In February, Martin Contreras and Keith Orr announced that the Aut Bar, long the linchpin of the local gay community, had been sold. “We were thrilled,” Orr says, “to find people whose exact words were ‘We don’t tear down properties.'”
“It’s an important institution,” says Micah Bartelme, an Ann Arbor native whose BarStar Group already owns Babs’ Underground, Nightcap, and Lo-Fi downtown.
After thirty-four years in a small former house in Braun Court, Contreras and Orr were ready to hang up their aprons. “It’s been about seven years since we had a real vacation,” points out Orr. In addition to the bar, they owned three neighboring buildings: Spiral Tattoo, the Jim Toy Community Center, and the recently closed Common Language gay and lesbian bookshop. “We’re ‘Gay Central,'” says Orr with a smile.
The bar started life in 1985 as La Casita de Lupe, a Mexican restaurant named for Contreras’s mother. Ten years later, it became the Aut Bar–the name announcing that in contrast to Ann Arbor’s original gay bar, the curtained-off Flame, it would be out and proud. Though “straight friendly,” the couple made the bar’s identity clear with rainbow flags and Mapplethorpe photos, drag nights, and courtyard gatherings marking significant events for the gay community, from euphoric (the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision in 2015) to heartbreaking (the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shootings).
Though the bar prospered during its first decade, it took a pounding during the Great Recession. While things improved since, as Contreras puts it, “there are peaks and valleys”–and lately, “we’ve been seeing a bit more valleys.”
The change partially reflects bars’ diminished role as a meeting place; more people seeking romance just go online. (Many gay bars around the country have closed in recent years.) And like other restaurants, Aut has grappled with rising food costs and worker shortages.
Though BarStar bought all four buildings, Contreras and Orr will continue to run the business until a provisional liquor license transfer goes through, probably sometime this month. They will miss their regulars but look forward to time to enjoy music, travel, and share special moments with their aging dog, Duke. As for the legacy of Aut, Orr says, “Probably the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is that we were there” for young people struggling to find their identities. “We were a safe place.”
The Facebook announcement of the retirement attracted a chorus of good wishes and regretful goodbyes. “Please Bar Star Group, please don’t change a thing,” writes one fan.
Bartelme, thirty-three, says there will be changes but stresses that he and his team respect “the identity and soul and essence” of the business. He’s straight–he and his wife have twin daughters–but says that, in purchase discussions, sexual orientation “never came up.”
A graduate of Pioneer High, Bartelme was an art and film major at Eckerd College in Florida, later helping to produce the acclaimed independent film Bilal’s Stand. But “since I was seventeen, I’ve always had a job in the bar business,” he says. In 2010, he was managing Rush Street when he had a chance to buy the lounge with partners; they built it up and sold it. (The space is now the Blue LLama.)
Bartelme says that they’ll do some “cosmetic renovation” to the building and are evaluating menu changes. He’d like to expand live entertainment offerings, particularly in summer–“the courtyard is actually one of the best assets in Ann Arbor.
“Martin and Keith have graciously offered us assistance in the transition,” Bartelme adds. “We’ll be definitely counting them as a resource. We’re not going in with any preconceived notions.
“How many people have invested issues and emotions in the space? We want to make sure we honor the history and legacy … it is delicate, and we’re treating it delicately.”
Aut Bar, 315 Braun Ct., (734) 994-3677. Tues.-Fri. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. autbar.com
This article has been edited since it was published in the April 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. Micah Bartelme’s high school has been corrected.