The Blue Moon Tavern is one of those dive bars that is almost mythic. It’s old enough that literary figures like Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas once drank there and there are rumors that Jack Kerouac did too. Its outer presence is just gritty enough that it deters a certain type of person from ever stepping through its doors. And its owner — well, she’s exactly who you’d want at the helm of this legendary watering hole.
Emma Pie Hellthaler officially bought the bar from her father in October 2019, right before the pandemic struck. But her roots in the bar go back much further.
“I was born in ‘86 and was raised to take the bar over,” Emma informed me. “I was 10 years old when I started learning how to reupholster stools and folding shirts for sale and washing bar towels, you know, stuff you can do at home. And when I was 18, I started doing administrative and janitorial work.”
There’s a scene In the PBS documentary series “American Portrait,” which features Emma and her fight to keep the Blue Moon open, where she points to a spot in the tavern and says that’s where her mother’s water broke. Her mother worked next door at the Rainbow Tavern and would often come into the Blue Moon after work for drinks, which is how she met her father who had bought the bar. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can say their origin story is more “Seattle” than that.
Emma’s father, Gustav Hellthaler, bought the tavern in 1982 with two business partners. But the tavern’s history dates all the way back to 1934 when state law dictated that students had to trek a mile from campus to drink. The bar became a popular spot for college kids, beatniks, and other radicals of the time. It was the sort of place that was always there for those on the outside of things.
“We were the only bar in the north end who would serve African American servicemen in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s,” Emma said. “It’s [the bar] been through many iterations, but one thing that stayed the same is that everyone is welcome.”
Emma took over management of the tavern in 2016 and bought the business from her father officially in October of 2019 — right before the pandemic shut everything down. It was also around this time that her husband had a seizure which resulted in a couple of brain hemorrhages. The surgeon told her that he wasn’t going to make it. He did, but he required lots of help. On top of that, Emma has two kids who she was homeschooling.
“I thought about selling it a couple of times and even tried, but I just had no success. Maybe I’m kind of up my ass about it, but I am going to be picky about whoever buys it. Some of the people had ideas that I didn’t particularly agree with and personalities that I didn’t think would match the community.”
What Emma was referring to is the tavern’s penchant for being a place that their houseless neighbors could count on as a safe space. Her father had the annual tradition of making a Thanksgiving feast for their houseless neighbors, which she’s continued, even this past November.
The tavern has always kept clothes around for those who needed them and was always ready to offer a cup of coffee — which is what inspired the tavern’s newest endeavor.
“I decided that maybe a coffee window would be a reasonable way for us to stay open and transition into something that I felt was safe during the pandemic because, like I said, as a family, we do an awful lot of hugging and kissing. And I just don’t see anybody reasonably avoiding that after a couple of beers.”
Last month, the Blue Moon celebrated its 87th birthday. It’s a milestone that seems even more significant considering just a year ago, Emma was trying to figure out if she could sell the tavern.
“It’s weird,” Emma said. “Every time I try to sell it, the universe drops something in my lap and says ‘no, no, no, no, don’t you give up now.’”
Things started to turn around for the tavern and Emma after the episode that highlighted the business on PBS aired and their GoFundMe took off. On top of that, her best friend from high school, Carmen Becera, became her business partner.
“We used to joke in high school that when I took over the bar, I would have to get a chalkboard to tally up all of her beers on her tab,” Emma said. “I don’t even know how I would be able to do my life without her; she’s my favorite person.”
Their GoFundMe is still open for donations. They’re also selling merch and live streaming live music from local artists, which you can tune into and support. One day, hopefully soon, the Blue Moon will be back open as a bar where hugging and kissing can all take place under the storied roof, but until then, they’ll make it work. They have to.
“This is gonna sound crazy — there is a vortex of love in that place,” Emma said. “There are so many people who have met their lifelong partner there and their best friends. There’s just a certain energy to the place that just creates love.”