Everyone is welcome at Pro Shop Pub

Clearwater's venerated bar opened its doors to everyone 37 years ago.

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click to enlarge BACK IN THE DAY: One of the original spots in Tampa Bay where anyone was welcome. - Pro Shop Pub
Pro Shop Pub
BACK IN THE DAY: One of the original spots in Tampa Bay where anyone was welcome.

Clearwater’s Pro Shop Pub was an unlikely candidate for a gay bar.

“It was never supposed to be a gay bar,” says longtime customer Todd Kachinski Kottmeier. A straight family — Mike Anderson, his sister Patti, and their mother Gail — opened the Pro Shop Pub in 1976 in a building which had housed a series of restaurants. Kottmeier’s parents moved from a small town in Michigan to a home situated behind the pub.

“The first dollar bill on their wall is mine,” he says proudly. “It wasn’t a gay bar then, not until Nancy started bartending.”

When lesbian bartender Nancy O’Neill started working at the Pro Shop, word spread fast. The boom in business sold the owners on the idea.

“But it wasn’t like a bunch of gay guys were hanging out there, it was just Nancy’s friends at first,” Kottmeier says. “It was like that scene out of Star Wars, a mix of weird characters all at the bar hanging out. It’s truly a neighborhood bar.”

Not long after, he and his wife went there regularly for “super cheap beer and pool.” Kottmeier would sip on 50-cent drafts while his wife would play pool well enough that she was “ranking up there with the lesbians.”

“Pro Shop made a big impact on me,” he says. “I didn’t know any gay people before then. Just as the Pro Shop was evolving, my wife and I were evolving, too.”

Kottmeier had four children with his wife, but discovered (partly thanks to the Pro Shop) that he was gay. He now lives in Phoenix.

“I blame Pro Shop for making me gay,” he says, laughing. “And Nancy, too.”

Because of the inexpensive libations, the Pro Shop Pub came to serve a varied cross-section of the population, even after becoming the city’s “unofficial gay bar.”

“The true alcoholics in downtown Clearwater kept hanging around because of the cheap beer,” he says. “It was such an eclectic group because you had people who would never hang around a gay person, hanging around a gay person.”

That diversity provided Kottmeier with inspiration for his writing; he’s a best-selling author known for such titles asThe Official Drag Handbook and Two Days Past Dead.

“To write a good book, you have to have character development,” he says. “No bar inside my young life had better character development than the Pro Shop. You’d have the seediest character in town sitting right next to a predominant lawyer coming in from the courthouse,” he says. “Somewhere in between them is where I sat.”

Even though he lives in Phoenix now, Kottmeier still writes about his time at the Pro Shop today.

“I knew I could write a book about drag queens because of the people I’d met in my life,” he says. “Everything comes from those years. I was a young man when that all began.”

It’s been nearly four decades since Kottmeier started going to the Pro Shop Pub. He argues that the Pub might have closed long ago had it opened as a gay bar.

“Most bars open with that gay or lesbian stigma,” he says. “But the Pro Shop was and is definitely a neighborhood bar.”

Even when downtown Clearwater’s night scene slowed, Kottmeier says the Pro Shop’s dedication to its neighborhood transformed a simple bar into a Clearwater institution. He isn’t the only one who thinks so. As the Pro Shop prepared for this year’s Pride parade, they asked folks to share their stories via Facebook. Responses flooded onto the page from customers young and old.

“It was my first gay bar,” wrote customer John Miani. “I was terrified. I sat in the parking lot for hours before going in. All that fear was for nothing. I was greeted warmly and had a great time.”

Some didn’t just find acceptance there — they found love.

“Met my match there … Twenty years we were together,” John Spofford wrote. “How good does that get? Thank you Pro Shop!”

But the most common memory was “everyone was welcome.” And that’s kind of what makes a great bar, right?

“Gay bars that can define the neighborhoods they live in, will always be a part of the neighborhood,” Kottmeier says. “That’s why the Pro Shop succeeded from day one. It was part of the community; it was a place you came to have fun and get a good drink.”

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