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VOL. 37 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 2, 2013

Amid 8th Avenue change, a smokey, dark, underground oasis

By Tim Ghianni

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Jules Ledbetter unleashes a shot at the subterranean Melrose Billiards on 8th Avenue.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Kevin Wright slices limes for the promised ice-cold tequila shots – “We serve all kinds of liquor and beer,” he says – as another day gets underway in the literal foundation from which is springing a “new” strip of mixed retail and residential development in Melrose.

For about 70 years, pool players have ducked down the stairs into the basement of this long-past-prime strip center on Eighth Avenue in Berry Hill.

Even as the above-ground strip turned into a ghost town – with the Melrose Lanes bowling alley being demolished long ago and The Sutler and the old Melrose movie house also fading to distant memories – loyal customers have filled the parking lot and tromped downstairs to play pool 10 a.m. to 3 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and from noon to midnight on Sundays.

Sometimes the goal is a cold or stiff one at the everybody-knows-your-name bar. But more often, billiards and snooker are the attractions for both participants and spectators.

“Billiards” glimmers in neon just above a round porthole window on the street-level door to stairs that descend beneath the hot and dusty building site where cranes, carpenters and construction workers toil to build the 100-plus condos adjacent to the strip center. Hard hats tote tools in and out of the long-dead cinema and Sutler neighborhood pub and club, both being rehabbed into to-be-announced retail and dining establishments.

While sun blisters the workers outside, it’s always night time at the foot of the stairs, where Wright puffs on a Kool as he performs his opening-up tasks in the sprawling, 10-pool table hall.

“It’s a one-man band,” he says, as one of his 10 a.m. customers reads the morning newspaper while sucking on a beer – likely a Gerst, the beverage of choice since the proprietors own that label, produced at Yazoo Brewing Company in the Gulch.

This one-man band has a history almost as rich as the hall where he works, as he’s spent his entire adult working life underground in Berry Hill. And even as developers are putting a fresh face and injecting hope and vitality into the center and surrounding condos that will constitute The Melrose, the historical significance of the pool hall is being taken into consideration.

“There will be a pool hall there,” says Ed Fulcher, a member of Melrose Partners LLC, which is developing the promise above the pool hall.

“We don’t want the pool hall to go away because it’s a fixture.”

While his group is not yet ready to announce the remaining details of what will be in the dining and retail section, he’s certain the underpinning – Melrose Billiards – will remain.

“It’s a great amenity for the area,” he says.

Of course it’s within walking distance of his company’s condos, as well as others being developed up and down Eighth. It’s also a destination for musicians, mixers and the like who work in the bustling Berry Hill music studios, many of which are just uphill from the old theater.

Regulars begin taking their seats on a recent weekday afternoon at the subterranean Melrose Billiards. Construction above has had little effect on the hall where Minnesota Fats used to rack ’em.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Jim and Jerry Chandler, whose C&C Management owns the actual billiards hall – along with the Gerst Haus restaurants, the Gerst beer label and Sportsman’s Grilles and Lodges in Nashville and in Evansville, Ind. – are proud to have built their lives around the historic venue where rock and country stars tussle with average Joes over snooker and eight-ball tables.

The two bought the pool hall – it opened in the 1940s – in 1969, following a dream they had fashioned while they attended Michigan State University in their native state.

“They had a family billiard hall up there with a carpet and Tiffany lamps,” Jim Chandler remembers.

The brothers, who saw themselves more as entrepreneurs than “corporate types,” Jim says, thought something similar would be “a nice concept” for their future.

That future was discovered, almost by accident, on Eighth Avenue.

“Jerry was touring to Florida back in 1969 and he stopped in Nashville,” the older brother remembers. “He asked the owner – a fellow named Stanton – if he wanted to sell it. The guy was in his 80s and was ready.”

Jim Chandler and his wife had been saving money in Michigan for a yet-undetermined entrepreneurial venture, and they trekked to Nashville to close the deal and begin their new lives and their futures around the basement pool parlor.

“It was pretty much a junker when we got it,” he says. “We remodeled it and we reopened.”

Other than a fire that closed it in the mid-1970s, the Great Nashville Flood of 2010 that swamped the hall and a recent construction-related flood that necessitated the carpet be pulled up, it has served Nashville’s billiards players ever since.

As for the 2010 flood, Chandler is happy to report that while it drowned the poolroom, it didn’t steal the pool hall’s life.

“It was pretty bad. The water was up six feet inside the building. It was a pretty big mess, left a lot of slime behind,” he says. “But the tables survived just fine. … Those are expensive tables down there. We put in some good drying equipment.”

