting married,” Heivly said.

Like many others, Heivly describes John’s as a friendly place, where everyone is like family. Last week, he said patrons convened around his wife, who is in a wheelchair following health issues this year, and played “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, telling them that “every little thing is going to be alright.”

“It’s the last locals place left in our town, that’s it,” Heivly said. “Every other place is geared toward tourism, and this is the last gathering place, the last pool table bar room.”

“This is our Cheers,” Drake said. “This is totally Mystic Cheers.”


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