Closing Time: The Science Behind Nostalgia For Our Favorite Bars
It’s just after noon on a Wednesday at Air Devil’s Inn — a kind of dive-y bar across from Bowman Field. Owner Kristie Shockley is passing cold, canned beers over the counter. Behind her, two muted TV’s play reruns of "Gunsmoke."
“Well, it has been a domino effect of challenges,” Shockley said. “This has gone on for a couple of years, at least. One thing breaks — we fix that. Another thing breaks.”
Which makes sense.
The building that houses Air Devil’s Inn has been around since the 1870s. It was once a schoolhouse, then a speakeasy, and for the last 80-or-so years, it’s been this bar.
But with repair costs mounting, Shockley wasn’t sure the bar would make it through the summer; she put out a call for help on social media, and some regulars planned a benefit for the bar.
Shockley says her bar has its fair share of regulars.
“Each night, each bartender, has their own regulars, and they’re not just the regulars, they are their friends.” Shockley said. “And actually Sunday, several of our regulars are volunteering to help.”
Air Devil’s Inn wouldn’t be the first old bar in Louisville to close its doors, but when I looked at the comments on Shockley’s post asking for help, a lot of people commented with their own personal memories made in the bar.
When I started a little digging deeper online, I realized this wasn’t that unusual. There are active Facebook pages dedicated to several bars in Louisville that have been closed for years. People still post memories of first dates, photos of their college years, videos of their old bands playing.
In a lot of those posts, commenters mention the word “nostalgia;” they are nostalgic for those bars that shuttered long ago.
But I was curious how we come to form those feelings for a place, so I met with Dr. Keith Lyle from the University of Louisville, who studies memory and various aspects of cognition.
According to Lyle, before we talk about nostalgia, there are some elements of memory we need to nail down first.
“Events like going to a bar are made up many features that are processed by in different areas of the brain,” Lyle said. “What you are tasting, smelling, and what you’re feeling emotionally is processed in an area of the brain.”
Then, what the brain does through a very complex process is stitch all of that information together into a bundle. That bundle is what we’d consider a “memory.”
“Then, to ‘remember,’ is to relive that brain activity,” Lyle said. “ So we are, in fact, reliving something that happened in the past.”
When you speak with people about prior experiences at a place, you hear that “reliving process.”
Michael Jones is a local author — we connected through a Facebook page dedicated to Tewligan’s Tavern, a Louisville bar and music venue that closed more than 20 years ago. It was on Bardstown Road, in what would later be the home of Cahoots and now, Nirvana.
“It was a dive bar, but it was kind of open in that anybody could play there,” Jones said. “That was just a time when Louisville’s indie rock scene was getting started.”
Jones said he basically grew up at Tewligan's. His experiences there, listening to music and meeting friends, inspired him to write an essay about the bar. He can still vividly recall seeing specific bands there, but now that Tewligan's is closed, Jones said it’s a little said to talk about.
According to Lyle, nostalgia is still kind of a fuzzy concept for brain scientists, but he has a theory that ties into that sadness Jones feels.
Essentially, nostalgia is one step past memory.
“You feel like you can almost touch it again,” Lyle said. “Almost taste it again, almost smell it again, almost see it again — because in your brain, you are experiencing that activity. But you know now there is no physical counterpart.”
Which, Lyle says, is profoundly sad for our brains.
And, which also maybe explains why people post online about their memories of a specific bar that meant a lot to them. They are re-accessing and processing those sensory bundles that still feel really fresh.
Back at Air Devil’s Inn, owner Kristie Shockley says someone asked her what she ultimately wants for the bar.
“He asked ‘What are your hopes for the future?’” Shockley said. “And I said I hope people keep coming in.”
Because, no matter how powerful, good memories and nostalgia won’t pay the bills.