Phoenix, Arizona / Thursday, December 25, 2008
© 2008 by JPB Publishing Ltd.
Avenue Weather: Partly cloudy with possible late afternoon showers. High 56 / Low 44
Amber Inn sign recovered
(BP) – A rare and possibly valuable stained-glass sign that once hung in the legendary Westown Shopping Center tavern Amber Inn recently surfaced in New York State and has been acquired by the Crusader Foundation for display in its permanent collection of neighborhood artifacts.
The Amber Inn sign appeared in May at the Auction Consignment Center in Saugerties, New York. Measuring 34 inches high by 42 wide, it is constructed from high quality stained glass within a robust and heavy oak frame. Inscribed on the side of the frame are the words “AZ Glass Company, 81.” The sign is believed to have been displayed behind the bar at Amber Inn throughout the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, when the long-time Westown tavern finally vanished from the neighborhood shopping center. The Arizona Glass Company apparently disappeared around the same time.
The owner of the Saugerties auction house, Mr. B.D. Schiers, noticed the sign at a local flea market in January and decided to purchase it, finding it intriguing for several reasons. It was obviously of high quality workmanship, and appeared to be from Arizona, where the man attended college and spent a good deal of his youth. The sign also reminded him of his daughter, Amber. The item was eventually put up for auction on eBay, where it attracted the attention of volunteer workers for the Crusader Foundation. How the sign found its way out to the east coast will probably forever remain a mystery.
The selling price of the Amber Inn sign has not been officially disclosed, but is believed to have been considerably more than the item’s actual market value. When asked why the Crusader decided to purchase the old tavern sign, CEO John Bueker responded, “I believe this incredible object epitomizes everything our newspaper has come to represent: a wonderfully obscure time and place that no one really bothers to think about anymore.” Schiers expressed his pleasure that the sign was “going home to Arizona.”
The Amber Inn sign is tentatively planned to grace the employee’s lounge area of the Crusader offices in Glendale.
Inn memories “stirred” with news of find
By J. Bueker
The area surrounding Surrey Heights has grown so enormously over the last four decades that it is very easy to forget what an isolated and obscure region it once was. The only source for goods and services in this lonely outpost back in the ‘60s was the nearby Westown Shopping Center, a Joan De Arc institution that has long since disappeared from its familiar site perched upon the Black Canyon Freeway and Larkspur Drive. Yes, the buildings are still there, sort of, but they now house a popular local church and have done so for well over a decade. Certainly, more than a few old shopping malls in the Phoenix area have encountered similar fates, if not outright destruction. Perhaps we are fortunate that anything remains there at all.
The one and only business that survived all the years from beginning to end at Westown Shopping Center was the legendary Amber Inn tavern. Situated on the west side of the center facing 28th Drive, the Inn opened in 1960 alongside the other original Westown tenants like A.J. Bayless, Ryan-Evans Drugs, and the T.G & Y. five-and-dime. While grocers, druggists, department stores and the like eventually come and go, the demand for affordable liquor in a public setting tends to remain constant over time, and so it was with Amber Inn.
Of course in many respects, AI was a typical neighborhood bar of the time and virtually indistinguishable from countless other such businesses across the land. Most of the seating took the form of dark maroon vinyl booths and matching bar stools, with a smattering of small tables at the north end of the barroom. The standard issue jukebox and cigarette vending machines stood vigilant guard near the tavern entrance, and remarkably small and frequently dysfunctional rest rooms were situated beyond the south end of the bar. Pretty standard stuff, really. Yet there evolved an unusual and elusive ambiance to Amber Inn that defies precise description.
In the late ‘70s, management began having the interior walls of the tavern painted by local artists to depict various quaint scenes that ran the gamut from medieval landscapes to images from Star Trek. The exterior of the Inn presented an austere Tudor-style facade that blended surprisingly well with the flagstone formations that were incorporated throughout the structure of the shopping center. After a couple decades, the late ‘50s architecture lent the place a charming and intimate familiarity that can only come with advancing age.
Amber Inn was the first bar in which this writer ever imbibed, an American rite of passage if ever there was one. I was all of 17 years and in the company of my brother Charles and a few of his buddies, who were a couple years older and of legal drinking age. Amusingly, my brother’s friends were each asked by the waitress to produce their IDs that evening, while she completely ignored the big Bueker boys. Apparently, our exceptional physical size conferred the appearance of age, and this was a fact of which I took careful note.
My initial peek inside Amber Inn actually occurred a decade earlier however, on a July 4th in the mid-‘60s. Several Joan De Arc families were in attendance at the shopping center that day for the Independence Day festivities, and at one point my father decided to accompany neighbor Jack Humphries into the Inn for a quick frosty cold one. For some now long-forgotten reason, I was permitted to tag along, and so caught my first glimpse of this heretofore forbidden realm. It was dark, crowded, smoky and rather a bit smelly. In other words, totally awesomely cool.
As the years passed, a number of distinctive customs took hold at the Inn. The bar became an important early pioneer of the “happy hour” concept, even offering the gimmick for years at six o’clock in the morning to accommodate workers coming off the graveyard shift at the nearby Honeywell plant. This was cutting edge stuff. During this period, the Inn was often every bit as crowded on weekday mornings as it was at peak business hours on Saturday night, a phenomenon that was not necessarily welcomed by the other Westown merchants.
Another memorable tradition at the Inn was the celebrated “fish bowl” beer glass, a vessel that held close to a quart of brew. A patron could get thoroughly sloshed and still honestly tell an annoyed spouse back at home that he or she had only sipped “a few glasses” of beer at the bar. One evening in 1978, my brother and I each partook of multiple fishbowls of Coors with some food, and then completely forgot to pay our tab before departing the establishment. A visibly shaken Amber Inn waitress had to accost us in the parking lot and remind us of our unpaid bill. Such was the power of the Amber Inn fish bowl.
Around this same time, the bar underwent a long overdue expansion into an adjacent vacant shop space to the east, opening up a sort of antechamber to accommodate pool tables, pinball machines, and the emerging newfangled novelty of video games. This area lay beyond the direct line of sight of the bartender on duty, inviting sundry forbidden activities on occasion to transpire. Naturally this circumstance only served to enhance the popularity and mystique of the neighborhood watering hole, and it continued to thrive throughout the decade of the 1980s.
Amber Inn finally lost its lease and was forced to abandon the dying shopping center in 1992, after 32 memorable years in that same fabled location. Diehard fans of Westown nostalgia will be pleased to know that the Inn refused to accept oblivion and instead moved to a strip mall several miles to the southwest, near 43rd Avenue and Olive, where it has again prospered as a sort of hybrid sports and karaoke bar. Charles and I still make an occasional pilgrimage there to pay our respects.
The newer digs lack the matchless atmosphere of the original site, but solace can be taken from the knowledge that Amber Inn will continue to inebriate Phoenix westsiders well into the 21st century.
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