The whiskey was flowing at Servente’s Saloon last Friday. Classic rock blared over the speakers, and tavern regulars leaned over the edge of the worn and weathered bar.
Al Cepeda was manning his last shift before Marianne Wright, who owns Tar Flat Sonora just down Washington Street, buys the building.
Cepeda has run the tavern since he bought it in 1990 with some simple rules: cater to the needs of the regulars and avoid the unpleasant complications that come from late, after-hours closing times.
“All in all, people like the bar because they feel comfortable. Nobody hassles you here. It’s always pretty much the regulars,” he said.
On most days, the bar closed before 6 or 7 p.m. On Friday, though, urged and coerced by the barroom regulars, the unthinkable happened — Servente’s Saloon didn’t close until far after dark, about 10 p.m.
“I don’t want parties and stuff, I just want to get the hell out,” Cepeda said earlier in the day, turning toward the long, narrow hallway lined with photographs of local patrons, pen-scrawled love notes and declarations, a 1950s shuffleboard table, and scores of memorabilia.
“This place has always served us well. I’m happy.”
Cepeda, a Vietnam War veteran, and his wife, Raquel , purchased Servente’s Saloon from Bill Servente after frequently traveling to Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, often coming to the area on his motorcycle for the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee in the 1970s, he said.
When Bill Servente was “getting up there in years,” Cepeda and his wife “tossed the coin and bought the bar.” They moved to Sonora in 1995.
Under Cepeda’s 27-year stewardship, the bar retained many of the hallmarks originated by his predecessor, most notably a ceiling lined with bunched and rumpled dollar bills, hanging from above like monetary stalactites.
Bill Servente took the dollar haul with him when he closed, Cepeda said, earning more than $400. Cepeda estimated there to be about $300 up there now. He doesn’t intend to take the money with him.
“I’m not going to the bank with a bag of old, crumpled money,” he said.
The building is still in escrow, he said, and Wright said her plans are still in development. Soon, she will evaluate the inside to “get a feel for the place” and “try to take off where Al and Raquel left off.”
“We just want to change it enough so that it meets the needs of the new generation but keeps the historical building intact,” she said.
Wright said she’d like to add wine tasting, rare spirits and craft beers, and install Tar Flats Sonora goods in the front of the store.
But that vision, she added, would always be predicated on maintaining Servente’s “iconic past” and the fond memories she had of the bar while growing up in Sonora.
The bills on the ceiling, she said, would stay.
The brick structure where the saloon stands was completed in 1856 and operated as Freidenburg’s Dry Goods, then a cigar and grocery store owned by Adam Haag in 1875, and later as a fruit and vegetable store owned by Matt Marshall.
Domingo Servente took charge of the building in 1926, added a liquor license and bar in 1932, and the modern foundation for Servente’s Saloon was born as D. Servente Grocery and Liquor.
Cissy Mutzner, 86, seated at the bar next to her husband on Friday, recalled that more than 80 years ago the D. Servente Grocery and Liquor operated as a deli, selling meats, cheeses and milk and was also open on Sundays, she said.
“I’ve just known Servente’s all my life. I think it’s sad because it won’t be the same, but it’s been here forever. There will always be a tradition here.”
When Bill Servente sold the building to the Cepedas, Al said, Bill knew his family’s legacy would persist. Now that Cepeda is turning it over to Wright, he said, “I think it’ll be an attraction, I think it’ll be a destination.”
Wright said her father used to go to the bar when she was a child, and that her Sonora family, stretching back five generations, had lived in the same neighborhood as Bill Servente.
Friday night, patrons regaled each other with memories as they sat on creaking wooden barstools. Toasts were made. Some picked up a guitar and sang.
Among Cepeda’s fondest memory was the time a man came in during a parade and bought a screwdriver for his horse.
“It actually drank the damn thing,” Cepeda said.
Also, about eight or nine years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown visited Servente’s, Cepeda said, imitating a man with his neck crooked up toward in the ceiling.
“He was just being a tourist,” Cepeda said, adding he shook Brown’s hand as he advanced through the bar. “But no one in there even recognized him.”
And like any local bar, there had been a few “skirmishes” over the years, he added.
“There's a number of people you like to see come to your bar, and there’s a number you like to see leave.”
On Friday, Cepeda periodically rose to his feet and handed a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to a patron or hoisted a bottle of Jameson whiskey to replenish a rocks glass. He would visit the new Serventes as a guest, he said, but in retirement, he will renew his interest piloting aircraft and reading. He and his wife plan to travel to Europe.
A few people turned their heads toward the television as “Time” by Pink Floyd wailed from the speakers.
“The time is gone, the song is over,” flowed through the room.
“We’re going to have all the time we need,” Cepeda said.