The valuable tables for the most part dried out and were ready for eight-ball games as soon as the hall was re-opened for business. A volunteer army of regular customers, most enlisted via Facebook, helped in the rehab of their personal Mecca, getting it up and running as quickly as possible.

The hall, the foundation for the brothers’ other successes, was successful almost from the time the Chandlers opened it as Gold Railing Cue in 1969. It was renamed Chandler Brothers – a neon sign behind the bar commemorates that name moniker – before becoming Melrose Billiards.

“It was a real big hit,” Chandler says of the billiards oasis that, back then, had a bustling movie house and bowling lanes among other neighbors.

“We got the Vanderbilt and Belmont kids, and it has gained a reputation as a place to go. It has stayed busy up through good times and bad. All the problems we’ve had with the center going out of business and losing all the tenants, we have stayed alive,” Chandler says.

The Chandlers expanded to jukeboxes and vending machines in truck stops around Nashville in the 1970s and, for awhile, operated a truck stop with accompanying motel and 24-hour-a-day restaurant in Dickson.

They opened their first Sportsman’s Grille in Belle Meade in 1985, following that with another in Evansville and another Sportsman’s near Vanderbilt and eventually another at Cool Springs. Twentieth Century Billiards, with six antique Brunswick tables, also owned by the Chandlers, operates above the Sportsman’s Grille in Hillsboro Village.

Perhaps their crowning achievement came in 1988, when “we bought the Gerst Haus and the rights to the beer. The owners were ill and wanted to retire.”

Another Gerst Haus is now in Evansville, Ind., opening after the first Gerst Haus had to be razed to make way for what is now LP Field. The Chandlers relocated the Nashville Gerst Haus in a sparkling new building across from the stadium parking lot by the time Steve McNair and Eddie George took to the field in 1999.

And, of course, there is their beer, which Chandler proudly points out is popular in grocery stores and on tap at restaurants around town.

“Recreation has been a part of our life for our entire working lives,” Chandler says. “We’ve been lucky to survive the bad times and enjoy the good times. We have had remarkable growth starting from scratch.”

Of course, it was beneath the glistening promise of what will be The Melrose that the Chandlers began chalking their pathway to success.

And Chandler says “the steady customers” are the reason for Melrose Billiards’ success. A Cheers-like camaraderie, though with no Norm nor Sammy, is evident to anyone taking that 16th downward step.

“We are one of the only games in town if you want to shoot pool. People are looking for entertainment. They don’t just want to go to a bar and watch a TV set. We provide a good source of entertainment,” he says.

In addition to the pool tables, there is one shuffleboard and two Ping-Pong tables. Cue racks line the walls and there’s plenty of comfortable seating – and ash trays – for those who just want to sit and watch.

The fact it is a “family” of sorts that frequents this hall is evident in that a box filled with snap beans is on a table near the door. A customer brought the beans in for anyone to grab a handful or two.

Chandler is looking forward to the future as Melrose Billiards remains a big part of the family business. “The landlord plans to keep us there, so we’re hopeful to have another long stint,” he says. “That pleases us greatly.”

And the construction upstairs as well as elsewhere up and down Eighth Avenue gives him reason to smile.

“It should be a nice center when it gets finished, with the restaurants and the retail and all the establishments. It should be good for our future. The synergy in the neighborhood is right,” he says.

But the future remains under construction on this sizzling summer’s day. A sign saying the pool hall is open during construction hangs in one of the empty storefronts above. The parking lot, now filled with cars of the guys with hardhats, gradually gives way to those driven by pool players and beer drinkers as the day progresses.

“We have about 300 people every day here,” Wright says, busily prepping for another day in the place he has worked for 36 years, beginning when he was 23.

“Nothing is locked in stone,” he says of the plan to keep the pool hall alive, “but I’m thrilled, anxious to get going. It’s been kind of lonely around here.”

He looks around the sprawl of his “home,” where an old Wurlitzer record jukebox serves as decoration only, replaced by a shining mp3 machine.

A cigarette machine offers up hardcore smokes – only Winstons, Marlboros and Salems – at $7 a pack.

“We been the only business here,” Wright says, noting that the theater closed perhaps 20 years ago, the bowling lanes long have been demolished and The Sutler died about eight years ago.

“I’d love to see this cleaned up.”

As far as he’s concerned, the future looks good deep in the foundation of The Melrose – Berry Hill’s next big thing.

The big crush of pool players won’t come until later, he says, as he goes about his stocking and slicing, things that can’t be accomplished when the balls are racked up and broken, when the smoke-filled air is punctuated by the solid “clack” of cue balls blasting other balls toward a pocket.

The early morning regular at the bar turns to another section of the newspaper and slowly sips on his breakfast.

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