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The Handlebar is getting ready for a new generation of music lovers

On most nights in its heyday, you heard The Handlebar before you saw it, which probably helped many people find the place.

But up until 2018, that dumpy, little brick building on North Tarragona Street in Pensacola was a home away from home for a couple of generations of musicians and music lovers.

“The old Handlebar definitely would have been (considered) a dive bar,” said Jordan Richards, a musician who first played at the bar over a decade ago in the group Reynosa. “It was the quintessential, you know, grungy dive bar. And I mean that in the sweetest, most loving way possible.”

The music stopped four years ago when The Handlebar closed its doors. However, if all goes according to plan, that will change in a few weeks.

“We bought it in 2019 and at the time it was a vacant building and the intention was just to trade the real estate,” said Kathy Sandstrom, one of the new owners of the building. She recently retired from an investment firm in Chicago after 25 years and moved back to Pensacola.

The plans to flip the property ran into a few roadblocks. First, the pandemic, which pretty much slowed commercial real estate sales to a halt. Then, there was Robert Goodspeed, a local musician who also played at The Handlebar with several bands in the last decade. He was looking for a place where local and touring musicians could practice and perform in Pensacola.

“I opened up my own space and I was quickly outgrowing it. It was a small 60 to 75 (person) cap room. That place was called Night Moves,” said Goodspeed.

That’s when he reached out to Sandstrom about possibly renting out the old Handlebar building.

The Handlebar new owners.
Bob Barrett
WUWF Public Media
The Handlebar new owners Kathy Sandstrom and her husband Chris McKean, and General Manager Robert Goodspeed.

“He was very persistent (about there being) a need for this bar to come back to the town,” Sandstrom said. “To bring smaller bands and local acts and re-create the scene that the Handlebar once had.

“And really it was watching the musicians struggle during the pandemic. And all the venues that closed and the desire for live music really reached its peak. So it was like we not only need this bar but the community needs it and we want to bring it.”

So Sandstrom and her husband, Chris McKean, hired Goodspeed as general manager, and Jess Laws as bar manager, and started refurbishing the building.

“We kept the walls, we kept the stage size (and location)” said Goodspeed. “I think when people come in they are going to say that we stuck to as much of the true shape and style of the building as possible and that we just made it really cool.”

“We want to keep the spirit of The Handlebar, the community, the vibe,” Sandstrom added. “But the building itself needed to be upgraded, and it was time to add a few nice things, like bathrooms and a liquor license, and just do a little bit of an upgrade.”

“I actually have a friend (who has) worked on a crew that’s working on (the renovation),” said Richards. “One of the first things I heard was four bathrooms, and actually got a picture of the clean, new-looking bathroom which was jaw-dropping, to say the least, compared to the old bathroom I remember in there.”

A look inside the old Handlebar bathroom. The bar and music venue is going through a complete renovation under new ownership.
Hana Frenette
Courtesy Photo
A look inside the old Handlebar bathroom. The bar and music venue is going through a complete renovation under new ownership.

Other changes to the building include new lighting and a cleaned-up, open courtyard with windows that can open to the main room.

The owners are hoping to re-create the success and atmosphere that The Handlebar had at its peak, although there is some disagreement on when exactly that happened.

“Everyone has a different answer to that. It just depends on how old you are and what decade you grew up in. Late 80s, early 80s, the 90s. I don’t know. It goes on for years” said Sandstrom.

“And then we moved on and other people would say 2004,” added McKean.

The first step to re-creating the vibe of The Handlebar was the decision to keep the name.

“We actually (spent) more time than we should deciding (if) we should keep The Handlebar name,” said Goodspeed. “We were like ‘What are the pros, what are the cons?’ And we went through that exercise so many times and ultimately we decided to stay with Handlebar because we feel what we are doing is true to what The Handlebar was: Which was being an alternative music scene, and alternative music community for the up-and-coming artists, and that’s what we are going to keep doing.”

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Everyone involved in the project seems to agree that re-creating that scene successfully means booking a variety of artists who will appeal to the alternative crowd.

“We want to start with local, regional (artists),” Goodspeed said. “Get our feet wet. Get the room as prepared as it can be. And then, as time goes by, (when we’re ready), bring it on: A good mix of everything. I don’t think we want to (pigeonhole) ourselves as ‘We are the punk venue’ like it used to be, or we are the blues/rock venue or anything like that. I think, generally speaking, alternative music. Anything that’s not highly accessible all over the radio, or all over anything else. Something that is small, more niche that will draw a more alternative crowd.”

The hope is that as the bar finds its audience, they can look into booking larger touring acts that have previously passed by Pensacola.

“Any band that I feel is a feasible distance away, that is great,” Goodspeed said. “I’m going to say ‘come up here for the weekend, play with some locals’. If we have a really cool destination people can plan touring weekends around it. And that’s the big goal, to not just be a drive-thru town anymore.”

The outside of the new Handlebar.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
The outside of the new Handlebar.

There is a history of big names playing The Handlebar back in the day. “We have a list that we have started,” said McKean. “A lot of punk bands. Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, DRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles), so a lot of (artists) that have gone on. Run DMC played here. Come on, that’s crazy."

The managers’ plan is to have a Handlebar wall of fame in the band room to commemorate the artists who have passed through the venue. They are looking for people who have played or attended shows at the bar to suggest names for the list.

Construction on the building is continuing with a proposed soft opening sometime in early August. The interior of the bar will be smoke-free, and while there will be no kitchen, there are tentative plans to have a food truck parked nearby on some evenings.

And once the doors open the big question is can they recapture the magic and the special place The Handlebar holds for so many music lovers in the Panhandle.

“It kind of feels, in a way, like The Handlebar is growing up with the people that it means so much to, you know,” said Richards, who has a new band, Panzacola, and is hoping to climb onto that familiar stage again. “I think all of the evolution that is going to take place there is going to be a positive thing for everybody.”

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.