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A Night at the Door With Three Athens, Georgia Bouncers

April 22, 2022

Story: Allison Salerno

photo: Amanda Greene


A Night at the Door With Three Athens, Georgia Bouncers

April 22, 2022

Story: Allison Salerno

photo: Amanda Greene

The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not-so-normal—nights on the job.

Athens, Georgia, took its place on the world stage in the 1970s and ’80s when homegrown music acts like R.E.M. and The B-52s achieved international acclaim. A key player in the development of alternative rock and new wave music, this college town’s music scene remains a central attraction, with more than a dozen live music venues scattered across the downtown area.

But in a town where nearly three out of every 10 residents are University of Georgia students, the downtown scene—about 80 bars within a square mile—is dominated by collegians. Locals refer to an invisible boundary along Lumpkin Street in downtown Athens as the “khaki line”—east of that, closer to campus, college bars and their khaki-clad clientele control the vibe.

For this installment of Punch’s “A Night at the Door,” we talked to the gatekeepers at three bars west of the khaki line, who don’t draw their customers primarily from college campuses.

We begin at Nowhere Bar, a dive with more than 40 years in business, populated by dartboards, six tired pool tables and a nightly lineup of emerging musicians. Here, Harrison Smith, a lifelong Athenian, checks IDs, nods to the music and frets over the fate of the city’s independent music scene.

Next, we walk to the renowned 40 Watt Club, the music venue and bar that helped launch punk and alternative rock movements as the main performance space for homegrown Athens bands like R.E.M. and Pylon. It remains the pulsing heart of Athens’ live music scene. Bouncer Arianna Petersen, a recent biochemical engineering grad, checks IDs and vaccination cards at the door and waxes poetic about how the spirit of rock and roll joins employees and customers in a kind of transcendent haze.

Finally, more than a mile west of downtown in the Normaltown neighborhood, we enter Matt McFerron’s The Old Pal, a cocktail bar that the UGA graduate opened in 2013 far from the khaki line. In 2020, Southern Living magazine dubbed it one of the “South’s Best Bars,” and it’s known for its signature cocktails and handcrafted bitters. Elspeth McWaters, who moved to Athens for college, manages the bar, checks IDs and even invented a Martini that bears her name.

All three gatekeepers told us stories of a changing Athens, and of the music that pulsates as the town’s most sacred gift.

Harrison Smith

Age: 28
Workplace: Nowhere Bar

Athens Bouncers Nowhere Bar

What is your role?
I watch the door. I make sure no one causes any trouble. I keep the peace.

How long have you lived here?
My whole life. My mom’s from Boston, and my dad’s from Florida—Cape Canaveral—so I have a weird mix of being a Northern and a Southern person.

What is a typical night here?
A great band, a new up-and-coming band, with a wary fan base. They are open to new music, and they are open to finding something different from their status quo. We feel like a stepping stone for new bands.

What’s the crowd like here?
The crowd is unique and experienced. It is an interesting conglomeration of a younger crowd and an older crowd that almost tries to hang on to an older Athens. In Athens, there is a line [the khaki line], although I believe the collegiate culture is encroaching. How do you compete with that? How do you compete with the monetary value of the younger crowd coming in and taking over something almost sacred to this town—the music?

The most amazing thing about this bar is I have seen the younger crowd come in, young musicians who I have never seen before—I didn’t think they existed in Athens anymore. This bar has given them an opportunity to show themselves.

What is the hardest part of working the door?
Staying focused. I can get lost in an individual or in the music as a whole.

Do you ever have to kick anyone out?
Oh, sure. It’s always younger people—22, 23. We want [to be] a place of comfort for everyone. If you choose to hunt or accost or hurt another person, you are not welcome here.

What is your after-work drink?
Typically, my drink of choice is a nice bourbon. Old Bardstown. The estate bottle. Straight up. If I drink here after work, it’s going to be—always—a Budweiser. From the can. The most basic thing.

Why are you good at your job?
What I have learned over the years is that a calm, concise approach is best. I learned that from my father.

How would you describe Nowhere Bar?
This is a place for believers in progress, of music. I really hope it stays that way.

