Shortly before Christmas, Sophie’s, a gritty, timeless bar on East 5th Street, seemed to be on its way out, one more expired holdover of a pre-gentrified, Eastern European era. Family and health pressures were forcing longtime owner Bob Corton to put it up for sale. The liquor license and lucrative location made it a likely candidate for tavern renewal, the latest in a series of dingy neighborhood watering holes to see their own last call: the International Bar, Verkhovyna, the Old Homestead Inn Inc.
Nowadays, virtually every bar in the East Village is precisely branded for age, income, sexual orientation, aesthetic. You’ll see nothing you haven’t seen, hear nothing you haven’t heard. It’s ahistorical, easily retrofitted to something new.
But Sophie’s retained the character of the worldly-wise babushka Corton bought it from in 1985. “Tough, tough old Ukrainian woman. She buried two husbands in this business,” he says. There’s still no sign outside; inside are dark, stained walls and wobbly tables ringed by creaky chairs in front, a pool table, a jukebox, and the faint (well, maybe not so faint) whiff of bathroom in the back. The only decorative touch is a wee shingled faux roof with tiny stained-glass dormer windows, over the oak bar, as though bottles of schnapps and vodka were happy peasants lined up and ready to entertain. The faces of the customers may have changed, but the people, essentially, remain the same: elderly men drinking during the day, Irish carpenters skipping out of work early for a pint, NYU students cutting class to play pool. As the light faded through the grimy shopfront, the bar would gradually fill with musician types, off-duty bartenders, artists verging on middle age, and bike messengers (the East Village’s remaining punk underclass, they seemed to hold wakes all too frequently there).
Corton’s brother, Rich, found a partner to buy Sophie’s. “I got an offer I liked and he matched it,” Bob says. Rich himself had bartended there. And so, as the city teeters on the edge of recession, Sophie’s can continue sans “mixologists” or beer sommeliers. Rich promises only one change: “I’d like the bathrooms clean.”