It's just before noon at Dot's Back Inn, but it looks like quitting time for the two glassy-eyed regulars bellied up to the bar. They drink vodka and cranberry juice pick-me-ups from tall glasses while strings of red Christmas lights cast a queasy glow on the tarnished bronze bust of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on display. The general is wearing reindeer antlers in deference to the holidays.
But for patrons and employees at this dependably working-class North Side watering hole, there's been little holiday cheer to go around these past few weeks. Owner Cookie Giannini, who opened Dot's 16 years ago as a tribute to her favorite aunt, confirmed last week she's selling the place.
Whispers of the bar's impending sale circulated for weeks mostly through well-connected patrons spilling the beans to disbelieving employees before Giannini finally confirmed the rumors to her longtime staff. She held a meeting with employees Dec. 5 to break the news of the bar's final sale.
"I don't want customers to be panicked that I'm gone," Giannini says during a recent lunchtime rush. She's been assured that the bar she's put her family's stamp on will remain as is, she says: "I told my mom she was crying 'Well, you can still come in and look at all your old pictures.'"
Many of the photos on the wall document her mother's and father's experiences during World War II, and they include images of her aunt Dottie, for whom the bar is named.
But some patrons are panicked, and though they've heard the assurances, it's hard for many to believe that the new owner could be so true to what Giannini has built.
"Neighborhood beer joints are a dying breed," laments Kyle Henderson, a 40-year city resident, bemoaning the uncertainty the sale brings. The Richmond Newspapers retiree describes himself as "just a beer drinker or a drunk or whatever you call it."
Whatever you call it, Henderson is one of the regulars. All kinds working stiffs, Ginter Park elite, 20-something hipsters, middle-management former frat brothers call Dot's a home away from home a place to meet friends, blow off steam and relive the glory days captured in grainy photos hung on the bar's grimy walls.
"Where else can you come and drink a beer and shoot the shit with the guys and carry on and not get in trouble?" Henderson asks, wondering about the future of Dot's piece-of-history atmosphere, free-flowing beer taps and friendly barmaids.
Before the final announcement last week, Giannini tried to reassure her staff in a heartfelt letter, offering plenty of reasons for the sale and apologies for needing to move on. Some employees took it in stride, but the letter, some longtime employees say, failed to take away the sting of Giannini's denials in recent weeks.
"We kept asking, 'Cookie, is it true?' And she told us, 'I wouldn't do that to y'all,'" says Janet Rollins, who was on staff at the bar when Giannini took over in 1990. She quit after Tuesday night's meeting. "She promised us she wouldn't do that to us," Rollins says.
The bar's new owner is Jimmy Tsamouras, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who was previously involved in another Richmond destination, Southern Culture. His brother, Dean Tsamouras, owns the College Delly & Pizza Restaurant in Williamsburg and the Yorktown Pub in Yorktown. Jimmy takes over the keys to the front door in January.
Giannini, a constant presence in the bar who treated patrons like old friends, was blunt about her reasons for selling.
"I'm retiring, honey," she says. "I'm going to enjoy my three grandchildren." Giannini plans to volunteer at their school as well as spend time with her octogenarian mother. "It's very hard for me to let go, even though the time is right for me," she says.
Giannini says Tsamouras has assured her that the bar will be allowed to go on as it is and not be subject to the sort of coordinated earth-toned paint job or face lift that often comes with such transitions.
Tsamouras did not return phone calls by press time.
Patrons remain dubious that Tsamouras does not intend to disturb the dust and grime that hold the Dot's community together.
William Green, a grizzled old-timer who claims to have been childhood chums with Mayor Doug Wilder, stands silent for a long time, his eyes searching the bar for a reason or a stiff drink when he hears news of the sale.
"I'm up in the air right now," he finally says. "I'll still come here. I only worry about [Rollins and her daughter]."
On one of her last days on the job, Rollins shoved a copy of the Dot's menu across the bar, pointing to the printed description of Giannini's aunt, of how the bar was "dedicated to her and every other waitress who has been the heart, soul, and success of the neighborhood restaurant but never had the opportunity to own her own."
"This," Rollins says, bitterly pounding her finger into the menu, "has been a lie for 16 years and three months."
The only truth, Rollins says, is that once again the waitresses were not given the opportunity to own the restaurant that had been their own heart and soul for so long. S