Brooklyn Ale House Owner Sean Connelly On Leaving And Loving Williamsburg

As far as old-school businesses go, this year has been a tough one for Williamsburg. A handful of standbys have shuttered, including Kings Pharmacy, Mini Mini Market and DuMont. In short, Williamsburg is changing—again. And the most recent “victim” is dog-friendly Brooklyn Ale House, which after 17 years at the corner of Berry and N. 8th St., will close its doors for good on August 27, making way for a new bar called George and Jacks from the owners of Lucky Dog and Skinny Dennis.

We caught up with Ale House owner Sean Connelly and discussed leaving behind Brooklyn Ale House—and Brooklyn—altogether. We promise, it’s not your typical Goodbye To All That.

We were so sad to hear the news today. 17 years is a long time to be anywhere. 

It’s bittersweet to tell you the truth, you know. I’m actually calling from Kentucky. I moved down here at Thanksgiving last year. My colleagues down here are like, “What’s this New York number all about, man?”

There were a bunch of people who wanted to buy it, but we didn’t like who was interested. We wanted to keep it in the family. [New owners Bill Mack and  Sal Fristensky] are really good guys. And as far as I know, they were going to keep it the Brooklyn Ale House but it seems as though things have changed. At least, it’ll be run by some cool dudes.

What made you decide to give up ownership of bar?

Well, it just became such a pain to run a bar in the city. When we first opened it was $1200 bucks and a keg was $70. It was like Brooklyn [Brewery] or something good. And now, the rent is four times that and the keg’s $150 bucks. It’s just harder. It’s harder to make money.  I opened the bar when I was 29 and I’m 46 now. I got married and we have a little boy and my wife has a family down here in Kentucky. So, we moved back to the farm and I’m going to get involved in the farm-to-table stuff down here in Cincinnati and the Lexington/Louisville area. It’s a good change, you know? You outgrow stuff sometimes. Priorities change.

What was Williamsburg like when you first opened?

It was great. Bedford Avenue was still boarded up. You knew every single person in the town. We were like one of the first guys.  I actually got a job, moved to the neighborhood with Brooklyn Brewery in ’95 and that’s what brought me there. And I just loved it. We used to be at Mugs all the time and then I got this crazy idea to open up a local bar, you know? We never looked back. The bar’s been four-deep since the first night and didn’t stop for a long time. The neighborhood’s changing.

When did you start to get the inkling that it wasn’t for you anymore?

I don’t know. Sometimes you just grow out of it. I can’t explain it, how the neighborhood’s change. The finger buildings, as we call them, you know, the high rises. The rent’s going up. All the old Polish people getting kicked out of their apartments, so they can jack up the rent on the hipsters, but then they complain about the hipsters being drunk and loud in the streets. It’s just crazy.

You can only be drunk for so long. If I’m gonna run that bar, I can’t be in there and be sober. It’s just not my style. For the sake of my liver, I just had to move on. Change is good and like I said, it’s bittersweet, but I like adventure.

You’re not alone in this. This year, a handful of old-school businesses in Williamsburg have shutdown and left because they didn’t want to (or couldn’t) fight the rising rents anymore. What do you have to say for longtime businesses owners that are have been in Williamsburg for a decade even though it’s getting harder and harder to survive there?

It just depends on how much fight you got in you and how you do it. And if it turns you on. If you like doing it.

Do you feel any resentment at all toward New York or Williamsburg?

No, not at all. I have tons of great friends up there and the bar family. It’s waned over the years, people have grown up and got married and moved out. I’ve got no ill will towards Brooklyn at all. I don’t like where’s it’s going, but people didn’t like me when I moved into that neighborhood. I was the new guy. And they were like, “Oh great, another bar,” even though there were two of them [laughs]. But then, we got over the growing pains and people liked us and we became part of the neighborhood. It just lost its luster, the shiny wore off for me. I like the small community feel. It was a real, real tight community. Then that slowly faded. And now, it’s just people bumping into you.

Do you think that’s the natural progression of things?

Absolutely. I have no ill will toward it because it’s just progression. We’d go out in the city and raise hell. The city was fun. Now it’s just Disney. It’s too much. The mom and pops are gone and are disappearing slowly and it’s a shame. But there’s tons of beautiful restaurants in Brooklyn now and good bars. And to the people who enjoy that and want to do that, God bless ’em. I just outgrew it I think. I have mixed emotions, to tell you the truth. I’m from the country originally, I’m from Northampton, Mass. So, for me, to leave the country, go to the city, spend fifteen years there, have the bar open in two years, make an impact on the community. I’m not leaving with my tail between my legs. I’m leaving  by decision and happily so. And handing the torch to someone else that has the energy to do it. To be an absent owner is not my kind of style. If I’m going to do a project, I’m going to be in it 100 percent.

Anything else?

I wish I was bitter and pissed off. It feels like I should be.

Well, I think your perspective is refreshing. There’s already a lot of New York City-related vitriol out there. 

Yeah, I had a wonderful time. Times change, people change, the neighborhoods change. I helped change it. 

Follow Nikita Richardson on Twitter @nikitarbk

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  1. Great responses. And a great bar. Will be missed.

    I like how there was just positivity and sincerity. I think the BK blogs and online media want to incite a victim mentality, but Sean is just calling it like it is. So refreshing.

  2. Sean sounds like a class act……….Brooklyn has changed immeasurably. Naturally, the changes are far more difficult for native Brooklynites to accept. Our roots are deeper, this where we grew up. This is home. I’ve moved out of Brooklyn over half a dozen times, often for work for a couple of years, other times by choice – but I always boomerang back………. On every level,the foods no where as good as it used to be, but there still are spots…. car insurance is insane, rents are insane, driving and parking is far too difficult, there’s less Brooklynites all the time……..but, there’s still enough Brooklyn left in some of the people to make it home…..The accents, the attitudes, the sayings….. it’s still home.When the last of the old guard go, that’ll be the end of it…..

    Here’s a link to a song i wrote about growing up in Brooklyn Brooklyn In My Bones