click to enlarge
Photo by SK West
Wilson's Sports Lounge in St. Petersburg, Florida. had its last call on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Beloved dive bars often share some overlapping characteristics—sticky floors, cheap drinks, windowless rooms, unchanging decor, decades of history—but each one feels unique in its own right. They’re where you go for a sense of the familiar, a fixture in your town that stands the test of time in an ever-changing landscape of high-rise developments and freshly-painted parking lots. Beloved dive bars have a crowd of regulars that bitch about drink prices going up a quarter or a digital jukebox getting installed; after all, it’s really the people who make any place special. And it’s never easy to say goodbye.
One of my favorite dive bars, Wilson’s Sports Lounge, closed last weekend after about 50 years of business. The iconic teal building off 4th street and 30th Avenue North in St. Petersburg had its last call on Saturday, where patrons new and old gathered to swap stories one more time. I’m writing this to share my sentiments for Wilson’s and all the memories I have where the bar is simultaneously the backdrop and the main character.
For those who never visited, allow me to paint the picture of all Wilson’s is (or was): the bright teal paint on the curved walls outside coated the wood panels inside, which made the sports memorabilia and alcohol posters pop in contrast. The floor was low-pile carpet that absorbed whatever spills happened. The bar itself was a stumpy, hollow L-shape with a few inches of padded vinyl lining its countertop perimeter for patrons to comfortably rest their arms. Smoking was allowed and the lighting was ambient. Several TVs were hung near the ceiling and a selection of snacks actually was hanging from the ceiling. There was always something to look at.
As I said, though, it’s really the people who make any place special. The bartenders would juggle drink orders without a sweat and lovingly tell you to go to hell if the moment warranted; the regulars would make you feel welcome even if it was your first time there. Everyone was themselves, which is perhaps another overlapping qualifier for dives. There’s no need to masquerade as something you’re not—Wilson’s never tried to be a copy, it was wholly original.
After years of growing up in St. Pete and driving past the building a million times, I finally made the move to check Wilson’s out in September. Wait, what? I’m writing this love letter to the place after only nine months of experiencing it? Such is the power of love, dear reader.
My first night at Wilson’s was a Friday—karaoke night, of course. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I could leave if I wasn’t having fun, which is good to remember for much of life. I introduced myself as the real Slim Shady, made friends with some people sitting at the bar, chatted with the bartenders, and the rest is history. I never had a bad time at Wilson’s.
Returning one final time this past Saturday evening felt surreal. This time around, I truly didn’t know what to expect and felt a small weight of nostalgia settle into my heart. Before I even reached the door, I was warmly welcomed by some regulars outside catching up and making plans for what the next regulars' haunt would be. Upon entering, a couple sitting at the counter addressed me as “Love Shack Girl,” one of my favorite songs for karaoke, and we chatted for a little while. I went behind the bar and hugged the bartenders. Any notion of familiarity or recognition was sincerely shared and received at Wilson's.
There are a number of pithy cliches I’m tempted to insert here—all good things must come to an end, for example—but I’ll refrain and simply inadequately express my gratitude. Thank you to Cathy, Aubrey, Matt, Jeannie, Moon, Jenny, Charlie, Disco, Donald, Drew, Jeff and his dad Jeff, Chris, Rachel, Adam, Emma, Mark, Tiffany, Robin, and everyone else who made Wilson’s Wilson’s. I’m glad I got to be a small part of it.
click to enlarge
Photo by SK West
Wilson's, the iconic teal building off 4th street and 30th Avenue North in St. Petersburg. had its last call on Saturday, June 11, 2022.