It seems like you can’t throw a sand dollar down Middle Street these days without hitting a bar or restaurant, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Before Poe’s, before Dunleavey’s … before all of that, there was Bert’s Bar. And if you were at Bert’s, you weren’t there to Instagram your dinner, you weren’t meeting friends before a night on the town and you certainly didn’t arrive there in a golf cart. Bert’s was a bar’s bar.
That’s not where Bert’s story starts. If you walk back a bit further in time, Bert’s was something else entirely.
Bert’s Pharmacy – as it was originally known – was the social hub of the school-age crowd on the island, serving milkshakes and cheeseburgers to Sullivan’s Island’s young baby boomers.
Bert Wurthmann opened the pharmacy on his beloved Sullivan’s Island in 1954, and, along with his wife and eventually their children, operated the store as a one-stop-shop for everything from milkshakes to medicine, serving the locals as well as the occasional day-tripper from off the island.
When Gina Wurthmann Lesslie was probably not quite old enough, she went to work for her father in the family business, initially at the candy counter before graduating to running grill while still only a pre-teen.
“The drugstore was about families and kids – no tourists really,” Lesslie recalled. “Very few people lived on the island year-round, so everybody knew everybody. Some people would come in every day, sit at the counter and just hang out.”
“It was a little bit like Mayberry back then,” Lesslie continued. “I’d sit at the penny candy counter and do my homework. You’d know everybody who came in.”
It wasn’t just family that Wurthmann hired to help with the business – a lot of islanders got their first taste of the workforce serving customers at Bert’s.
Wurthmann hired Dolleah “Dee” Summer Estrada to work there in 1968, the summer she turned 15, and she remembers it vividly.
“The front was all glass, and, when you walked in on the left, there was a long counter with red leather stools. Behind the counter there was a flat grill and the soda fountain,” Estrada remembered. “On the very end of the counter, on the left-hand side, was a big candy counter. I remember one of the hottest selling items that summer was cinnamon clove chewing gum for 5 cents a pack.”
“In the very back of the store was the actual pharmacy, slightly raised above the level of the rest of the store so Wurthmann could kept his eye on me,” recalled Estrada, “ so he could be sure I was working. He watched everything like a hawk from that perch of his back there in the store.”
Patrons of the bar that followed the pharmacy may recall the slogan “If it hurts, go to Bert’s,” but that wasn’t meant as advice to drink your troubles away. It was painted on the side of Bert’s red VW bus that he used to deliver prescriptions to his customers after the store was closed.
In the early ’70s, facing increased competition, Bert divided the building in half, relegating the pharmacy to just one side and replacing the soda fountain with a long wooden bar serving beer and wine instead of ice cream and candy. That arrangement lasted for much of the decade before the bar ultimately took over the whole building, becoming the Bert’s Bar that many of us remember fondly.
Tim Gunyon wasn’t the first person to run Bert’s Bar after the pharmacy faded into history, but he was the last. Gunyon took the reigns of the bar in 1986 and was in charge until December 2007, when it served its last customer.
“Business was OK when I took over, but the previous owners had run some folks off,” Gunyon explained. “We usually had about 30 or so regulars who showed up every day for happy hour. They were lawyers, teachers, fishermen, carpenters … they were all locals, and they would talk about just about anything except politics.
“The place was most interesting in the late ’80s when 90 percent of the customers were either from Sullivan’s Island or used to be,” Gunyon recalled. “After the hurricane, when they got the bridge fixed and everything started to calm down, people started to come in who weren’t from the island. The crowd became more diffused. A lot of regulars disappeared after the hurricane.”
Longtime residents of the island know how much it changed after Hugo, and the demographics and rising property values eventually got the best of Bert’s Bar.
Bert Wurthmann’s name might not be on the building anymore, but the current tenants, Home Team BBQ, are happy to pay homage to the man who started it all over 60 years ago, with pictures and signs from the old days on display.
“We go to Home Team all the time,” said Lesslie, “I think my dad would be happy that the building was not torn down, and they’re using the bar he had made. He’d be proud that the family is still on the island and amazed at how busy and crowded it is year-round.”