HHM Gateway178-The Palms

The Persian Palms

Published July 21, 2016
James Eli Shiffer

Today’s guest blogger is James Eli Shiffer, author of the newly published book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis.

If Minneapolis were to create a dive bar hall of fame, the Persian Palms would be the first inductee. A bland office block now sits at 109-111 Washington Avenue. But back in the 1950s, the three story brick building with the garish marquee on this site sounded a siren song to both habitual drinkers and upright citizens, who risked body and wallet to revel in its free-flowing liquor and transgressive sexuality. Like Moby Dick’s, Stand Up Frank’s and other vanished venues, this bar was a notorious landmark in a city deeply conflicted about alcohol and sex.

The bar cultivated a salacious appeal that drew customers from far and wide. People from all over the region knew the Persian Palms as a place to defy 1950s-era expectations of respectability. They could walk on the wild side at this strip joint, which was known for its live and sometimes bizarre entertainment. The bar advertised “three floor shows nightly.” One city alderman called the Palms “one of the raunchiest joints in town.”

The Persian Palms was in many ways the fake jewel in the tarnished crown of the Minneapolis Gateway District, the heart of the old city where Hennepin, Nicollet and Washington Avenues came together. The Gateway was the region’s largest Skid Row, home to thousands of retired or disabled laborers, drunks, loners and lost souls.

HHM Gateway095-The Palms, Valhalla

Streetscape showing the Persian Palms in the Minneapolis Gateway District, shortly before its demolition. Image is from the Hennepin History Museum.

The sale of liquor was banned in most Minneapolis neighborhoods until 1974. Alcohol was concentrated in the city’s 20-block Gateway district, which was awash in saloons, beer parlors and liquor stores. Researchers counted 62 of them in 1952. Most were shunned by anyone who lived outside the neighborhood. Few remember the Pastime Bar, the Old Bowery, the White Star Saloon, the Hub or the Valhalla. These were pedestrian purveyors of liquor, utilitarian service stations for men determined to drink the most they could for the least amount of money.

The Persian Palms was something else altogether.

Since I published a book this spring about the last years of Minneapolis’ notorious Skid Row, everyone I meet seems to want to talk about the Persian Palms. One man told me his late great-uncle was the manager of the place. Another one told me his uncle Clyde used to drink himself into oblivion there, and would occasionally have to be dragged out, dried up and sent back home to Rochester. Another recalled a troupe of plus-sized dancers at Palms that performed weekly can-can routines. They were known as the Beef Trust Chorus, somewhat of a fad at the time, and its “captain,” Violet Morton, tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.  

January 18, 1951 Violet Morton Captain, "Beef Trust Chorus Persian Palms. January 1951

Violet Morton, Captain, Beef Trust Chorus. Persian Palms, January 18, 1951. Image is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is used with permission. All rights reserved.

One woman wrote me a letter recalling a visit to the bar in September 1950. She ordered a beer so she wouldn’t have to drink from the glasses of questionable cleanliness. The main attraction that night was Divena, a stripper who performed underwater, in a very large fish-tank. It wasn’t especially sexy, but memorable nonetheless, she wrote.

Divena wasn’t the only celebrity in town that fall. Weegee, the famous New York photographer, visited Minneapolis and ventured into Skid Row late at night. He snapped a photo of a bloodied man, his hand over his face, sitting on the sidewalk right in front of the Palms. He’s probably just been tossed out of the place and he’s too drunk or stunned or both to get up. Two men with push brooms are behind him, sweeping him off the sidewalk like so much trash. Nobody knows whether he got a chance to see Divena, whose act is advertised in the window.

Persian Palms, Weegee, hclib

Photograph by Weegee, 1950. Image is from the Hennepin County Libraries Special Collections.

Any male who approached the bar would quickly be accosted by a female requesting a drink, in exchange, naturally, for conversation. These were the B-girls, who operated in cahoots with the bartender to encourage as much spending as possible by the customers. She would get a cut, of course.

