Philadelphia’s Only Lesbian Bar Shuts Down

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The city’s longest-running lesbian bar abruptly closed its doors this week.

Citing financial difficulties, the owners of Sisters Nightclub shut down Monday after 17 years in operation. Sisters has been the only full-time lesbian bar in the city since its inception June 21, 1996.

Denise Cohen, who managed the club since its opening, said in a Facebook posting that business owner Jim Ross notified her of the closing Monday morning.

Cohen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The building, 1320 Chancellor St., is owned by Mel Heifetz, while Ross owns the business.

After a series of calls and emails, Heifetz told PGN he would not comment for this story.

There is a sign on Sisters’ door that the building is undergoing renovations and will reopen in the fall, but it is unclear if the business or building has been, or is in the process of being, sold. Heifetz refused to comment on the matter.

Heiftez purchased the three-story building on July 12, 1994, for $86,000. The city assessed the property at $70,400 each year from 2010-13, but that figure jumped to $746,400 for 2014, seemingly because of the city’s new property-tax evaluation. The adjoining building, home to the now-defunct Key West Bar, is also empty.

Cohen said in her posting that there will be no closing party, and noted that sudden closings are not uncommon in the bar and restaurant industry.

Response to Cohen’s Facebook posting was strong, with more than 200 “shares” by the next day.

Cohen said on her personal Facebook page that Ross was equally upset when he shared the news with her.

“This is not something he wanted to do and I know he is just as devastated for his staff, for his business and for his community,” she wrote. “There just wasn’t enough sales to continue operations and without that support we could not grow, we could not change, we struggled in this economy and it took its toll.”

Knock owner and Woody’s founder Bill Wood echoed the surprise many expressed via social media.

“I’m still a little confused by it all,” Wood said. “Usually you hear rumors and people commenting if no one’s going there or employees saying that they’re having a tough time. But I don’t think anyone heard anything like that.”

PGN columnist Suzi Nash ran the club’s Thursday-night karaoke event since Sisters opened.

“I’m sad to see an institution like Sisters close down,” she told PGN. “As the host of karaoke since day one, I’ve seen so many people gather and grow and seek solace, joy and companionship at the bar. Over the course of 17 years, I’ve had couples who met on the karaoke stage get married and people who made their first tentative foray into the gay community at Sisters grow into activists and proud members of the community. It’s been an anchor for the lesbian community for both the patrons and the many nonprofit organizations they’ve supported. She will be sorely missed.”

The City of Brotherly Love Softball League is one such organization that Sisters supported.

Women’s division commissioner Jen Brown said Sisters was a fixture in the league.

“Since opening, Sisters was one of the CBLSL’s top sponsors and supporters, Brown said, noting they often sponsored several teams per season. “They helped us host fundraisers for the league and for their teams. When I shared the news of their closing with some softball players from other cities who visited for our World Series in 2011, each of them had a story about Sisters from their week in Philly. That really shows how special they were to our league and our community.”

The club was also a popular gathering space during events like OutFest and Pride.

Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, which runs both events, said Sisters filled a needed gap.

“Every city has a girls’ bar. Every gay community has one. Sisters was ours,” Price said.

As news of the closing spread Monday, personal accounts of nights and days at Sisters abounded.

“I couldn’t wait to turn 21 so that I could go to Sisters for the first time,” Brown told PGN. “After eight years and countless visits, I can’t remember one that didn’t create a memory: singing karaoke with strangers, dance-offs with my closest friends and a lot of laughs. I never felt more comfortable in a club than I did when I was at Sisters. It felt great to be around other people who were like me — where I wasn’t defined solely by my sexual orientation.”

William Way LGBT Community Center archivist Bob Skiba said this is the first time since the 1940s that Philadelphia is without a lesbian bar.

“It leaves a huge gap, there not being women’s bar right now,” he said. “This is the first time since World War II that there has been no women’s bar in Philadelphia. So that’s a pretty big thing.”

Wood referenced a recent Inquirer article about the demise of a number of LGBT bars in the suburbs, potentially owing to the mainstreaming of the community.

“I think a lot of bars now are trying to not segregate by sex so maybe that’s the problem,” he said. “Maybe it’s good that the lesbian community isn’t just going to lesbian bars, but it’s still a great loss. You hate to see anybody close, especially after 17 years. They provided a really big service for a really long time.”

Even with more bars integrating men and women, and LGBTs and allies, Price noted that it was important for women to have a space to call their own.

“It was kind of like a sense of security and safety knowing that, as a gay woman, there was somewhere like Sisters. Whenever there was something coming up, people would look to Sisters to see what was going on there because that’s where the bulk of the lesbian community went,” she said, noting that Sisters stood apart from the venues that offer LGBT events but that don’t identify as LGBT establishments. “I have a problem with the ‘gay night’ or ‘ladies night’ thing. I like to think we’d be welcomed every day. And we had that at Sisters. Whenever anyone would come to the city and ask where the girls’ bar is, you’d say, ‘Sisters.’ Now what are we going to say? ‘Well, Wednesday night you can go here’ or ‘Tuesday night you can go here.’ It’s sad.”

While Sisters held the distinction as the city’s only lesbian bar, it also was the longest continually operating lesbian bar in Philly history.

Skiba noted there were a number of women’s venues open simultaneously in the 1970s and ’80s, but none as long as Sisters.

Sneakers, on North Third Street, was open for 11 years, PBL for a decade, Hepburn’s on 12th Street for six and Mamzelle’s above The Bike Stop for four.

The land where Sisters is located was, in the mid-19th century, home to stables for rental horses. From the 1930s-’80s, it was Frankie Bradley’s restaurant and later Hesch’s restaurant, which closed in 1987.

Depsite Sisters’ closing, Price said supporters should revel in its longevity, which she attributed to the work of Cohen and her staff.

“ did something nobody else did in Philadelphia, and that’s keep a women’s bar open for 17 years,” Price said. “Look at how incredible that is when you think back to all those bars that couldn’t stay open. She managed to keep it open for 17 years. That’s incredible. I’m hoping someone says, ‘Do you want to open a new women’s bar?’ to her because she knows what she’s doing.”

The Big Gay Boat Party, a monthly LGBT party on the Moshulu staged in part by Cohen and Sisters, will continue, with the next event being held Aug. 25.

From our media partner PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News.

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