As featured in The Memphis Flyer
The Pumping Station
Growing up gay in the tiny town of Belle Eagle, Tennessee, Jae Wells says he “had a lot of bad feelings about who I was.” But at age 18, on a trip to Memphis with members of the blues band he belonged to, he discovered acceptance at a gay bar.
That was 28 years ago, and that bar was called the Pipeline and was advertised as a “leather bar.” But for the past 13 years, the small storefront at Poplar and Cleveland has operated as the Pumping Station and, in recent years, has attracted a diverse mix of gay men (most not wearing leather) and often their straight or lesbian friends.
Outside the bar, a rainbow flag lets patrons know the Pumping Station is a welcoming bar. Inside “The Pump,” as its regulars call it, panels of the kind of textured aluminum one might find on the bed of a pick-up truck hang on the walls. On the patio, there’s a legendary wooden treehouse that patrons can climb, and in a throwback to its leather bar beginnings, the bathrooms are separated by “master” and “slave” rather than the more traditional “men” and “women.”
“I come here for the clientele and the owners. [Owners] Robert and Steve are fantastic people, and they’re so committed to our community,” says Wells, who owns American Standard Foundation Repair in Cordova. “And the clientele are pool-playing, beer-drinking people. I own a construction company, so I like to hang out with those kind of people.”
Wells, who rarely misses a Monday night pool tournament at the Pump and usually stops by on Friday or Saturday nights, says he appreciates how diverse the clientele has become over the years.
“Last Friday night, there were 20 or 30 gay men in their 40s and about the same number of males in their 20s. And the rest were straight women, four or five straight couples, and some straight men here as part of a party for their friend,” Wells says. “They were all having such a blast. It was such a sign of the times. Nobody cared who was gay or straight. You wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago.”
Memphis was home to nearly 10 gay bars a decade ago, but most have since shuttered their doors. The Pumping Station has survived the test of time. Owner Steve Murphy says the exodus of gay bars is a national trend that has much to do with those changing times Wells mentioned.
“The younger crowd doesn’t necessarily feel like they have to go to a gay bar anymore. They go hang out with their straight friends at the Blue Monkey or wherever, and then they end up bringing their straight friends in here,” Murphy says. “The dynamics of gay bars have changed a lot.”
Murphy welcomes the diversity, and the Pumping Station is adapting and making improvements. Wells’ construction company is helping to renovate the bar’s back room into a smoking lounge, and by May 1st, the front section of the bar will become non-smoking.
“You have to change with the times. You have to be open to whoever walks in the door,” Murphy says. “We’ve always been like that, but people haven’t always realized that.”
— Bianca Phillips
The Pumping Station, 1382 Poplar (272-7600)