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Need a little elbow room?

Published on May 3, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

Stroll into The Elbow Room, and you might hear Otis Redding tell you his plans.

"I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes."

Described as quirky, out of place, dark, unusual and laid back, The Elbow Room is all of these things, but at its heart, something simple. For three generations it's supplied its customers with pizza, beer and atmosphere.

In an unassuming brick building on Cervantes Street in Brownsville, old-timers and the blue collars mingle with the hipsters and scene kids who spill over from the shows at Sluggo's two blocks west.

The jukebox only takes quarters - a buck gets

11 songs. It plays 45s: Redding, Artie Shaw, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown and The Beatles.

Scratch a little deeper. Wander around and look at the walls.

Yes, that's a framed picture of Captain Kirk and Spock. Are those Tribbles behind the bar?

The lighted baseball machine that hangs near the back of the bar is controlled with a shoebox-sized remote control with a single button.

"It's a place you can bring people to," said Mandy Glickman, 43, who started coming to the bar in the late 1980s. "They have no idea where you are taking them, and it's just this little jewel. Just look around you."

Lit mostly by deep crimson lamps and table candles, this is the antithesis of many bars in this beach community. No shoulder to shoulder crowds. No screaming over the throbbing beats of dance music. No television.

"You go into a bar with a television, you have to throw something at the bartender to get their attention," owner Jim Flynn said. "You go out to talk to people, to interact with people, not to watch television."

Lesa, the bartender, in a white dress and the gingham apron, remembers your name.

Little has changed since Jim Flynn, 69, opened his dream-bar. Built to his taste - full of Star Trek and Schlitz - Flynn ran The Elbow Room for decades with his mother Maggie at his side.

Several years ago, he became sick with emphysema, and as he came to grips with the physical limitations of his illness, Jim Flynn discovered he couldn't run a bar everyday by himself.

"If you smoke, stop," he warned.

Flynn had no children to carry on his legacy.

His was a Pensacola landmark on the verge of extinction.

In the beginning

Maggie Flynn took a job in 1944 at Kelly Hardware & Emery D. Lee Cooling & Heating at the corner of Cervantes and Q streets. Ten years later she took over a small cafe next door and called it Maggie's Cafe.

Stationed in France with the Navy, Jim Flynn fell in love with a bar in the city of Nice called Le Gorille, a pub with a jungle theme illuminated with dark red lights, his favorite color.

When he returned to Pensacola in 1963, Jim Flynn convinced his mother to transform her corner cafe into a pizza pub. He wanted to replicate what he saw in France. Without the resources to make an exact replica, he kept it simple. He lowered the ceilings, blocked the windows and turned on the red lights.

"To me, bars should be bars. Not big, bright daylight like the bars downtown," Jim Flynn said. "A pizza pub and tavern should be dark and cool, temperature wise, in the summertime."

The Elbow Room arrived.

Jim Flynn decided to look for a new place. Regulars warned that if he moved the bar anywhere else, they weren't likely to follow.

He moved, but they didn't have to follow far. He bought the lot next door and built a new bar.

With the help of his friends, everything was reconstructed as it was in the old bar. The only difference: The new place was five feet wider.

"It worked for 22 years," he said. "Why change it?"

Mother and son ran business as usual - she worked in the day, except Wednesdays when she worked the night shift. He worked nights.

That was the arrangement for the next 20 years. Then, in 1996, Maggie Flynn died at 80.

New interest sparks

Lesa Ethridge was 14 years old when she first walked into The Elbow Room. Her grandmother Jean Ethridge spent Wednesday nights there with her neighbor Maggie Flynn.

Lesa Ethridge, now 34, would play cards, eat pizza and pump quarters into the pinball.

When she turned 19, Lesa Ethridge brought her then - boyfriend Fred Touchette to The Elbow Room.

Now married, The Elbow Room has an inexplicable connection to the Touchettes' lives. It is tied tightly to the early days of their relationship. They were devastated when they came to The Elbow Room in 2007 and found it closed.

So Lesa Touchette wrote Jim Flynn a letter.

Taking over

She proposed that Jim Flynn retain ownership of The Elbow Room, but the couple would lease and run the bar day to day. After two years, the Touchettes have the option to buy.

He was a hard sell.

"He's very attached," Lesa Touchette said. "This has been his baby."

But he agreed.

The Touchettes reopened the bar in the November, and business is good.

They decided they would only "embellish" what was already there.

"But Jim, he notices all of the little changes," Lesa Touchette said.

Little changes

The Touchettes doubled the beer menu. They increased the wine offerings and added champagne cocktails like the Sham-Wow and the Spock-tale. They also added foods such as hummus and hot dogs.

They even added hooks under the bar for ladies' purses.

The Touchettes wanted to put a movie projector in the back room, but Jim Flynn agreed, but only if they played strictly "Star Trek" movies.

"I would love to be able to do like my mother did and work until the day I die," Jim Flynn said. "I don't have any children to take over for me when I die like my mama."

Jim Flynn knows that he's not in control anymore.

"I try to keep my mouth shut, but I'm not doing a really good job of it," he admitted. "I go down maybe once a week to see how things are going.

"It is hard, but I know I can't do it anymore. Let's hope it does good."

Once or twice a week, you'll find Jim Flynn, seated at a video game machine at the end of the bar. He directs all questions to the new captain of the vessel he built.

And somewhere in the background, Otis Redding sings: "Watching the ships roll in, and then I watch 'em roll away again."