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"Where you gonna work, Jade?" someone called out to the bartender. She shrugged as she poured a pint, and the biker guy beside me sank his head in his hands.
"This is just sad," he said.
It was Friday happy hour, but it felt like a wake.
For regulars, news that XPO Lounge was closing came as no surprise. For months, rumors had been circulating about the beloved dive bar--about a rift between landlord Kip Lott and owner Jim Sibert, about Lott wanting to open his own bar in the same location. (Lott had not returned phone calls at press time.) There was litigation and backstage drama, but regardless of the details, the result was the same: XPO is going away. By the time you read this, it will probably already be gone.
"We lost our lease," explains Sibert, who opened the bar in 1998. He doesn't care to elaborate, although he agrees to field a few rumors: It has nothing to do with new condominiums in the area (gentrification theory); it has nothing to do with starting a nearby sibling business, Double Wide, that may have cut into profits (bad-business theory); it has nothing to do with an ailing downtown bracing for a contagion of closings (Deep Ellum theory). "This was our second best summer ever," Sibert says, lighting an American Spirit. If anything, the Deep Ellum problems helped XPO; it nudged more people in the bar's direction.
But on the afternoon I meet Sibert inside the empty bar, he'd prefer to dwell on happier things: the customers who got married, who became friends or fell in love. Sibert met his own wife at the bar, and talking about it, he gets choked up for a second, but he steadies himself and pours a shot of Ketel One. It's been one of those weeks.
"I did this bar not to make money," he says. "My job is to throw a party every night. I'm an entertainer and a matchmaker and a house jester." The bar's hospitality is well-known. For a while, they held annual second-chance proms. Every Thursday night, DJ Mark Ridlen hosted his infamous Scaraoke show (as of next week, Ridlen will move to the Meridian Room). Over the years, Sibert decorated the place like the living room of a demented grandparent, full of garage-sale kitsch and goofball taxidermy (an armadillo, a jackalope). Now the decorations have names on the back, designating who will take them home when the place shuts down Wednesday at midnight.
Of course, the story of another bar closing is not exactly news. It's what happens to bars--they wither, they die, they reopen as a Starbucks. But in a city where down-to-earth, like-minded people can be as easy to come by as snow in July, a place like XPO means something.
"It's real; it's unpretentious," one regular tells me. "There's no Dallas bullshit here." Indeed, while guest-list-only clubs like Sense and Candle Room build their reputation on Manhattan snobbery and Los Angeles exclusivity, XPO lived by a different credo: Anyone was welcome, anytime.
"We've got architects sitting next to auto mechanics," says Jeff Poffenbarger, aka Poff, who has worked at XPO for two and a half years in various capacities. "Most bars have some stupid TV playing stupid sports. We have a TV in here, but there is never a football game on," he says proudly. The bar did watch the State of the Union address. And they sometimes watch Complex: Malibu, a reality show that features a couple who are customers. But the appeal of XPO is the people, not the periphery.
"We like to say this is the neighborhood bar, but no one lives in the neighborhood," says a regular named Lulu, sitting on the spacious back patio with a circle of friends--visual artists, filmmakers, designers, writers--who gather once a week after work to plow through pop culture and politics, martinis and Marlboro Lights.
"Let me tell you something that will explain XPO," says Dawn, a customer who sits surrounded by three guys. "I didn't know these people when I came here tonight."
It's like Poff told me earlier: "You may come here not knowing anybody, but you leave knowing everybody."
Like Greg and Laura, a married couple who have been coming to XPO every Thursday since they began dating. They even celebrate what they call their "kissiversary," which happened at the outdoor gazebo strung with Christmas lights. "A lot of lives have been lived out here," Laura says, looking out over the clogged patio. "It's more than these lanterns and this table."
Eventually, a discussion evolves about what bar will take XPO's place. Maybe Lee Harvey's, if the neighborhood were a little better. Or the Lakewood Landing, if it had a back porch. Everyone has a suggestion; everyone knows somebody will come along and create this kind of community again, this kind of family-room feel. I mean, a bar can't just close never to be replaced again.