The Three Nines tavern on U.S. 1 in Jessup seems an unremarkable place — a patchwork stone, brick and white-sided two-story structure. But the establishment's everyday appeal is exactly why patrons, employees and even the owners who've sold out to upscale developers are already mourning the bar's scheduled demise in September.
To the regulars — truck drivers, mechanics and secretaries, plus a few professionals — the Three Nines is an unpretentious, welcoming spot with good food and friendly company.
"I call it the Star Wars bar," for the variety of people and occupations it attracts, said a gravel-voiced, tanned Chris Cisna, 54, of Elkridge, a steamfitter who stopped by on a Wednesday afternoon for an after-work beer and a smoke on the hot, noisy rear patio.
A fixture on what locals call "The Boulevard," the Three Nines and the Nasiatka family who once lived upstairs and have run it since 1962 represent the old Howard County that's quickly disappearing. Now new homes, shiny office buildings and modern stores that county officials laud as "revitalization" are replacing quirky, family-run places along the somewhat down-at-the-heels corridor.
"Everybody knew everybody" in the old days, remarked Dixie Law, 76, who for a quarter-century ran Woody's Bar on U.S. 1 at Guilford Road, a few miles south of the Three Nines location north of Route 175.
By year's end, developer Patrick McCuan hopes to knock down the tavern and the closed motel the Nasiatkas built and ran next door that's now used for renting trucks. Then work can start on a "green," pedestrian-friendly 52,000-square-foot office and retail complex.
Across the noisy highway, McCuan is also part of a group preparing to build hundreds of townhouses in a development called Howard Square, which locals knew for decades as the old Aladdin Mobile Home Park. A bit farther north, a nursing home is to replace the closed Stallion Motel, and several more housing developments boasting over 1,000 new units are on the drawing boards. In another decade, this section of U.S. 1 between Route 175 and Route 100 will be hardly recognizable as the 20th-century industrial corridor many remember.
In testimony before the Howard County Council this year, McCuan called the bar "unsightly," angering many patrons and employees.
"I realize the building is old and not new and shiny like Howard County would like it to be, but that is the attraction: the comfort of feeling at home," said Tammy Jackson, a bartender at the Three Nines for seven years. That sense of down-home community has been eroding for years along the road, but the bar's boosters want people to know it's still strong in spots.
The Three Nines is the only one of a clutch of old-fashioned bars still left on the stretch between Woody's near Savage and Daniel's in historic Elkridge.
"It's like the end of an era. I really feel bad. I hate to see it go," Law said. Back in 1983, the late Stanley "Mr. Stan" Nasiatka Sr. lent Law $25,000 cash to help her buy Woody's, she said, and that was just one of his and now his son Stan Jr.'s many well-remembered acts of kindness and generosity. Margaret Lawson, 55, said that one day 28 years ago she was in Woody's pouring out her troubles to the elder Mr. Stan and he hired her on the spot for his own place. The second income kept her solvent, she said.
"They're the best people to work for. If you need help, they'll try to help you," she said.
"He helped everybody I know," said Mary Williams, 79, of Jessup, who said Stan Sr. used to come to Woody's for coffee and conversation every morning and taught the former waitress how to "count my money" and open up for the day's business. The Nasiatkas often donate to local community groups and causes, and also offer their employees health insurance and the chance to save for retirement.
"He used to make the rounds. He liked to meet people," Stan Jr., said about his coal miner/construction worker father, who died in 1997. His equally well-known mother, Rose, died in 2004. She often closed up at night, Stan Jr. said, and would use the classic bartender's line to clear the place.
"You don't have to go home, but you have to get out of here," Rose would say, according to Stan Jr.
The Three Nines has survived and prospered, proprietor Stan Nasiatka Jr. said, by finding a niche offering good, cheap food to boost lunchtime and dinner business, a small package-goods section, a friendly atmosphere and late-night music ranging from country-western to rap. He enlarged the kitchen years back to boost the food offerings as people's drinking habits changed. In short, he's tried to adapt.
"I think the area is busy and people look for a place to socialize," he said. Stan Jr. is a college-trained businessman who also likes people and likes to talk.
The family, including Stan Jr., 49, his wife Linda, and sisters Connie Slezak, 57, a teacher, and Blanche Dymond, 54, a BGE employee, sold their property two years ago. Faced with a changing landscape around them, they felt they either had to go deeply into debt and renovate or rebuild, or sell out and move.
"We were debt-free," Nasiatka said. A clean break was the best way, he felt. He's moving his liquor license to a pool hall he owns one block north and across the highway in an old shopping center. He plans to call the place the "Triple Nines," but it will never be the same, he said.
He and his sisters grew up in the spacious four-bedroom apartment over the bar, they said, recalling with wonder now how they could sleep through the late-night noise and music. Mostly empty now, one bedroom of the upstairs is occupied by "a guy I'm helping out," Stan Jr. said. His sisters chuckled because they say he's so like his dad.
"We used to run from window to window to see what was going on, when things got a bit rough downstairs," Connie recalled. Their mother working below could hear them running around when they were supposed to be asleep but weren't, she laughed, and occasionally a leaky shower would drip water through the floor onto a customer's bar stool. Their dad would slam the freezer door hard in the bar if he felt they were sleeping too late and wanted to wake them. All the kids worked to help the business, but Stan Jr. took over as proprietor in 1982, he said, about when long-distance truck driver Tyrone Makell, 56, started stopping at the family's motel, where he could park his big rig, get his food and drink, and rest.
"It's a sad day, the day it happens," he said of the demolition, shaking his head.
Jack Gibson, 77, said he first spotted the tavern as he unloaded furniture for his new home in the Aladdin park in 1967, he said. He's been a regular patron for 43 years and remembers a preschool-age Stan Jr. running around the place.
"I won't leave it," he said. "It's going to leave me. It's just a great place that's going to be missed," he observed as he shooed another regular off "his" window-side stool. Gibson said he's not upset with Stan's family for selling.
"You got to move on," he said. "You got to better yourself."