A Portrait of a Bar: Earl’s Juke Joint in Newtown, Sydney

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Earl’s Juke JointPhotography by James Adams

AnOther Door Opens: In a new series created in partnership with Jameson, AnOther explores bars around the world as spaces for community and creative collaboration

AnOther has teamed up with iconic Irish whiskey brand Jameson for AnOther Door Opens, a celebration of local bars, which have long played a crucial role in creativity and connection – but are currently facing extreme hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bar-hopping from London to Jakarta to Sydney, we’ll speak to the driving forces behind three small-but-perfectly-formed bars connected by shared values of togetherness and creative collaboration. We’ll spell out a portrait of each venue, discovering what community and openness means today in the age of social distancing.

What does an open door signify to you? Perhaps it’s an entrance. Or maybe it’s an invitation. Alternatively it could be a metaphor. A way in, a way out or even a way forward. As we move towards the tail end of a year which most of us have locked down at home, what does it mean to be open? We headed inside Sydney-based bar Earl’s Juke Joint to try and find out.

The story behind Earl’s began back in 2013 when the bar’s co-owner Pasan Wijesena decided that there was an absence of bars locally. Newtown lies in the suburbs of Sydney, a lively and community-centred neighbourhood which, in recent years, has become a thriving network of thrift shops, independent bars and restaurants. “I’d been living in Newtown for about five years at the time, and it always annoyed me that all the ‘good’ bars were in the city or Eastern suburbs,” Wijesena remembers. “I figured if I opened a bar that my mates and I would like, maybe some other people might like it too.”

Wijesena took the unconventional decision to take over a former butcher shop, Betta Meats, which had been vacant for a while. At first, the reincarnation from butcher’s shop to bar raised some eyebrows locally. “We’re only the second tenant to be in the building, the butcher had been there for over 50 years and the family still owns the building,” Wijesena says. But intent on keeping the original signage, from the red lettering spelling out BETTA MEATS to the banners advertising Top Quality Meats and Continental Smallgoods, Wijesena held tightly to a lasting connection with the past. “I kept the front signage as a tip of the cap to the family, wanting to preserve that history of such an iconic local shop,” Wijesena says.

Much has rightly been written about gentrification. When newcomers arrive in a neighborhood with more income or education than the existing residents, change is inevitable, often in the form of displacement affecting those most vulnerable. Newtown is a neighbourhood in transition. And at first, local residents were hesitant to have a bar open in the area. Yet in the years since, they have found their way through Earl’s Juke Joint’s always-open door to become part of the bar’s legacy. “I can’t tell you how many of those people have become close friends,” Wijesena reflects. “I’ve seen people come on first dates, and then get married and come back with a baby.” With an open-door policy, bars like Earl’s can evolve alongside their neighbourhood to become part of the fabric. “I love that our bar has had its success and can act as an ambassador for Newtown, an area that I love deeply,” Wijesena says.

Of course, change is life’s only constant. During lockdown in Sydney, the connection that Wijesena clearly feels with his community birthed a sense of energy which instilled positivity and forward motion at a moment of global stasis. With the support of neighbouring companies, old aprons were repurposed into protective face masks. The staff came together “like voltron” to run a bottle shop and manage photo shoots for the online sales portal. Long-time customers bought takeaway cocktails and new customers turned up in support. Earl’s Juke Joint adapted to a “new normal” of its own.

In Sydney, as in cities around the world, the pandemic has brought friends, families, neighbours and communities closer, opening the door to a version of humanity which, before lockdown, seemed in danger of fading away. “The glue that held it all together has been the support for local business,” Wijesena reflects. “That has always been a feature of the area, and it has only been magnified now.”

Earl’s Juke Joint may be known for great decor and an even better roster of Jameson whiskey cocktails, but Wijesena insists that the secret ingredient behind his success can be found in human connection. “Otherwise it’s just a lot of very pretty wood.” he says wryly. “Having a sense of connection to the local area, a fraternal atmosphere and culture between the staff and regulars is something that you can’t fake. Drinks are about ten per cent of the job. The rest is being a host, a tour guide, a mate.”