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Earnestine & Hazel's for sale: 'We need an owner that honors a dive bar-and-a-brothel's history'

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 11/23/2020 John Beifuss, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Reportedly haunted by ghosts as well as by memories, Earnestine & Hazel's — the iconic Downtown former jazz café and brothel turned beloved corner bar — is for sale.

The century-old building at the corner of South Main and G.E. Patterson was put on the market this weekend by its owner, Caitlin Chittom.

The $975,000 asking price includes the two-story structure; the furnishings and equipment inside its 2,500 square feet of space, including the famous jukebox and the grill where cooks rustle up the bar's signature "Soul Burger"; and the Earnestine & Hazel's name and brand.

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"At this point, it's a requirement that the owner preserve the business," said Chitton, who inherited the building, bar and other property from her father, veteran restaurateur and club owner Gerald "Bud" Chittom, who died in 2018 at the age of 67. 

"Earnestine's has its own energy," said Chittom's former wife, Angela Chittom-Merigian, 59.

"I  don't want to get too 'woo-woo' about the ghosts and the spirits there, but you open the door, and they come," she said. "It's unlike any establishment we've had. It has its own groove to it. 

"It sounds odd to say this, but we need an owner that honors a dive bar-and-a-brothel's history. It's not just about selling it, it's about finding the right operator. Not somebody coming from Nashville, who doesn't get it."

More: Bones discovered in the walls at Earnestine and Hazel's during restoration work

Chittom, an investor in numerous properties in the Beale Street and Pinch districts, among other locations, said she has decided to sell all the places she inherited from her father — including the only residential space on Beale, a loft apartment at 156 Beale — because maintaining was "painful."

"It makes me miss my dad," she said. "For a while, I wanted to operate everything I inherited. I kept thinking it would get easier, but it's a constant reminder of my grief. It just became too painful."

In a rough week for habitués of Memphis' most iconic watering holes, the Earnestine & Hazel's news comes a week after the owners of the similarly storied P&H Café announced plans to move from Midtown to Crosstown. The Earnestine's sale is being handled by Steve Woodyard of Woodyard Realty and Becca Dickerson of Sowell Realtors. 

A literal cornerstone establishment of the revitalized South Main Historic District, located at the same intersection as the Arcade restaurant and Central Station, and just east of the new Malco Powerhouse cinema, Earnestine & Hazel's occupies a space that reportedly originally was home to a very different type of establishment: a church.  

When the church burned down, the building that replaced it in 1918 became a Pantaze drugstore. Eventually, the 531 S. Main address was home to a sundry store and jazz club operated by Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones, where "it was well known you could buy liquor or go to the upstairs brothel where rooms rented by the hour," according to information provided by the South Main Self-Guided Walking History and Architecture Tour.

After being purchased by Chittom, with veteran bar manager Russell George as its operator, the establishment was opened as Earnestine & Hazel's in 1992. It quickly established a reputation as one of Memphis' favorite "dives," and has been used as a set for such films as Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" and Wong Kar-wai's "My Blueberry Nights," as well as for a Jack White-Loretta Lynn music video.

Tales — tall and otherwise — about the location's colorful past and ghostly present became a chief selling point. A 2017 story in Vice was bartender Karen Brownlee was titled: "What It's Like to Work in the Most Haunted Bar in America."

"One time, my coworker and I were talking about James Brown on the day that he died," Brownlee wrote. "All of the sudden, the jukebox blared on out of nowhere, scared me half to death, and started playing 'I Feel Good.'"

Haunted Memphis: Ghostly stories: Get to know the Bluff City's supernatural side

In keeping with that creepy reputation, the bar made news last year when crews restoring its interior and reinforcing the floor discovered bones inside a wall. Social media gumshoes speculated that the osseous souvenirs belonged to murdered ladies of the evening and their customers, but the discoveries eventually were identified as pork and beef bones, Chittom said.

In any case, the ghosts must be getting lonely: Earnestine & Hazel's has been closed for months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Chittom said the long closure was not a factor in her decision to sell the property.

She said reopening the bar at this time isn't worth risking the health of such longtime employees as bartender Nate "Mr. Nate" Barnes, who has worked at Earnestine & Hazel's for close to 30 years. "People see him, they cannot run in and hug him fast enough," she said. "I can't have somebody giving Mr. Nate COVID. He's 77."

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Earnestine & Hazel's for sale: 'We need an owner that honors a dive bar-and-a-brothel's history'

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