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Last call at legendary Northampton bar: Hugo’s closes its doors

  • Linda Omasta, who is the manager of Hugo’s in Northampton, talks to customers Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hugo's, at 315 Pleasant Street in Northampton, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The pool room at Hugo's in Northampton, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Linda Omasta, who is the manager of Hugo's in Northampton, talks to Mike Willard, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Willard has been going to the bar since 1970 —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mike Willard has a glass of wine at Hugo’s in Northampton, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 04, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Legendary watering hole Hugo’s Cafe is set to close its doors for good after a final day of business on Dec. 12.

“It’s been a city icon,” said Mike Willard, who owns Harold’s Garage across the street, while enjoying a glass of red wine at Hugo’s Thursday night.

“A Northampton institution is passing,” said Charlie DeRose, a former Daily Hampshire Gazette publisher and onetime Hugo’s regular.

“A lot of people say how much they love it. But they’re not supporting it,” said Linda Omasta, Hugo’s manager who has worked there for the past 22 years and started coming to Hugo’s in 1973.

In a quickly gentrifying downtown, Hugo’s has been one of the few holdouts, a place appreciated for its affordable drinks and good service. “I guess people like to spend more money,” Omasta said. “And be rudely treated.”

Gerard Paquin, who owns the bar and the building where it’s located, made the decision to close the Hugo’s because it hasn’t been doing well financially for the past 10 years or so, “losing money” or ” breaking even at best,” said Paquin, who also owns the neighboring Northampton Bicycle. Paquin has owned Hugo’s for a quarter century; he bought the bar from its second owner, Sam Husson, when Husson retired.

Hugo’s has a storied history that dates back to 1970, when it first opened. At one time, it had a reputation for rowdiness. “There were more fights back then,” said Omasta, who nevertheless denied the characterization of it as a biker bar by some. Even in its wilder days, “I’ve always felt safe,” Omasta said, adding that as a manager, “I don’t want people to be uncomfortable. Or not feel safe.”

Willard said he’s been going to Hugo’s since it opened. Before that, he went to John’s Cafe, a men’s-only bar opened by John Kaczanowicz in 1925 that occupied the same space.

Back when it was John’s Cafe, Willard started playing pool there when he was just 13 years old. “We used to hustle all the farmers,” he said, wine glass in hand.

Hippies and ‘Hugonauts’

The man who created Hugo’s was its first owner, Harry McColgan, who named the establishment after his dog, a terrier, after he purchased it.

Harry’s daughter Meagen McColgan, who was a child at the time, said that her father thought it was “very funny to have him up on the bar and have him growl at the hippies.”

“That was a feisty little rat-like dog,” recalled DeRose.

As for the dog’s owner, “He was a people person,” DeRose said. “He could deal with anybody.”

And there were all types who congregated there. Long before NETA, Hugo’s was a place where marijuana could be found downtown; people smoked pot openly at the back tables of the bar, and DeRose said that McColgan himself had a taste for it.

“They’d always have a joint going some place,” he said.

Hugo’s also offered lunch, including sandwiches, which Omasta, who first worked at Hugo’s from 1976 to 1977, recalled were enjoyed by many blue-collar workers.

“They were pretty good,” Willard said.

McColgan said her mother made many of the lunches when her father owned the bar. What was McColgan’s favorite dish her mother served? “Probably her beef stew,” she said.

DeRose recalled that McColgan put in a piano at Hugo’s, and early patrons enjoyed the live music, something of a novelty for a Northampton bar in those days.

“You couldn’t get in the place,” DeRose said.

McColgan added that Hugo’s was one of the few bars in town that served hippies then, and that there was a strong sense of community among the regulars, known as Hugonauts, with the regulars even forming a softball team.

“I think they had a lot of fun there,” she said. “The regulars were all really great people.”

McColgan also said that while she was sure there were some scuffles at Hugo’s, she thinks the fights became something larger in the retelling.

“It’s something of an urban legend,” she said.

‘The culture of the jukebox’

In the 1990s and 2000s, there was “the culture of the jukebox,” as one patron recently put it. Among the offerings: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, which got a lot of play.

Another regular at the bar was the late Scott “Bow Bow” Brandon, of the Northampton band Drunk Stuntmen, which once played an impromptu show at Hugo’s during a snowstorm, Omasta recalled.

Omasta said that Brandon had a penchant for ordering a “quarterback,” a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jack Daniels.

And while Hugo’s was clearly a place to gather and drink, for some, the culture of drinking lost its allure over time. During her time working at Hugo’s, Omasta quit drinking and smoking. Paquin said that has been the case with many of Hugo’s customers.

“They reform,” he said.

Even after Hugo’s is gone, people will still be able to grab a drink in the space, as Northampton Bicycle will be incorporating the bar into its business. Part of the wall separating the two establishments will be taken down, and the bar will sell beer, wine and coffee.

“There is a trend in the bike industry to make bike shops like an experience,” Paquin said. “The anti-Amazon thing.”

Paquin couldn’t give an exact date for when the bar would be open, but it could be sometime in the spring, he said.

“This is a way to try to ensure our future,” he said.

Northampton Bicycle is in its 48th year, and Paquin said that business there is going strong.

“We’re going to be here for a while,” he said. As for what he’ll miss most about Hugo’s, Paquin said, “I think I’ll miss my employees.”

Still, Hugo’s memory will live on, even as patrons move on.

Asked where he would go after Hugo’s officially closes, Paquin said, “To the Hole!” referring to Ye’ Old Watering Hole, a bar up the street.

Hugo’s will have one final Christmas party, a long-running tradition that is invitation-only for Hugo’s regulars and will be held Dec. 5.

“Everybody waits for their coveted invitation,” Omasta said of the potluck. “We have some amazing cooks.”

For the occasion, Omasta said, art is being taken off the walls so that people can draw on them during the bar’s last days.

She also made clear how much the bar means to her. “It’s always been like home to me,” she said. “It’s like I’m losing my home and family.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.