Iconic West Village speakeasy Chumley’s is closing and auctioning off its memorabilia

July 27, 2020

Photo courtesy of A.J. Willner Auctions

Update: A representative from A.J. Willner tells 6sqft that the auction has been cancelled due to the landlord objecting to the restaurant’s right to sell the equipment.

The lastest iconic eatery to shutter in the wake of the COVID pandemic is Chumley’s. Opened in 1922, the West Village bar and restaurant was a speakeasy during Prohibition, becoming famous as a literary haunt for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and J.D. Salinger. It faced an uncertain future in 2007 when a collapsed wall forced it to close; 10 years of red tape followed, but Chumley’s reopened in 2016, albeit with a new owner and fancier menu. However, Untapped New York first heard the news that Chumley’s will not reopen following the city’s shutdown orders, and they are auctioning off everything from their restaurant equipment to the tufted leather banquettes to the iconic literary memorabilia.

The auction is currently live at A.J. Willner Auctions. The preview days are tomorrow, July 28 and Wednesday, July 29, with pick-up dates from Wednesday through Friday. According to the auction page, “This fabled West Village, NY location is closed for good and everything must be sold regardless of price.” The list of available items is as follows:

  • Late Model Commercial Kitchen Equipment
  • Bar & Kitchen Refrigeration of All Kinds
  • Tufted Leather Booth Benches
  • Green Tack & Leather Upholstered Bar Stools
  • A Large Collection of Framed Literary Author Portrait Prints & Book Covers

The literary memorabilia is probably the biggest thing to hit the auction block. As a 2016 article in Gothamist describes, the walls in Chumley’s were “crowded with framed photographs of literary giants like Kerouac and Steinbeck, who once frequented the bar. Below the photos, hundreds of frayed book jackets, rescued from storage in Long Island City.” This is part of what made the place so unique.

The exterior of Chumley’s. Map data © 2020 Google

Original owner Lee Chumley came to New York City from Chicago and had been “a laborer, soldier of fortune, stage-coach driver, ‘wagon tramp’ or freelance covered wagon driver, artist, waiter, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer,” according to his 1935 obituary in the New York Times. He was also a leftist activist and union organizer. He lived above the bar and “made it a point to obtain the jacket of a book on an author’s second trip to the restaurant.”

A fun fact is that Chumley would get advance warning from the police if a raid was set to happen during prohibition. Anyone in the bar would run out through the back door at 86 Bedford Street, which is where the term “eighty-sixed” started. Another 2016 article, this one in the New Yorker, said that up until 2007, Chumley’s was a “boozy dive proud of its literary history, with sawdust on the floor, grungy graffiti-carved wooden tables, and book jackets lining the walls.”

When Chumley’s reopened in 2016, it was under the ownership of Sushi Nakazawa restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone. When the New York Times reviewed the restaurant at the time, they had some harsh words:

The dim, spare, beer-scented hideaway in the West Village is gone, torn down, not coming back. At its old address is a restaurant that has nothing in common with the original except a name, a door, an archway and framed photographs of, and jackets of books by, writers who used to drink there. Most of them wouldn’t be able to afford a cocktail there now, let alone dinner.

The book jackets and portraits, however, remained, and you can now own a piece of this history yourself.

[Via Untapped New York]

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