A few weeks ago, James Puiia, owner of the New Waverly, a nearly 99 year old downtown Bangor bar, saw a couple of familiar faces begin to slowly make their way downstairs into the bar.
“These two old timers came in here all the time, but I hadn’t seen them in a long time,” said Puiia, 65, who runs the bar with his son, Anthony. “Carl and Gene. Gene’s 100 years old. Lives in senior housing in Brewer. His mind’s 100 percent. He drove until he was 95. He came up to the bar, sat down, and I served him two beers and a double shot of whiskey, God bless him.”
That 100-year-old customer is just one year older than the bar itself, which was first opened in 1918 by Antonio Francisco Puiia, James’ grandfather.
Some folks have been cozying up to the bar at the Wave, as it’s known colloquially, for decades — even before it moved to its current location at 35 Merchants Plaza in the early 1970s.
What’s kept this bar going when so many other downtown businesses have come and gone? It could be the owner’s no-nonsense attitude. The cash-only bar doesn’t advertise, beyond a relatively new Facebook page, and you won’t find a long list of craft beers and signature cocktails here. There are three beers on draft (Budweiser, Busch and Natural Light). The wine list has two varieties on it: red and white. You can get higher end liquor, but the Jim Beam is right there, so why bother? It’s a dive bar — and it doesn’t mind being so.
It could also be the subterranean location with its no-frills amenities. Despite all the trendy food and beverage options that have found their way downtown, the Waverly has never been a bar that’s followed trends. You can snack on chips, or candy, or pour yourself a bowl of cheese balls from the big container stashed in the corner. The walls are covered in decades of photos, local memorabilia and customer-made art.
And then there’s the customers.
“It’s all locals, for the most part. People that live here. People that work here,” said Anthony Puiia, 30. “It’s not a lot of tourists. It’s hidden away. People come in here all the time and say ‘I’ve lived around here for years, and I’ve never been here.’”
A family affair
James Puiia’s grandfather, Antonio Francisco Puiia, immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the early 1900s, and landed in Bangor shortly thereafter. He opened the Waverly in 1918, on a stretch of French Street that no longer exists, extending past York Street. It was one block up from the old Union Station, the train station that stood where Penobscot Plaza is now, and next door to Oscar’s Restaurant, a popular 24-hour eatery.
In those early decades, the old Waverly was primarily a hotel and restaurant. Most of the clientele consisted of lumbermen who were retired, or were staying in Bangor for a few nights or weeks to enjoy the city’s legendary wealth of women and booze before heading back up to the few remaining lumber camps to work.
“Probably 70 percent of the people that stayed with my grandfather at that time were retired lumbermen. There were a few camps left, but a lot of them were retired,” said Puiia.
In the early years, the booze they served was on the sly during prohibition in the 1920s and early 30s. Back then, the Waverly served bootleg alcohol, in addition to running a legitimate hotel and restaurant business.
“The Waverly was kind of like a speakeasy. There were a lot of them back in those days in Bangor, especially on Hancock Street. Those lumbermen were like a bunch of drunken sailors,” said James Puiia. “The bar did get their liquor license once prohibition ended, of course… it was part of that whole red light district that Bangor had for all those years, and that didn’t really end until the late 50s, early 60s when they cleaned it all up.”
After Antonio Francisco passed away in 1945, his son, Tony, James Puiia’s father, took over the bar, maintaining its reputation as a place for all-comers — though the lumbermen had largely disappeared at that point, factory, newspaper and postal workers still came to the bar after shifts were over to blow off steam.
In the mid-1960s, big changes came to downtown Bangor via urban renewal, a federally and locally-funded program aimed at modernizing urban areas.
At the time, it likely seemed like progress for places like Bangor, with its maze of cluttered 19th century streets, and old, supposedly unsafe buildings. Bangor’s Urban Renewal Authority ended up demolishing a total of 150 buildings, including iconic structures like the Bijou Theater, the old City Hall and Union Station, and replacing them with parking lots and ugly concrete buildings, stripping the downtown of much of its personality — and people.
The old Waverly building was marked for demolition during the urban renewal efforts. On Sept. 11, 1973, the wrecking balls came through the walls, and the old Waverly was no more.
“There was a picture in the BDN of it getting torn down, and the caption said ‘There’s an empty spot in many a drinking man’s heart to see Tony Puiia’s little tavern get torn down,” said James Puiia. “It was the end of an era in a lot of ways.”
The ‘new’ Waverly
The Puiia family took a year to regroup, after losing the location for their business — the only time in 99 years that Bangor was without a Waverly. In August 1974, the New Waverly opened in a newly constructed concrete building at 35 Merchants Plaza, behind the Freese’s building.
With the exception of the location, not much changed.
“The regulars followed us over here. It was a different time, then. All the industry people were drinking on their breaks. The BDN, the post office, shoe factory workers. On payday, we were slammed,” said Puiia. “There was an old joke about my father, that whether you had two bucks in your pocket or two million, he knew them. He knew everybody.”
When the Bangor Mall opened in 1978, there was a shift from a bustling downtown area to a busy mall area.
“In the late 80s, we stopped being a restaurant and bar, and just started being a bar,” said Puiia. “People didn’t come downtown to eat. They didn’t come downtown, period. That’s why we went with the lower profile.”
In 1994, Anthony Puiia, James’ father, passed away. His mother, Mary Puiia, however, was an active figure at the Wave for many years after, bartending once a week until she was 80 years old, and coming by to check in right up until she passed away in 2013 at age 89 — just as downtown Bangor was finally back on the upswing.
“It’s all coming back around again, I think,” he said. “People buy stuff on Amazon, or they want to support a local business. Now they’ve got to find what will fill those empty buildings out there at the mall. They had to do that 30 years ago in downtown.”
“It’s all coming back around again”
The Puiias now count themselves among the many thriving downtown Bangor bars and restaurants. Any given weekend, you’ll find a mix of devoted regulars and a younger late night crowd, playing pool and foosball, feeding money into the jukebox and making room for an impromptu dance floor next to the bar.
There have been a few cosmetic upgrades in recent years — new flooring and a fixed-up outside facade, for example — but the Waverly of 20 years ago looks essentially the same as the one there today. It’s a kind of time capsule.
As things changed around them — the logging industry declining, urban renewal, the downtown losing businesses to the mall area, and now, the downtown revival — the Waverly and the Puiia family rolled with it. Just like their fathers and grandfathers before them, father and son have developed an innate sense of how to run a bar, and how to treat customers.
“We try to be honest and fair with everyone. We try to always have a good word about people, and not be judgemental,” said James Puiia. “I always try to run the place right. If someone comes in and wants to cause trouble, we look out for our customers first. We’ve always tried to treat people good.”
James Puiia, who has been in the bar business his entire life, shows no signs of slowing down, despite reaching what’s commonly thought of as retirement age.
“I don’t think my dad has any interest in retiring,” said Anthony Puiia. “He’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t want to leave. Why would he want to?”
“We’re carrying on history, in a sense,” said James Puiia. “We’re not going anywhere.”