The owner of the Persian Palms was Harry Smull, a Russian immigrant who built a small liquor empire in Minneapolis, despite a city ordinance that said an individual could only own one liquor permit. That was an effort to keep the liquor business as clean as possible, by discouraging monopolies or mob control. It failed utterly. People like Smull registered the permits in the names of relatives and employees, and for the most part the aldermen and the police, often paid for their courtesy, looked the other way.

That is, until 1961. That year, the redevelopment project that would wipe away Skid Row and 40 percent of downtown Minneapolis was underway. The city was also determined to clean up the liquor business, so they rounded up dozens of liquor permit holders, including Smull, on charges of violating the one-permit rule. A judge eventually threw out all of the charges, and determined that ordinance was illegal.

Despite skepticism from some council members, who welcomed the demise of the Persian Palms, the liquor license was transferred to a bar called the Copper Squirrel on Hennepin Avenue. Yet the Palms endures in the city’s collective memory. It was campy, sordid and outright dangerous at times, like the neighborhood around it. And at the same time, irresistible.

LL004b. amazon bookstore, from svc

Amazon Feminist Bookstore

Published March 14, 2014 by Stewart Van Cleve

Guest blogger today is Stewart Van Cleve, a graduate student in the program for Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University and the author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. In this post, Stewart writes about Amazon Bookstore, the first feminist bookstore in North America.

In the fall of 1970, Julie Morse and Rosina Richter carried several boxes full of books on feminism and women’s liberation to the front porch of a Minneapolis commune. Located a few block south of Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood, and known as the “Brown House,” the commune was a locus of antiwar activism and draft resistance in the Vietnam War era, and thus fostered a revolutionary spirit that complimented Morse and Richter’s dreams for the small collection.  When they named the boxes and their contents “the Amazon Feminist Bookstore,” they founded the first independent feminist bookstore in the United States.

In 1972, after a year of sporadic management and scattered sales, Amazon made the first of many moves to the basement of the Lesbian Resource Center, a collective space that had recently opened next to Hum’s Liquor on 22nd Street in south Minneapolis. The bookstore continued to reside in a series of boxes, but its immediate proximity to interested readers helped volunteers acquire enough capital to move the collection to its first storefront, a short-lived space on West Lake Street. According to Finn Enke, who included a detailed analysis of Amazon in Finding the Movement Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism, that section of Lake was “shady” to employees and customers. By 1975, they decided to relocate a third time to a storefront next to the corner of 25th Street and Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown area.

From 1975 to 1985—a decade that might be called Amazon’s “Hennepin era”—the store’s exterior featured a large hand-painted sign that included its most recognized symbol: the labrys, a double-headed axe that symbolized the ancient origins of women’s strength.  While the storefront’s sign, large windows, and central location allowed Amazon to attract new customers who sought information and a sense of community, it also attracted the attention of the FBI. Tasked with infiltrating and disrupting supposed threats to national security, the Bureau made occasional visits to thwart the “danger” of women’s liberationists and lesbian feminists, but its agents—suited men who asked clumsy questions in the middle of a feminist bookstore—had little success.

By 1985, Amazon had outgrown its Hennepin location. It moved to a larger space that faced Loring Park on Harmon Place, the store’s most permanent and, for many, memorable address. It featured event space, larger windows, and a reading loft that became fixed as “Madwimmin Books” in the imaginary world of Dykes to Watch Out For, a landmark comic strip created by Alison Bechdel. Amazon also led an historic battle against the online retail giant Amazon.com, which used the shared name without the older store’s permission and was ultimately forced to reach a settlement.  Though the Harmon years were arguably the store’s most successful, they were also its most expensive; by 2001, it moved once again to the newly-built Chrysalis Women’s Center on Chicago Avenue.  In 2006, after a final move to 48th and Chicago, Amazon changed its name to “True Colors” and closed for good in 2012.

This postcard shows Amazon’s second storefront on Hennepin Avenue. It is from the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative Records, which are housed at the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota.