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Others bite the dust, Rider’s just keeps on rollin’

by Brian Clarey

The best time to catch George Rider is at breakfast.

The 63-year-old nightclub owner prefers to do business from a booth by the door at the Henry James Smoke House over a plate of toast and eggs over light. He’ll speak with beer vendors and liquor salesmen, confidantes and advisors, reporters and neighbors. And he’s been known to line up a whole row of advertising executives at once and have them throw their pitches side by side.

George can process a lot of information at once. At one time, he juggled three bars, each one named for himself: G. Rider Nightlife, Rider’s in the Night and Rider’s in the Country, the only saloon he still operates and which will celebrate its 17th anniversary on June 25 with a big bash, a raffle and the band Southbound, out of King, NC.

‘“I had all three goin’ at the same time,’” he recalls from his booth at the Henry James. ‘“It finally got to be too much and I decided just to go with one.’”

The breakfast meetings are not the only thing that separates George from lots of other Triad bar owners, who generally keep vampire-like hours and usually eat their eggs as the sun rises, just before they go to bed.

But the man must know something. He’s been a fixture in the local nightlife scene since he opened his first bar, the G. Rider Lounge, in 1983 and to listen to him pontificate about the evolution of the state’s liquor laws is to relive history.

‘“The liquor came in the late seventies,’” he remembers, a time when private clubs were first permitted to serve hard alcohol, as opposed to simply beer and wine, to their members. ‘“But first there was a thirty-day waiting period [between applying for membership and being allowed to drink alcohol in the club]. Then they dropped it down to three days.’”

He’s also seen a steady stream of music acts come through the doors of his clubs. These days the fare tends towards Americana, roots-rock and country bands culled from a not-too distant radius from the club. But at one time Rider ran acts that rode in straight from Nashville in their busses and pickup trucks. He’s showcased Tracey Lawrence, Little Texas, and the Kentucky Headhunters on his stage in the past.

But a lot can happen in a bar over 17 years. The crowd changes and the regulars get older and the laws that govern how you run your business, they change too. A good businessman recognizes these shifts in the market and adjusts accordingly.

And George is nothing if not a good businessman.

‘“You’ve been coming to Rider’s for a while,’” he says, ‘“and tonight you got a new date and you got but fifty dollars to spend. If I hit you for thirty or forty when you get in, what you gonna wine and dine her with? You don’t even have enough to buy her breakfast afterwards.’”

He breaks up the table with that one.

George is a barroom guy ‘— he’s sold more beers than any three bar owners in town and he’s comfortable with bawdy jokes, dirty ashtrays and moments of human weakness. ‘“That’s my college down there,’” he says of Rider’s in the Country, and he can often be seen inside the club’s walls shaking hands and exchanging how-do-you-dos. But his participation in the bar life ends when the business day is done ‘— George doesn’t drink or smoke.

‘“So many go into the bar business under the wrong concept,’” he says. ‘“They think it’s a party place. It’s a business to me.’”

But George is guilty of sometimes making decisions based on common sense and goodwill rather than business acumen. He gives his customers free food late at night so they can get something in their stomachs before they leave. He takes care of his regulars and makes sure they get home safely.

Through fundraisers he says he’s been able to contribute about $150,000 to charitable causes in the past year. He also has started a scholarship in the name of his wife, Sharon Rider, who died of a brain aneurism in 1997.

He sips his coffee in the booth by the door of the Henry James Smoke House, heavy with cream, puts it on the tabletop and considers it a moment.

‘“My motto is, you get out of something what you put into it,’” he says. ‘“In other words, that coffee cup over there, if nobody’d put anything in it, I’da got nothing out of it.’”

He drains the cup, and breakfast at the Henry James is over.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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