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Landmark African-American-owned bar looking for new home

July 31, 2015

The city's oldest African-American-owned bar — the place where politicians and police officers go to share secrets — will close its doors on North Senate Avenue on Saturday.

Owner Gwen Robinson hopes to find a new home for AJ's Lounge by the end of August, but for now, the bar — fondly referred to as the "government center's north annex" — is without a home.

"It's a very bitter sweet moment," Robinson said, standing outside the bar her parents opened nearly 50 years ago. "A lot of the memories I have of my life happened here."

Robinson was "just a little girl" when her parents, AJ and Johnnie Mae Robinson, moved from Mississippi to Indianapolis in 1956.

"I came here to better myself," AJ Robinson told The Indianapolis News in 1978. "(I) wanted Gwen to have a better education, better job opportunities."

The move paid off. Revenue from the bar paid for Gwen's tuition at Purdue University. She also picked up a master's from DePaul University in Chicago.

Gwen Robinson took over operations after her father's death in 2005. Wednesday, boxes were tucked away in a corner as regulars trickled in for a last hurrah in the bar known for its political customers.

"We'd leave work, need a drink and come here," Addison Simpson said, sipping a cranberry 7UP with a red straw.

Simpson, 65, doesn't order alcohol at the bar anymore, but when he worked in the office for six Indiana governors, his drink of choice was Bombay gin and cranberry.

Three out of six governors came to AJ's with Simpson for a drink. One of those was Frank O'Bannon, who took office in 1997. He campaigned at the bar and made deals, regulars said, but conversations there can't be shared.

"I can't tell you any secrets," Simpson said with a chuckle.

Laughter inside the dimly lit bar is not uncommon. Above the sounds of blues and jazz playing on the jukebox, regulars greet each other with hugs and how-do-you-dos at the bar.

That's the way it's always been, Robinson said. Customers feel more like family than patrons at the bar, also referred to as the neighborhood's "Cheers."

The quaint feeling inside the bar is becoming harder to find in the neighborhood with African-American roots. Black-owned businesses thrived on Indiana Avenue and neighboring streets. Music, jazz and blues, drew entertainers from across the country to the district, which is now filled with luxury apartments, a salon and a neighborhood Marsh.

The neighborhood has changed, and Robinson said her landlord needs the space. She hopes to find a new spot close to the place her father opened 46 years ago.

Sunday will mark the bar's second move. In 1970, Robinson's parents were forced to find a new place for AJ's when IUPUI moved into the area. The bar was on Blackford Street back then.

Fred Taylor, unofficially known as the neighborhood's historian, remembers the first location well. He still comes to the bar twice a week to have a glass of water and to talk to Robinson.

"I used to baby-sit Gwen," Taylor said with a chuckle.

Nearly five decades later, customers are still looking out for Robinson, including Kevin Kelly, a retired Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department lieutenant who comes to the bar about once a week.

"We were off-duty police officers," Kelly said. "We knew we could come down here and there wouldn't be any trouble."

The same feeling remains today. Off-duty police officers, politicians, lawyers and single women all know they can come to AJ's.

"They come to just chill," Robinson said. "And yeah, they do make deals, but that's not my business. I'm here to make drinks."

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