July Alley is a Deep Ellum Enigma That May Not Be Long for This World
Frank Edwards has owned July Alley for nearly a decade
Frank Edwards is a busy man these days. Earlier this month, for the second time this summer, rumors began to circulate that his bar, July Alley in Deep Ellum, was set to close. The reported closing date has come and gone, and yet Edwards still seems like a man burning the candle at both ends. Just finding the time to meet up for an interview has been next to impossible, but here we are on what feels like the hottest day to ever have to walk the earth, having a beer in one of the booths of his bar.
"This is the one dragon that's hard to slay," Edwards admits with a sigh. "I'm still working on it. All the other situations I've been able to take care of." He has long, gray hair and an even longer white beard, with tired brown eyes searching from behind his glasses. "Most businesses don't have a first anniversary," he adds, "and we are working for our tenth. I am still hopeful we can deal with this."
Edwards is no stranger to such rumors. Even before the original rumblings of the bar's closing surfaced before Fourth of July earlier this summer, questions of July Alley's future have been a recurring theme. But each time the place has managed to bounce back. This time, there have been vague suggestions of unpaid taxes, but Edwards insists he can't comment on the specifics.
Perhaps those rumors have persisted in part because, with Deep Ellum undergoing some major changes in recent years, the bar feels out of step with the direction the neighborhood is going in. It's a bar that, more often than not, is home to gnarly regulars rather than youthful showgoers. Consignment art lines the walls. Pinball machines are lined up near the front door. At the back of the room there is an unusually tall stage. Edwards explains that the stage was built right on top of another bar that wasn't needed. The stage, unused for performances of late, is loaded with plastic garbage bags full of empty beer cans.
"We recycle everything here," Edwards boasts. "We don't even have a trash service." One of Frank's employees mentions that the cans are recycled and used for Thanksgiving dinner. "We are open 365 days a year -- 366 days a year, leap year," Edwards explains. "We have a potluck on Thanksgiving for anyone who wants to come in. We also do Toys For Tots with that money."
It's not the sort of thing you might expect from July Alley at first glance. Then again, Edwards himself makes for an unusual character. He claims he first started coming to Deep Ellum because of the slam poetry scene: "A friend took me to a poetry slam down here in the mid-'90s. I was inspired and challenged. There were some amazing performances." In those days, what many still wistfully recall as the glory days of the neighborhood, there were poetry slams every Friday night in Deep Ellum, and Edwards even hosted a slam at a coffee shop on Tuesdays. "I started writing and performing. I was a hit," he says.
But it wasn't until the following decade, when Deep Ellum notoriously bottomed out and most of the bars closed, that Edwards took over July Alley. He bought the bar, which he believes was built in 1906, in 2005, claiming that the previous owners simply walked away from the business - stopped paying the bills, took whatever they could from the property on their way out. The windows were even smashed, either by them or someone else.
"At the time I was a computer programmer for a life insurance company. Before I was a poet," says Edwards. "I would come down here to relax after work and try to get the programming out of my head and write some poetry."
"There was one night in June, I was drinking away my sorrows at the old Elm Street Bar," he continues. "I was trying to figure out what I was going to do because I had been with my employer for a lot of years. And I looked over and saw the For Lease sign come up on July Alley, which was one of the other places I liked to drink in Deep Ellum. And then it hit me: Golden parachute; this is how I get out!"
The timing wound up being convenient, as Edwards' then-employers began downsizing the company. "I said, 'Hey, I just bought a bar.' They asked me at one point if I was thinking about quitting and I said, 'No, I am learning so much about how not to run a company by staying here that I am going to stay here as long as possible!'"
Soon enough, Edwards had left and taken over July Alley full-time. He says his lease required him to keep the name but that it was his intention anyway. "It won architectural awards back in the day," he says. "I tried to keep it as close to the original concept for the bar as I could. I want to preserve that legacy, the shape of the building as a symbol for the artistic integrity of Deep Ellum, which is very important."
Indeed, Edwards takes the ethos of Deep Ellum very seriously. "I remember anger back in the day when they brought a 7-11 in here," he says. "There is a lot of anti-corporate sentiment down here. This is the area for the small businessman, not the mega-chain."
It's that very mentality that has inspired Edwards to work so hard to keep July Alley afloat, in spite of what have perhaps been some tough times. If the bar is to go, then so too will the neighborhood lose a true believer.
"I love Deep Ellum," Frank says. "That's why I'm here. I saw a vibrant community that was dying, and I would not let this community die. I decided to extend my efforts to keep at least one place open throughout the worst times of Deep Ellum." Frank smiles and shrugs. "I could go anywhere, I could do a lot of things. But this place really touched me."
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