After owner’s death, bar looks to new entertainment to survive

by Jordan Green

The sign outside Winner’s Circle, an auto-racing themed bar on High Point Road, for the past week or so has read, ‘“In loving memory of Don Stephens.’” Inside, it was hard to get anyone to talk about the late bar owner on a recent Thursday evening.

‘“We were business partners, but I bought him out before he died,’” said a man who identified himself only as Skip. ‘“I’d prefer not to. He wanted it quiet.’” He added that Stephens’ friends had held a memorial service for him at the Winner’s Circle a week earlier.

Donald A. Stephens, a native of Michigan, died at Moses Cone Hospital on Christmas Eve after a battle with cancer, according to his obituary, which was published in the Dec. 30 edition of the News & Record.

The pithy elements of Stephens’ life, as recounted in the obituary, are as follows: a Marine for 20 years. A trucker. Owner of several sports bars in Guilford County over the years.

‘“There, he shared with many friends his love for people, laughter and life,’” the obituary reads. ‘“Don will be remembered and loved by many.’”

The obituary did not note Stephens’ age at the time of his death. Stephens left children and grandchildren in Flint, Mich.

Now life in the bar over which Stephens once presided has begun to move on. About a half dozen people, including the owner, bartender and a booking agent, crowded around the bar in the dimly lit section near the back of the building. Their stooped shoulders and lined faces suggested a median age of 50, or upwards of that. Business was slow enough that the woman in charge of pouring beer could sit at the end of the bar with the patrons, her eye on the door.

Though he preferred not to talk about his former business partner, Skip did want to talk about business. He waved the booking agent, Barry Coleman, over to talk at a distance from the crowd at the bar. Winner’s Circle needed to do something to attract the college students from UNCG, and live bands seemed the most promising means to reach that demographic, Skip said. Skip himself ‘“couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,’” so he asked Coleman to elaborate on the plan.

‘“Look at us,’” Coleman said, in a slightly hushed voice. ‘“We need to do something.’”

He gestured discretely towards the bar.

‘“These people might stop in for a couple beers, but they’ll be home by nine,’” Coleman said. ‘“College kids stay out late, and they can take a cab home. They’re the ones who stay out all night. I know, because I was young once too.’”

Winner’s Circle wouldn’t discontinue the popular ‘“Bumper to Bumper’” racing board game that draws patrons in on Thursdays and Sundays, but the bar would need something else, he said. He thought a band or two that mixed original songs with covers, played a little Southern rock and bluegrass might do the trick. Coleman played in bands when he was younger and he knew how to work a soundboard. The bar could charge a cover of $3 for individuals and $5 for couples. He could guarantee a minimum payout to a band on Saturday night, and let anyone who wanted to play for free take Wednesday.

He pointed to a dimly lit section near the front of the building. He would build a drum riser and put it in the corner. It did somewhat suggest the dingy intimacy of Ace’s Basement, the High Point Road rock club across from the Greensboro Coliseum vacated by promoter Joe Ferguson, who cast lot with downtown club owner Kenny Efird at Greene Street last year.

If the closing of Ace’s Basement created a vacuum, it also seemed that Winner’s Circle could be expected to face stiff competition from Blur and College Hill, venues that specialize in indie rock within walking distance of UNCG. Winner’s Circle would also have to contend with the Blind Tiger, an established live music venue about seven blocks away from campus where roots rock and hip hop music is showcased.

Closer to Winner’s Circle, the High Point Road Ham’s Restaurant has also begun to book live bands through Thomas Urquhart, a local promoter.

Coleman said he discerns a trend that gives him confidence that bringing in a band or two will nudge Winner’s Circle back to the inside track.

‘“Fifteen years ago people couldn’t get enough of karaoke,’” he said. ‘“I really do think karaoke’s over the hill now. It barely pays for itself anymore. Live music’s the way to go.’”

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