comScore

Last call at BJ's, a last-of-its-kind Minneapolis strip club?

Susan Du

Susan Du

In his early 20s, Tim Wavinak drank at a bar called Mr. Harry’s on West Broadway in Near North. Wavinak, now 58, kept darkening the door when Jerry Bjurstrom bought the place and changed the name to BJ’s, a frills-free dive with topless dancers.

The dancers were the “main attraction” at first, but as time went on, Wavinak found he spent more time talking to the people around him than watching the stage. He quit drinking more than a decade ago, but kept in touch.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with neck cancer, leaving him “basically laid up for all of 2016.” One day he got a card with money, signed by the regulars and staff from BJ’s. Wavinak wasn’t surprised. Over the years, he’d contributed to a lot of cards.

“They were always really big on that,” says Wavinak, who’s been cancer-free for 18 months. “If somebody had illness, or lost a brother, or a parent, or lost a job—any time somebody needed a hug and a helping hand, basically.”

Blue-collar regulars aren’t the only ones who’ve always felt at home. “I love going there,” says Tawnya “Sweetpea” Konobeck, the Twin Cities’ best-known burlesque dancer. “I call it the ‘Cheers’ of strip clubs.”

Now the city’s longest-running feel-good strip club sitcom might be canceled. Last week, a City Council committee approved an agreement to prohibit “adult entertainment” at BJ’s starting in 2020. No one spoke up, for or against.

Owner Jerry Bjurstrom died in February, and his son Brian inherited the business. Brian is cagey in describing the perilous state of BJ’s. He sees this as a “possible time to have the city leave us alone,” and says his father spent the “last 10 years of his life” warding off a puritanical crackdown. From the city’s perspective, the battle started long before.

In the mid-1980s, Minneapolis adopted a strict code confining nude performance to parts of downtown not close to housing, churches, or libraries. At the time, there were plenty of “nonconforming” businesses. But by the mid-2000s, only two remained: BJ’s and the 22nd Avenue Station, better known as the “Double Deuce.”

City planners tried to bully both out of business, claiming Minneapolis was obligated to shutter operations that led to crime, blight, or declining property values. In 2006, the Double Deuce took the pencil-pushers to court and won, with a judge saying the city invoked “shoddy, irrelevant studies” to target the holdouts.

The Deuce would later close of its own volition. BJ’s held on, clinging to a slim patch of legal gray area as the only neighborhood titty bar in a city that, on paper, finds only downtown nudity appropriate. Complaints have been few.

“We’ve never had any problem with BJ’s,” says Rowena Holmes, a city crime prevention specialist. “The clientele are very quiet, and respectful. If you didn’t know that business was there, and you were driving over North, you’d go right past it.”

Unless you found yourself interested in the marquee’s boast of a “SUNDAY MEAT RAFFLE.”

The city’s rigid zoning scheme is badly outdated. Thousands of people now live downtown, and the once-seedy “Warehouse District,” home to several strip clubs, has been rebranded as the “North Loop,” priding itself for the city’s finest restaurants and swankiest lofts.

And if restricting nudity to a handful of big clubs was meant to keep citizens safe from breasts, whither the workers? An extensive city health review in 2017 found bodily fluids—the kind indicative of illicit sexual activity —in 11 out of 17 strip clubs, most often in private “VIP” areas, out of sight. Those rooms were also where strippers said they’d felt threatened or been assaulted.

BJ’s, which has one room with three pool tables and another with a bar and a stage, doesn’t offer anywhere to hide. And? “Semen was found at a number of clubs,” says city environmental health director Dan Huff. “At BJ’s, we did not find it.”

On a recent night, laughter and backslaps resounded under a bed of smooth music and bottle clinks. BJ’s felt like any other dimly lit dive, except for the woman ascending a brass pole like a fallen Christmas angel with thigh tattoos and thong underwear. She would leave with 100 percent of her tips, a rarity in an industry where women often “rent” space from club owners, who then seize a cut of the cash.

Brian Bjurstrom says he’s still “exploring options,” and has retained Dennis Johnson, the attorney who represented Pete Hafiz (owner of Deja Vu, Gay 90’s, and other clubs) in an unsuccessful attempt to open a new spot downtown. Council members sided with a religious group, which said the club was too close to its church.

Johnson says he approached the city on Bjurstrom’s behalf, with the offer of the 2020 deadline as a “compromise” both sides could live with. Council Member Lisa Goodman says she heard from city staff that Bjurstrom “wasn’t coerced into it—it wasn’t like he was in trouble.” And Jeremiah Ellison, whose ward contains this endangered species of a bar, says Bjurstrom didn’t contact him to fight on his behalf. “In my experience, when business owners need something, they call,” says the councilman. “I haven’t heard from BJ’s.”

Johnson says Brian’s hand was forced after his father’s death, which meant transferring a license instead of renewing an existing one. “That was the precipitating moment to look at the situation. They could’ve denied the transfer of license to Brian.”

Bjurstrom says he’s not interested in running BJ’s as a bar, sans stripping. Aside from a lawsuit or a complete rewrite of the city’s 30-year-old code—neither is in the offing—what other “options” are there? Surely, the city’s thirsty developer class could think of a few things. Bjurstrom inherited not only the building, but several parcels of land surrounding it.

The situation makes it unnecessary to pass the hat. But if New Year’s Eve 2019 really is last call for BJ’s, the last friendly neighborhood nudie bar in Minneapolis—maybe ever—the least we could do is spring for a thank-you card.

More from Mike Mullen: