On the first Tuesday in July, as on every Tuesday, Three-1-Three in Belleville hosted Memphis-style blues pianist Derek Thomas and his band, Family Reunion. Beneath a string of Christmas lights, bartenders dispensed two-dollar well drinks, fifty-cent tacos and Alaskan snow crab for $5.95 a pound.
Those in attendance couldn't help but notice that the crowd was smaller than usual. Bartender Amanda Northway attributed the drop-off to what had transpired the previous month, when Three-1-Three lost its liquor license and was shut down for a week.
Northway fears it's about to get a lot worse. Pending an appeal, the club faces permanent extinction. Soon.
Tipsy regulars remember better times, when overflow audiences came to see national touring acts like Drive-By Truckers and Matchbox Twenty. The seminal Belleville club, now located at the intersection of Mascoutah and Washington Avenues, opened in 1997 on East Main Street, predating the new swath of bars and concert venues that have turned the town into a destination for many a St. Louisan.
The trouble began June 16, when Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert cited Three-1-Three owner Don Bailey for nonpayment of thousands of dollars in sales tax and ordered the club closed down. Bailey paid the delinquent taxes, but the mayor extended the ban, citing complaints about noise.
And also the bizarre incident involving the Community Kindness Shoppe, a neighboring resale store.
Three-1-Three had, until May, rented the Shoppe's parking lot, but when Bailey ceased paying rent, the owners put a chain across its Washington Avenue entrance.
Shortly thereafter, Community Kindness Shoppe general manager Charles Kramer received a letter alleging that the chain was a violation of the municipal fire code. The letter bore the forged imprint of the Belleville Fire Department.
Eckert says Bailey sent the letter. Bailey claims it was sent by a man who was angling for a job at the bar and hoped to win favor by regaining access to the lot.
The club, meanwhile, was permitted to reopen after Bailey appealed the revocation of his liquor license to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission. Per state law, Three-1-Three may remain open until its hearing, which could take place as soon as August 2.
That didn't stop five uniformed officers from attempting to shut the club down again, according to Amanda Northway. The bartender says the officers arrived around midnight the day after Three-1-Three reopened and left only after she showed them paperwork affirming the state law.
"They were blocking the front door. It scared the crap out of people," Northway says. "It's hard enough to win customers back after you've been closed, but when police officers swarmed, people started leaving rapidly."
Three-1-Three is the latest Belleville watering hole to face what many bar owners are calling persecution by Mayor Eckert and Belleville police chief Dave Ruebhausen. In March, twenty officers with canines in tow closed down a hip-hop concert at Main Street Jazz & Blues. (For more, see the May 24 Riverfront Times story, "Crackdown in Belleville," viewable at www.riverfronttimes.com.)
"I think the mayor wants things back the way they used to be, before the [bar] scene came up," the 37-year-old Bailey says from his ramshackle office, his voice quavering. "We've got this great thing going on, and all they want to do is shut us down. These charges are fucking drummed up. It's bullshit. If every business got shut down because they couldn't pay a bill, there would be no business."
"It's not true I'm very pleased to see positive nightlife downtown," responds Eckert. "But it's got to be done responsibly, and it's got to be done following all the rules. I've been mayor for almost nineteen months, and we've had three liquor hearings and two of them have been with Three-1-Three. So, when you equate it, the vast majority of people follow the rules. I've worked with Mr. Bailey very diligently to try to help him be successful. But he has to take responsibility to be successful."
Bailey says that if his appeal is unsuccessful, he'll start a new bar in St. Louis or elsewhere in St. Clair County.
That would be a shame, says Neal Connors, who sold Main Street Jazz & Blues last month, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
"Don was a pioneer. He really brought a lot to the community through the diversity of his performers. He certainly was someone who inspired me. I don't know if I would have had the guts to be the first music club on the block, like he was."
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