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Graduate Center Bar faces an uncertain future, remains closed at University’s discretion

Bar leadership expects future opening to bring lowered capacity, more expensive drinks

On a typical Saturday night early last year, students might have been packed into the Graduate Center Bar. They would order from the bar's extensive beer menu (Tecate, Lord Hobo, Fiddlehead and many, many more) then cart pitchers, popcorn and cocktails back through crowded tables, bumping elbows along the way. 

Now, the bar sits empty, and its future as a campus institution is uncertain. Susan Yund, who has been the manager of the GCB for the past 27 years, said the bar will open, when it is safe to do so, with reduced capacity and higher drink prices. 

On March 14, the GCB shuttered its doors along with the rest of the University’s campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bar, located in the basement of the Graduate Center complex, has been a long-standing favorite of undergraduate and graduate students to enjoy discounted drinks in an intimate setting in the heart of campus. The bar has been closed for just short of a year. 

That idyllic scene — jockeying for chairs to seat friend groups around tiny tables, sipping on cheap drinks and chatting with endless passersby — may be different when the bar is eventually allowed to reopen. But, even with the GCB’s characteristic crowd thinned and the possibility of pitcher prices spiking, Yund said that “the bar will be fine and will reopen when it is safe to do so.”

When Yund received the call from the University that the bar would have to close, she found the decision unsurprising due to the worsening state of the global health crisis. But Yund and her team of 10 were as prepared as they could be for the situation. 

Yund said she “always felt that the future at the (GCB’s) location was uncertain (and that) it was important to save up some money.”

The GCB is an independent business, but still has to follow Brown’s COVID-19 protocols and guidance. Therefore, the bar cannot open until the University gives permission. Yund equated the University’s relationship to the GCB to a landlord-tenant agreement. 

Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students alike were just as disappointed to see the popular social spot close its doors back in March. Sobhit Singh Arora ’21 enjoyed the camaraderie that came from the intimate setting of the GCB. It was “100 percent one of my favorite places to socialize on campus,” Arora said. 

For RISD student Trey Hollinger, the GCB was a “sanctuary” for him and his friends. It was “the prime getaway retreat from the stresses of school.” 

The GCB offered students from different class years and social circles the opportunity to mingle with each other over cheap cheese boards and drinks.

Any student entering the GCB “will definitely know at least one person,” Arora said. “You can walk over to their table and hang out with them and you will go home having met five new friends.” 

A night out at the GCB is a quintessential Brown experience that many members of the class of 2021 will have missed out on, having rung in their 21st birthdays quarantined at home.

“I turned 21 last January so I only got to go to the GCB twice before COVID hit,” said Lexi King ’21. “It seems like a bit of a staple of the Brown experience, like Blueno or seeing the Naked Donut Run, so it feels like there’s some level of commonality with the greater Brown community that current Brown students will miss out on.”

Both the College Hill and the greater Providence communities have offered their support to the GCB. The University is not holding the bar responsible for rent payments and a former graduate student, who frequented the bar, even set up a GoFundMe page to support Yund and her staff. The page has since raised just over $8,200, which was distributed by Yund to the bartenders and door staff. Still, several of the GCB bartenders have had to file for unemployment while the remainder have found employment elsewhere, Yund said. 

If the bar does get the green light from the University to open, there will be a “six week lag time” to get things organized, though the bar will be as ready as possible, Yund said. 

But when the bar does reopen, it will be different than what previous patrons remember. 

“The days of the GCB having a capacity of 153 (are) over,” Yund said. “It’s possible we are looking at a scenario of 25 to 40 people.” Yund believes that the drop in capacity may ultimately be voluntary, as patrons may be wary of crowded, enclosed spaces due to the pandemic.

The “GCB is pretty claustrophobic in a way that’s charming in non-COVID times, but would probably be a bit anxiety-inducing in current times,” King said. But other students feel that with the frequency of Brown’s testing program and overall caution of the student body and community, they could see themselves returning to the GCB.

“I would go,” Arora said. “It’s a combination of COVID-19 fatigue and feeling confident I can go to a place where (mostly) Brown students are going.” 

Hollinger also felt confident in the general caution that the community exercises in terms of COVID-19 safety.

“I could definitely see myself going back to (the) GCB if it opened in the spring, which is a strange thing to admit, but I genuinely feel as if the student body and faculty of RISD and Brown has, for the most part, been extremely responsible (and) on top of COVID precautions all year,” Hollinger said. “If (the) GCB were to open again, I trust them, as well as the students, to abide (by) and enforce all health guidelines, just like they did before campus closed down last year.” 

Even with the GCB’s closure, many students have stayed away from bars off campus. “It’s easier for me to drink with friends at home rather than going to a bar right now,” Arora said. 

Staying home is also a cheaper substitute for the GCB than going to other off-campus bars, since the GCB charges less for drinks than the typical going rate. But, Yund said the necessary drastic reduction in capacity will leave the GCB with no other choice but to raise their drink prices, since the bar will “need to make more money for each drink.” Due to this, Yund is concerned that patrons may come to the bar just to socialize and not drink, which could hurt the business financially. 



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