“There is no legal definition” of a dive bar, says author Anthony Head.
So Head got to make one up along with his photographer friend and collaborator, Kirk Weddle, for their new book “Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State.” The book profiles 12 bars across Texas.
Head spoke with Texas Standard about what makes a good dive bar and what he thinks the future holds for these types of places. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: How do you define a dive bar?
Anthony Head: It’s up to anybody to figure out what elements need to be in place to be a dive. But I would say that consistently, every dive has a lot of time in the past tense, and they have a regular group of customers who support them financially.
These are corner bars. These are cantinas and pubs. These are places that have no agenda. They tend to be open earlier in the day. In Texas, they’re legally allowed to open at 7 a.m. and many of them do. So they’re catching third shifters as they get off work. They’re catching people who just arrived into town and got off the bus and need to wind down. I think there’s a misconception that dive bars are outposts of the wretched and alcoholics and the downtrodden. And that’s absolutely not the case. And that’s what this book really is trying to bring across by showing just daily life in these 12 bars.
Are dive bars mostly in urban areas? Or are they in rural Texas, too?
They’re everywhere, to be sure. Like for my friend Kirk, he’s my photographer buddy, he is just all about the ambiance. He has just got to feel very welcome there. For me, it’s got to have a good jukebox with real CDs. Now they are getting harder and harder to find. So we do have things we look for when we are trying to find a good dive.
Maybe we should start listing off some of the ones that you focus on in your book. What’s your favorite?
Oh, well, I’m not going to answer that because then the 11 others will get upset. But I can tell you that La Perla, which is on East Sixth Street in Austin, is a wonderful place that has been around for decades. And it’s been in the same family for now two generations.
We went in kind of undercover, incognito, and just really tried to get the vibe of the bar. And then we would approach the owner and let them know what we were doing. That allowed us to check off and cross out some of the bars we were considering because they were more like dumps, not dives.
What distinguishes a dump from a dive?
A dump is a place where life has no hope. I’m telling you, it’s intellectually unreachable. It’s bigoted. And it’s a closed, unwelcoming society. Whereas a dive is the exact opposite of all those.
If you go into a Texas dive, do the clientele see you as an outsider typically, or do they open up to you?
They definitely know when somebody has been there their first time because it’s a new face. That should not intimidate anybody because, as I said, they’re curious. They’re curious about why you came in. So, my advice is just go immediately to the bartender and order something. Don’t be afraid of silence. Just listen for a while. And with time, someone will approach you and ask you, “Hey, what’s your story?” And you might also get a free drink out of it.
Could you name some other bars in your book that might be familiar to some listeners?
Oh, well, let’s go with Saddle Bronc in San Angelo, Riley’s Tavern in Hunter, The Texas T in San Antonio. The Goat in Dallas. Shorty’s in Port Aransas. I can tell you right now for whoever’s listening to that, they just cheered because Shorty’s is by far Texas’ dive bar. It is the official dive bar of Texas.
What makes Shorty’s Texas’ dive bar?
Some really weird supernatural powers. We got told at least six times on our travels, “you got to go to Shorty’s.” So here were these great dive bars all recommending one place. And so I don’t know what makes Shorty’s Shorty’s, but I can tell you that after being there, we both just felt really reinvigorated. It just had a great vibe to it.
You finished putting together your book just months before the pandemic. How have the bars that you profiled fared?
I’m happy to say, overall, what was going on in Texas bars is going on today. We’ve gotten back to normal.
Unfortunately, we had two bars that did not make it through the pandemic. We had two owners, Alice Ward of Alice’s Tall Texan in Houston and Glynda Oglesby of The Wizzard in Galveston, both retired after long, distinguished careers with fabled, almost mythical dive bars in their respective locations. So we went ten for 12.
I can tell you that, based on the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, that bartending as a profession is expected to rise by about 30% in the next decade. And so that tells me that bars will be around and they will keep getting older and they will stop trying to keep up with the times and just go with the flow. So I’m very confident that we will have a nice crop of dive bars with a little more aging.
The authors are about to wrap up their “Texas Dives World Book Tour” at La Perla in Austin on Wednesday, Sept. 28.