There's something sweet in the task Mary Jane Mahan sets out to accomplish with Love at the Pub: An Insider's Guide to Craftsmanship, Conversation and Community at the Brick Store Pub. Mahan takes a small business – Decatur's Brick Store Pub – and turns it into a mythological realm, a place so magical and wondrous it deserves 224 pages of exploration and worshipful prose. Likewise, she takes three small business owners, Dave Blanchard, Tom Moore and Mike Gallagher, and poses them as visionary geniuses.
Mahan's prose goes well past the verge of adoration and awe. "Mythical," "visionary," "exquisite," and "brilliant" are all words used in abundance to describe the owners, the place and the experiences had within "those hallowed brick walls." If it's somewhat over the top, it's also endearing to take the success of one small pub in one little town and raise it to the level of legend. Love at the Pub is primarily a celebration of the little guy: the small-business owner, the waiter, the bartender, the beer-drinking enthusiast.
By the time you've made it through the preface, the forward, the acknowledgements and the introduction, you'll know a few things about the Brick Store and its owners. There are no televisions at the pub. They treat their employees well. They don't serve "lite" beers, or any generic domestics. It was named the No. 2 beer bar on the planet by Beer Advocate. There's no neon signage. They don't serve pitchers. And yet, they're not beer snobs; their aim is to educate and breed connoisseurship and conversation, not to exclude. This set of ideals is repeated again and again throughout the book, serving both as a guide to future business owners (don't be afraid to be true to your vision) and as a reminder of how starved we are for authenticity, even in our neighborhood bars.
The ideas are all good and well, but the first 65 pages of the book reads a lot like PR material. Mahan (a former employee) makes no attempt to set herself up as an unbiased observer. While there are a couple of places where she makes small admissions that, for instance, servers and owners occasionally do have bad days (gasp!), they pale in comparison to the gushing quality of the narrative. It's clear Mahan really loves this pub.
But the book becomes more interesting when she stops gushing and starts telling the pub's story. It's not an exceptional story – 12 years ago, three friends got together and decided to open a beer bar. But we begin to see some of the human element behind the pub, free (or at least freer) of Mahan's stifling adoration. We learn how three bartenders with no money managed to get a business going, and how the quirky look of the place came together. For Brick Store regulars, the stories behind the bar's sign and front door will be interesting anecdotes.
Just as the Brick Store's main focus is beer, the book contains plenty of beer and beer theory. We learn in detail the way in which the bar stocks its encyclopedic beer selection, the issues with having the correct stemware for each beer, and about the building of the Belgian beer room.
Mahan relies heavily on Ray Oldenburg's theory of third place – the place outside of home and work you feel you belong, places such as coffee shops and bars. Mahan asserts that the Brick Store Pub is the absolute perfect embodiment of third place. For people who already count the Brick Store as their third place, knowingly or not, Love at the Pub will be a warm and fuzzy read that confirms all their pride and love in their neighborhood bar. For those who aren't regulars, the book will undoubtedly make you wish you were.
Love at the Pub: An Insider's Guide to Craftsmanship, Conversation, and Community at the Brick Store Pub by Mary Jane Mahan. iUniverse . $18.95. 224 pp.