Arianna Petersen

Age: 24
Workplace: 40 Watt Club

Athens Bounces 40 Watt Club

What is your role?
I work security here. Those duties are checking tickets and checking IDs to make sure they’re valid, and checking vaccination cards. If I’m not outside, I’m inside, watching the crowd, making sure there’s no funny business going on. If there’s a spill, I mop it up. … I keep an eye on the club and make sure it’s operating smoothly.

How did you end up in Athens?
I went to college at the University of Georgia. I have a degree in biochemical engineering.

How long have you worked here?
When I was a junior, which was three years ago, I got a job here.

What is a typical night here?
A standard night would be 100, 150 people.

What is the hardest part of working the door?
A lot of people come when they’re intoxicated. And some people can have a problem with whatever. So being almost, like, the customer service face and a representative of the club while still asserting yourself and letting people know the rules. 

Also, from my experience as a woman, misogyny is a problem. A lot of people don’t take me seriously at all, especially since I am a young woman. They think they can just walk through or completely ignore me or they belittle me and act like I don’t know anything about music. So that can get very aggravating. It’s typically older men. I think they see a young woman here and think I don’t belong here.

How would you describe the 40 Watt club?
We have a really great music scene here in Athens, and the 40 Watt is definitely one of the standout clubs here.

Do you ever have to kick anyone out?
Yes. They just get too drunk and they start acting wild. There’s a lot of times you have to escort someone out. All it is, is talking to them in the right way. What we do is say, “Hey, can I just talk to you outside?” and then kind of guide them outside and close the door behind them.

What’s the crowd like?
The band really determines the crowd that comes in. After the pandemic, a lot of the older bands kind of migrated and a lot of the newer bands are really committing. So we’ve seen a lot of young people come in with a resurgence of new bands.

What is your after-work drink?
I like a White Claw. I’m also a whiskey-ginger person. That’s my go-to. After the show ends and after the doors close, we’re all in here, hanging out. We’re all friends here.

Why are you good at your job?
I love this place with my entire heart and soul.

Elspeth McWaters

Age: 31
Workplace: The Old Pal

Old Pal Athens

What is your role?
I am the bar manager here as well as bartender. A lot of times, with the exception of busy weekends, when we have multiple people working weekdays, the bartender will be working solo. So you end up playing the role of bouncer should anything arise. And when in doubt, always card.

How long have you worked here?
Eight years.

What brought you to Athens?
I moved here to go to UGA when I was 18 from Greenville, South Carolina. I have a degree in psychology. 

What is a typical night like here?
This place has gotten consistently busier over the years. It used to be pretty sleepy on a weeknight. The typical night, especially this time of year, when the weather’s lovely, we usually get some takers for happy hour right around 4 or 5, and you can sit outside. Usually—it depends on the night. We get a lot of people doing the pre-dinner thing, the post-dinner thing. And then, later in the evening, we always get our service industry crowd of people after they get off work from the bars and restaurants around here. 

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Sometimes you are here by yourself so you are expected to fulfill multiple roles at once. You are checking ID, you are making every cocktail by hand, and serving everyone and keeping track of money. The hardest part is keeping up with that. 

At the end of the night, what is your drink of choice?
I like a Martini. Like a classic gin Martini. I like a London dry gin, usually Plymouth, usually a 2-to-1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters, which we also make here in house, and then an olive and a twist. I can come in here and ask for the Elspeth Martini and they know. It’s become eponymous. 

How would you describe the crowd and the vibe here?
Lots of neighborhood folks. Lots of regulars. And then lots of industry folks as well, later in the evening as they wrap up their shifts and come down. 

Your biggest challenge?
Keeping up with the growth we’ve experienced.

What makes you good at your job?
I am good at my job not only with the wealth of knowledge of cocktails and liqueurs and products, but a big part of the job is also talking to and relating to the people, being the person behind the bar that’s putting on the show. Since we do have so many regulars and so many return customers, having a rapport with almost everyone who walks through the door. It’s made me very loyal to this job. It feels like home. 

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Allison Salerno is an Athens, Ga. multimedia journalist who frequently covers food and agriculture. Her work has been featured in Civil Eats, The Counter, and on Southern Foodways' podcast, Gravy, among other places. She has an episode about to drop on America's Test Kitchen podcast, Proof. You can find Allison at www.allisonbsalerno.com.