Kate Martin, owner of Blue Lake's Logger Bar, didn't hibernate during the pandemic. She'd shut down the bar in accordance with shelter in place in March of 2020 and put the historic bar up for sale three months later. (She admits a bar you can't open is a tough sell in a pandemic.) She might have taken a well-earned break but an illness in her family called the New York native back to the East Coast. When it was time to come home, she decided to return to Humboldt by bicycle. In September, she started a trek that would take her three months and five days, cycling from Maine to Florida, across the country to San Diego and up U.S. Highway 1 toward home.
"When I left Maine, the country was yellow; it hadn't gotten so dark yet," says Martin, who at first spent nights camping and staying with family. By the time she got to New Mexico, however, the spread of the virus was "scarier" and she switched to motels. She didn't keep track of the distance but estimates the trip at more than 6,000 miles. "That was a lot of time to pedal away some built up stress and burnout."
Built in 1899 as a watering hole for timber workers, the Logger Bar is off the market again, at least officially, and Martin is getting ready for a soft reopening. She's waiting on her insurance paperwork to come through, but the shelves are stocked with liquor, the tap lines have been cleaned and the fruit is ready to be pressed into juice. She's wary of announcing a grand opening date, though, since she'll be a one-woman operation for a while and doesn't want to get slammed. "People are mighty thirsty," she says.
"There's a lot of really fun aspects of owning a bar," Martin says, especially building a team of bartenders and a loose family of regulars. She calls it a dream she worked on for a decade. As the owner of the building and operator of the business, "There's so many balls up in the air at once, seven days a week and the buck stops with me." She adds that as a single mother maintaining a relationship, the responsibility and the double shifts devoured her time and attention. "The bar was my mistress," she says with a small sigh.
Martin acknowledges the little bar on Railroad Avenue will be reopening to a changed world. "It's been a tough road for a lot of people," she says, noting her former bartenders have moved or moved onto other jobs, and that one of them is facing serious health issues. She held off reopening earlier, despite an "overwhelming" number of patrons reaching out with support, partly because she didn't want to reinvent the bar, serving through Plexiglas barriers or trying to make ends meet on to-go drinks. "Plus the Humboldt numbers were not looking fantastic, so I didn't want to open to close again." She looks with admiration at businesses like Six Rivers Brewery that have adapted and stayed open through all the changes and weathered customer blowback for their safety protocols, saying they "should be given a gold medal."
The Logger, Martin says, will follow California's guidelines, which state that vaccinated patrons don't need to wear masks, and rely on the honor system. "I could not wait to get vaccinated — I feel like I have a superpower," she says with a chuckle. Down the road, when she's ready to staff up, employees will be fully vaccinated, too. Her hope is to provide enough outdoor space for customers who aren't ready to belly up to the bar to feel comfortable and safe. "There are certain customers that I know and love that have chosen not to be vaccinated," she says, and she doesn't want to "condemn anyone."
Martin doesn't want to add mask and vaccine policing on top of watching out for over-imbibing and keeping things friendly, either. "So much of running a bar is about keeping the peace." She recalls her opening night in 2012, when a friend was headbutted over confusion about a game of pool. That was when she instituted the house rule: "If you get in a fight at the logger bar, you're no longer allowed in as long as I own it." A reminder before things get out of hand typically cools things off. Before it even happens, "You can smell a fight," she says.
No Plexiglas, but the Logger will have the additional outdoor seating out front, which Martin's builder wryly dubbed "the drunk corral." Martin removed paneling to reveal old growth redwood and uncovered a 10-foot door from the 1940s to the side of the main entrance. She's also put in a dartboard room.
For the first six months she owned the place, Martin, who'd never bartended before, worked the bar for two shifts a day, seven days a week. That was with a kid, a cat, a dog and boyfriend. Now, she says, laughing, "I figure the daughter is grown, the boyfriend is gone, and the cat and dog are dead, so it should be easy." But this time around, she's not planning to burn herself out. COVID-19, she says, made her realize she wants more time with family. "I'm gonna just take my time expanding the hours."
Martin says she'd still pass the bar on to the right buyer. "I feel like I'm the interim person holding onto it until the next owner comes along. ... It's really not my bar; it's the community's bar." But for now, she wants to skip the fuss and rush of a grand opening and instead flip on the light, open the door and see who comes by.
"I'm so excited to get the place living again. It wants to be," she says. "It needs people in it."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.