Innerviews: Identity built on downtown bar scene
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the entertainment scene in downtown Charleston, he's what they call a player, an icon of sorts. At 43, New York transplant Paul Greco, known mostly as "PG," owns two of the hottest spots in town -- Sam's Uptown Café and the Boulevard Tavern.
The affable son of a lifelong bartender, he arrived in Charleston 20 years ago intending to play a little music and move on. He loved it enough to stay. He tended bar and played his bass wherever the best gigs took him.
Tracking someone in the bar business is like watching moves in a checkers match. Here. There. Back over there. Eventually, PG found his place. In this case, his places.
He never imagined he'd own a bar. Call it a dream come true times two.
"I was born in Utica, N.Y., about an hour east of Syracuse. When I was 3, we moved to a city way out in the country. Basically, I grew up milking cows and baling hay.
"When my father got out of World War II, he went straight to Vegas and was a bartender until he was 72.
"It's a hard way to make a living. You're out late hours and not home a lot, and when you are home, you are sleeping during the day. But we had a lot of fun as kids. We were real outdoorsy and played in the woods.
"My father worked for a buddy who had an Italian restaurant, so we were at the restaurant three or four times a week. I started working the door at a bar in Utica when I was 18. My buddies and I were also playing music in bars when we were very young.
"My brother had a band. He was a couple of years older, but I was the only guy around who could do the part. I play bass.
"I learned to play in school. They needed a standup bass player. My conductor gave me a one-two-three-how-to-play-the-standup-bass book. Three times a week, I was in the basement at the junior high school learning how to play that bass. I don't have a good working knowledge of the instrument, but I've been playing a long time, so I've developed an ear.
"I worked in a grocery store and department store all through high school and did some construction. I was a plumber by trade. In New York, a friend of my mom had a buddy who was striking out on his own, and he taught me from the ground up. I've been doing construction stuff ever since.
"In March of '92, we left Utica on a Sunday evening and got here Monday morning and played to a packed house at the Empty Glass on Monday night. A friend, Mick Bondy, was already here. He had moved down here with his wife. I used to play music with him. He said I should come down here and check it out. He's moved back to New York since then. But I fell in love with Charleston.
"New York, even the small towns, is very cutthroat. You've got to bust your butt to make it. It's carefree living here. I enjoy the atmosphere, and I've made the best friends I could hope for.
"I was here on a trial basis, and we started to play every Monday at the Glass doing a Grateful Dead tribute. I got involved in the Todd Who Project, and we played every Tuesday at the Glass. I was playing at the Glass two or three times a week.
"After a while, we formed the one band I still play with, Tastes Like Chicken. We've been playing around more than 10 years. When I left Sam's and opened the Boulevard Tavern, my schedule got a little jumbled, so I haven't played much music lately.
"My first full-time bar job here was at the Rivertown Pub. We played music there. I was working in these bars and booking my band at the same time.
"Once I got going with music, I was doing it pretty much full time. It wasn't a good living, but it was a lot of fun, being able to play music and not do anything else.
"I went wherever the best gig was. I went from the Rivertown Pub to upstairs at Sam's to the Edge to No. 8 and back to the Edge. I managed it and left it. The Edge used to be the place to go. That place was exciting.
"Finally, I'd had enough of the dance music and the really young crowd. I was probably 30 years old. Joey's was a hard job to get. They hadn't hired a bartender off the street in 15 years. It was cool to get in there and get on the main bar. I was there maybe three years. I miss that place. It was such a cool place to be.
"When Joey's was on its way out, a friend called on Thanksgiving Day and said Joey's wasn't going to stay open so they were all coming to Sam's. I was working. I didn't have anything to keep me from it. Next thing you know, Sam's was packed. From then on, for the next 10 years, Sam's was the most popular bar in town. I was just bartending there. In 2001, I took over the managerial duties after I worked a season at the Red Dog in Fayetteville.
"I wasn't making a lot of money in Fayetteville. I was living in a shack. You could see through the walls. If it rained, you were soaked. I just couldn't live like that.
"I was working at Mulligan's when Paul Saddler bought it. Paul, John Sanese and I had purchased the basement at 405 Capitol St. We took over the 405 catering business. We made it six months. A water main broke and flooded the whole basement -- 670,000 gallons of water pouring through the place. We barely got out of that intact and just wanted to get rid of the place.
"On the bar scene, it's all the same players just doing different things at different times. Scotty Miller ended up getting Mulligan's, the building and the bar, and immediately I started managing Sam's and Mulligan's at the same time. I was always Scotty's go-to guy for a lot of stuff.
"At the tail end of my management run at Sam's, I had an opportunity to come to the Boulevard Tavern. Hoppy [Shores] just wanted a tenant. I didn't have to buy anything, just pay rent. So we fixed it up. I told Scotty I didn't want to go, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I own the Tavern.
"I quit Sam's to open the Tavern, and we had really good success the first few years. Laura and Scotty Miller had great success with Ichiban and had a lot going on. Two years after I opened the Tavern, Laura called me about buying Sam's. I said I would buy Sam's from them, but I had to have the building, too. It was the right time for everybody. So now I own both of them. That took me 20 years in Charleston.
"It's very hectic. This year has been very rough with my injury. When we were remodeling Sam's, I developed tendonitis. I was working through it. We only had so much time to get open. In April, I got my foot tangled in yard hose at the house. My Achilles tendon ruptured. They referred me to Dr. Santrock at Morgantown.
"They did an MRI and said it was bad. Normally, an Achilles incision is really small. Mine took 42 stitches. And it got infected. I went up for a routine follow-up, and the guy looked at my leg, said, 'Better call your wife and tell her you are not coming home tonight.' They operated four hours later. I spent the next week alone at Ruby Memorial, the worst week in my life.
"I probably won't have a limp. They are expecting up to 80 percent recovery. I have diabetes in my family. The doctor said three or four years from now, they probably wouldn't have been able to save my life. So I'm very fortunate.
"In Charleston in the bar-restaurant business, slow and steady wins the race. There's a lot more competition now, and it's a lot harder to do business than it was 15 years ago. The bar end is a little off, but having Sam's and the food end of it has helped tremendously. At the Tavern, it's the music. Sam's was known for music the whole time I managed it, because that's my thing. We're going to start back to doing music at Sam's.
"It's a tough life, still. I have a child. I've tried to accommodate her. Before the injury, I was usually working 9 to 3 in the day, and I'd stay home two or three nights. I always tried to come down Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the times when the most can go wrong and the most people are out. You really need to keep an eye on your business.
"We've got a long way to go. But the past four years, I've lived my dream, just to be able to play music and own my business and call my own shots. None of it would be possible without my wife, Julie. She helped me realize my goals.
"I didn't think I was going to stay here 20 years. I was young. I thought I'd maybe stop here and go see some other stuff, and I just never left. I have three other guys from my high school who have moved here. Two of them play guitar. The other one just took over the kitchen at Sam's.
"At Sam's, I'm on a lease-to-own agreement, so I'm committed there. I'm on a lease with Hoppy at the Tavern. We'll see what happens when the lease is up."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.