By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
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By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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End Is Den Spelled Sideways
"Most of the antiques I'm selling go way back to the plantation," Red Bone says. His eyes ignore the mugs on the counter in front of him (the boob-shaped ones with sippy holes in the nipples), linger over the rusty tools piled on the floor, then veer upward. "Look at that plow there," he says, aiming his diamond pinkie ring at a farm implement that hangs from the ceiling. "I used to run behind a mule with a turning plow like that."
Warren "Red Bone" Lytle, proprietor of Red Bones Den in north St. Louis, retired from the bar business earlier this month. He's back at the Den to oversee the divestment of the tavern's decorative elements, a hoard of vintage flotsam he has accumulated over the past 40 years.
"I started collecting this stuff as conversation pieces," Lytle offers, explaining his eclectic trove. "Customers feel better when they got something to talk about, something in here to look at other than the liquor bottles behind the bar or another Budweiser sign on the wall. A lot of these things people don't even know how to use anymore, because they've never been on a farm. They see what I got and want to know what it is and where it came from. And the more they talk, the more beer they drink."
Diane, Lytle's significant other, bustles around pulling items off walls and shelves. Auctioneer Eric Iman, who was hired to sell off Red Bone's collection online, works with two auction-house employees to tag and photograph each piece for the sale. Not the sparkly red vinyl barstool upon which Lytle perches, though, nor the brass stripper pole in the corner. Those are staying put; Lytle hopes to rent out the bar space and its fixtures to some young go-getter. That would bring the story around full circle, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"I didn't really realize I had so much stuff. We've been working on this since we closed. But I feel lazy today," Lytle says, sounding it. He looks out the Den's front window. Just across Kossuth Avenue, the yellowing grass of Fairground Park crisps in the day's 106-degree heat. "This is my corner," he pronounces, then pauses to sip from a can of diet A&W root beer. "I been staying around here ever since I come up to St. Louis from West Memphis, way back in 1963. I wouldn't have wanted to live nowhere else. Really."
From this vantage point you might be able to convince yourself you're looking out at a country-club fairway, if a poorly irrigated one. But there are no golf courses on the north side of the city, much less country clubs. Three blocks to the east, where Kossuth meets North Grand Boulevard, a dozen men sit beneath a pair of parched old sycamore trees, the mingy shade likely the nearest thing they've got to air conditioning. The most ornate of the city's famed water towers overshadows the area like a faded white sundial telling the wrong time.
A Week Earlier
On the last afternoon in June, three unique vehicles converge at the crossroads of Kossuth and Prairie avenues for the Den's closing celebration: a red-and-white 1930 Budweiser Land Cruiser, a white 1927 Excalibur limousine and a red golf cart adorned with red-and-white placards that identify it as "Red Bones and the Bonette's Pimp-Mobile."
The party started early. "About a hundred cousins showed up from Arkansas at nine this morning," Red Bone reports, "and started drinking my beer."
Many of the buildings in the neighborhood are missing windows, doors, sections of roof and/or bricks by the wall's-worth, but the Den is well-kept, and intact. The exterior reflects Red Bone's favored color scheme: The cast-iron storefront columns are painted red with white curlicues at the top; snappy red awnings shade the spotless windows; a row of red stars punctuates the white-painted brick between the first and second floor.
The beer garden on the back patio features a rounded marquee that once was attached to Kemoll's restaurant, which operated for 66 years on North Grand before moving downtown in 1990. (The metal, formerly green, is now white scalloped in red.) Today it sports the Red Bones Den logo: the silhouette of a luscious, naked floozy reclining in a martini glass, her booty buttressed by a stem in the shape of a big stiff bone.
A throng — mostly men, some natty in pressed tropical-print shirts and straw hats, others more casual in T-shirts and ballcaps — gathers around the Budweiser Cruiser, the sole survivor of a fleet the hometown brewery commissioned during Prohibition to keep the marketing fires burning.
"When I heard Red Bones Den was closing, I came back from vacation early so I could drive the Bud Boat up here," says Greg Rhomberg, owner of the snazzy crowd-pleaser. Rhomberg and artist Bill Christman, co-curators of The Art of the Sign exhibit at Ars Populi gallery, came across this watering hole a year ago while scouting the north side for old neons. "Red Bone made us feel welcome," Rhomberg says, "so we kept coming back."