If there's a place in Sandpoint where you might see a drink poured on someone's head for being a "land raper," it's the 219 Lounge. It's also the place where a stranger could lean over and lick your neck, a dog fight may break out, the wood shed smells like a skunk den and stopping in on a Sunday afternoon could include an impromptu lobster feed.
At least it used to be. Maybe it still is, or will be again. The last time I was there, in late April, it was a completely different bar from the one I had loved and loathed with equal measure for the better part of 15 years. The perpetual gloom of Christmas lights has been pierced with new fluorescent signs advertising exotic beer brands, and the walls have been stripped to their original brick. The intimacy of the Corner Booth, where packs of 20-somethings have long formed in boozy, cigarette-waving jumbles of arms and legs, has been broken with large street-facing windows. The bathrooms, once renowned as their own realms of perdition, have been enlarged and reappointed with gleaming keg-inspired fixtures. The jukebox, filled with so much money over the years that it would play for free forever, has been replaced. From the woodshed to the poolroom to the facade on 219 N. First Ave., it was all different--and if you know anything about a small town, you know the condition of its chief dive bar is a powerful portent.
When I was last at the 219 (or Niner, as it's known), news had broken about five days earlier that Coldwater Creek, the national women's clothing retailer founded in Sandpoint and headquartered in nearby Kootenai, would be closing the doors of its 365 stores in 48 states. Not a layoff, which had happened before, and not a downsizing. It would be a complete liquidation, and with it would go about 6,000 jobs nationwide--more than 300 in Bonner County before summer's end. When that happens, almost in an instant, the largest private employer in Bonner County will be gone.
It was a Thursday night, and a chill was blowing in from the lake. I noticed the streets torn up for some kind of improvement project, an enormous vacant lot that the local hospital will turn into expanded facilities and a yearslong retro-renovation of an old furniture store into a mixed-use office/retail/restaurant space.
The head bouncer of the Niner, a friend from high school, gave me the grand tour of the bar, which was uncharacteristically quiet. He showed me the raised ceilings, revealing giant, early 20th century beams and a hidden skylight; explained how the poolroom had been expanded to its former size as "The Passion Pit," a rowdy dance floor that my father remembers from the '70s; and swept his arms wide to reveal the '30s era mural depicting moose and mountains that had been uncovered in the renovation.
The idea, my friend said, was to return the 219 to its original glory--a saloon in appearance as it had been when it served the working men of my grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations: miners, loggers, fishermen, sawmill workers. Back then, Sandpoint was still a fairly wild, uncouth place. In the 1880s it had been known by some as "Hangtown," and as recorded by an early visitor, W.A. Baillie-Grohman, was generally regarded as a "wretched hole, one of the 'tough' towns in the tough territory of Idaho."
My grandmother, whose family moved to Sandpoint in 1924, remembered her mother herding the children from boardwalk to boardwalk in order to avoid the "whiskey dens" and brothels that lined First Avenue.
The 219 opened in 1936, just as Sandpoint and Bonner County were suffering the worst of the Great Depression. The giant Humbird Lumber Co.--which operated a lakeshore mill just a few blocks from where the Niner would open on First Avenue, as well as mills in nearby Kootenai and Newport, Wash.--began a process of disintegration in 1931, putting more than 1,000 men out of work before the end of the decade. It was the single greatest economic calamity to befall Bonner County--so much so that as a kid growing up there in the 1980s, when the mills were again closing down around us, Humbird evoked a kind of existential dread. It would not be the last, setting into motion a cycle of boom and bust that would stretch from the New Deal to Yes We Can.