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The Perils of Running a Bar By Yourself

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

To enter Toronto's Pharmacy bar is to enter owner Chris Harper's brain and see his vision of what a bar should be.

Welcome to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.

Toronto's Pharmacy Bar. All photos by Luis Mora.

The first time I met Chris Harper, he had worked 68 days straight and categorically refused to be interviewed.

The next time I saw Chris, he was on day 410 and remembered exactly which beers my companion and I had ordered almost a year earlier. On the interview front, he finally relented after some mild coaxing and agreed to talk about his job, which consists of owning and operating Pharmacy Bar in Toronto, essentially on his own.

To enter Pharmacy is to enter Harper's brain and see his vision of what a bar should be: a benign dictatorship that is equal parts tavern and record store. Unpretentious, dimly lit, and home to a meticulously curated selection of beers and drinking music, Pharmacy is a true bartender's bar. In fact, it's so fine-tuned to Chris's specifications that it kind of makes sense that he's always there.

MUNCHIES: Why do you work so much?
Chris Harper: This place is getting inside my head. This is a very specific bar and I have really specific way of doing things. A lot of people who've been here know that I've got a charming arrogance; they come in and look at me and give me a weird look, like, "OK ... what are we having tonight?" Almost like one of those crazy little sushi restaurants, it's almost like a tasting thing and people are up for that ride. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I just have a way of doing things.

Where does that style of service come from?
I worked in record stores for a long time and was influenced by many things. This is kind of like the record store of bars. I'm definitely curating something here and it's booze. It's a weird thing. I don't know. What do you think of this place, man?

I enjoy not having to choose between 1,200 different IPAs. I think that, on some level, people like being told what to do.
I think you're right. There might be some scolding going on when I serve people, but I hope they don't see it that way. If you don't know me, I can come off as pushy, but there is something very gratifying about giving people something new. I'm very good at talking people out of what they want.

Sure, there's some ego there, but it's cool saying, "Hey, have this instead!" and they say, "Wow, I've never had anything like this before." It makes you feel like you're actually doing a job. It's cool when people don't get what they expect—and they like it. I like to go out looking for these things and finding them and then shoving them down your fucking gulliver!

That's pretty much the dynamic that exists in a record store.
I haven't worked in a record store in like ten years, but I've appropriated a way of doing things from my older job and they've become intertwined. I still love records, but I basically do the same thing with alcohol now. I want to try everything—and not get polluted. Sometimes I'll track down a small batch of Montreal sour beer, or something, and it's like finding a record on Discogs, like, "Oh, shit! I've never had that before. I'm going to get it for the bar and people are really going to enjoy it."

How do you choose what you serve at Pharmacy?
Hopefully, carefully. [Laughs.] I try everything. I don't go near whiskey because I've done some stupid things drinking that and I don't want to go down that road again. But I'm looking at flavour profile for the most part. I was never really a beer guy before this bar, but it's just luck of the draw. People bring me things from brewers and I try them. There are other bars with more of a system or who serve Creemore or Labatt, probably make more money than me and run things a lot more professionally than me, but that's just not who I am.

Why is your bar called Pharmacy?
That was my wife's idea. I had a bunch of dumb, hokey names like Old Hat or King Bee, because I'm on King street. But this place was a family-run pharmacy back in the 1930s.

I thought it was called Pharmacy because you're essentially prescribing things to your clients.
People make that pharmacy joke all the time. Like, "Hey, doctor! What am I having?" Whatever ...

Why did you become a bartender?
It was just osmosis. When I was 14, I worked in a restaurant in Kensington and it was very mom-and-pop shop full of actors and musicians and transvestites in housecoats, a very neighbourhood joint. Eventually, I started serving drinks and coffees, and I became the bartender guy at 17 or 18. Then, I worked at a pool hall and these crazy bars on Ossington and now I have this place. But I literally fell into it like a dream.

