Jimmy Smith, 47, has been working at Petra’s Piano Bar for going on six years. In that time, he’s seen a big transition from the bar. When it opened, it served an overwhelmingly LGBT clientele. Several years ago, new owners decided to morph the bar into a gay-inclusive neighborhood bar that molded to the broader inclusiveness, eccentricities and eclectic feel of Plaza Midwood. Smith says the owners took a gamble — one that’s paid off and created a new kind of neighborhood bar even more inclusive of LGBT people than ever before. Our short chat with Smith, the runner-up in our first-ever Charlotte’s Favorite LGBT Bartender Contest, is below. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve told me before you don’t like labels when describing your sexuality.
I’ve said that for quite some time, yes. I don’t like labels. But, I use the word gay.
Why is that?
I think we’re so used to looking at things in society as either/or, black/white, left/right and gay/straight. I think, really, all of us fit into some kind of continuum. We’re really more of a grey. I appreciate the need for a label in terms of self-identification purposes and fitting into a group, but to say, “Oh, I’m gay,” there’s a lot of my history that wasn’t gay.
That description sounds a lot like the environment here at Petra’s, in terms of the kind of crowd it attracts. It’s clientele does span a spectrum. Is that why you like working here and have been here so long?
It very much is so. I’ve worked in gay bars, in particular a big gay bar in Nashville called Tribe. When I first came to Petra’s, it was predominately a gay bar. It was cool. It was great, but when the new ownership took over, we all sat down and had a meeting and discussed where we wanted to go and we thought we wanted to broaden our horizons — be a neighborhood bar, be a safe space for gay people and lesbian people and bisexuals and transgender people, but also cast a wider net. It really has worked for us. We have on any given night here a mixture of people in terms of race, sexuality, gender and age. It’s a really beautiful thing.
Some nights Petra’s is like a traditional neighborhood bar, but on others you host concerts, you have a Jazz night or you have cabaret performances. What’s your favorite type of event?
That’s a really difficult question to answer. In my 16 years of bartending, I’ve worked so many different venues. Each type of venue has a different thing to offer. What’s unique about Petra’s is that it offers all of that in one place. You’re not bored with the same thing happening every single night as an employee working here. You’ve got an extreme amount of talent walking through the doors and any night is really a different night. We have our core group of people, our loyal Petra’s crowd and then we attract people I’ve never seen every single week. It’s really cool and keeps things interesting.
What’s maybe the most memorable or humorous time you can remember working here or elsewhere?
Oh, there are so many to think of. In terms of being here, it’s that transition that took place with us. That was really significant. That was a really big gamble. The old Petra’s was pretty much phasing out. A lot of people were ready to write our obituary and we’ve lost several bars right here in Charlotte in the last few months. We heard some criticism, but we pushed forward anyway. We’ve opened up our doors and watching it all fall into place has been a beautiful thing.
In some respects, has that transition made the bar even more inclusive? Petra’s does, indeed, still attract many, many LGBT people.
That gamble has paid off on both ends. One of our most successful nights is every other Friday. It’s a Jazz night and mostly has an African-American audience. In the very beginning we had a tiny little bit of concern about it being a gay bar, but as time has gone on, and we’ve been with these guys for two years now, it’s just not an issue at all. Even on those nights, we have members of our transgender community come in, relax and have a good time. As a bartender, watching this take place, it’s just the way it should be — a microcosm of our entire community. : :