Do you think it's your calling to be a bartender?
I would be very depressed if I said, "No." People think that being a bartender is a glorified profession, just because you know how to make a drink. But it's just a job. I'm not defusing a bomb or giving out cures for mustard gas so kids don't die or driving around people who can't walk. I get people drunk, or tipsy, or whatever. This is what I do and it's what I'm gonna do until I don't anymore. I love that I can support my family through this. It takes its toll on you, though.

How so?
You're talking to people all the time, but it's like, "Where's my daughter and where's my wife right now?" I got here at 10 o'clock yesterday morning and didn't leave til 3:30 AM in the morning. I went home for dinner, but that's it.

Are you a big drinker?
I stay away from brown liquors, for sure. They make me act a way that I don't like to act. Yesterday, I tried seven or eight beers, but that was over the course of, like, 12 hours. I'll have alcohol on my breath, but not drunk. I try not to abuse it, but I have to watch out because it's always behind my back.

Do you make a lot of cocktails?
I have some gin and vodka and soda and gin. I don't really make negronis. I have the ingredients, but this is a beer and spirits bar. I don't even have a shaker or straws. My daughter told me that straws hurt animals, and was I like, "I don't need straws anymore." The night we opened, I didn't even have ice cubes.

What makes a good bartender?
I don't like when bartenders talk to me too much. It's nice when they remember what you had a year ago, even if it's just like a pedestrian bottle of [Labatt] Blue. I respect a good memory on bartenders, and also sincerity. Some days you have bad days and it's hard to not wear it on your sleeve. It's important to be as honest as you can be, but I don't think that bartending is an entirely honest profession. I think that every bartender has a little something on the side, we're all a bunch of horse thieves, a little bit.

Any rules for barroom decorum, as far as customers are concerned?
Just don't act like a fucking asshole. Yelling is annoying, general politeness to other people is important, and don't hog the table—basic stuff, you know? This place is like walking into my kitchen; I don't need you to take off your shoes, but try to be nice to everyone around you. You don't have to be respectful to me, but at least to the people around you. I don't want to get all Old Testament, but just treat people the way you want to be treated, you know? Also, never yell the bartender's name at last call. That pisses me off to no fucking end.

What about talking politics?
Everyone has a right to talk about whatever they want. Ninety-six percent of the time when people talk politics in here, it's done the right way and they're not hurting anybody's feelings. But I have had times when people come in and talk politics and they're just looking for attention. Insecurity comes out in different ways in people. I don't want anyone in here yelling the word "faggot" in here—they can fucking leave—or racial slurs, because they can fuck off and never come back. I've had people come in just looking to be shit-disturbers and saying crazy stuff.

When's the last time you had to kick someone out of your bar?
A couple of days ago. I had this dude from the States come in and we was the guy who sat at the bar and listened to music on his headphones. I'm fine with people being introspective and wearing all black and reading Sartre and Camus, but this guy took it to another level. Eventually he got really predatory with some women at the bar, which is an immediate out-of-the-fucking-door, I will not tolerate that. So, he got really upset and I had to take him outside and he was crying and then he tried to kiss me. I was like, "Dude, this is not going well!" He started yelling in the street and then he came back inside again! He was just ruining my vibe, and if I can feel it, everyone else in the bar can feel it.

Any advice for young bartenders?
I would say be careful getting into this profession; it can be a real well of misery. There's not a lot of security in this job; you've just got to keep running and that's scary. I don't have any benefits. I'm a 47-year-old man. I'm like a horse, and when the horse stops running, you get turned into glue. This is a young person's game, for sure, and I'm an old man now. My advice would be to maybe have an out, like being an actor or getting a PhD or something. But this is a one-line job. Honestly, I don't even think I'm in a position to give advice. I don't really think I'm in a position to give advice, which is kind of an answer in itself.

So, do you have any retirement plans?
Someone might come in here in three months and say, "We're going to bulldoze this place to the ground!" But that's kind of how I'd like this place to go. I don't want to sound like a shitty Neil Young song, but I love this place and people love this place, and I think that when this place ends—and who knows when that'll be—but when this place finally ends, I'd like for it to disappear. I'd like this bar to be a really good memory.

Thanks, Chris.
Thanks, man.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in May, 2017.