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Last Call at White River Junction Watering Hole

  • Bartender Kevin Shaw pours a beer CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014 for Mike McQuinn of South Palm Beach, Fla., who is a regular at the bar when he travels to the area for business. The White River Junction bar is closing on August 13th due to a failed lease agreement with the building owners. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Bartender Kevin Shaw pours a beer CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014 for Mike McQuinn of South Palm Beach, Fla., who is a regular at the bar when he travels to the area for business. The White River Junction bar is closing on August 13th due to a failed lease agreement with the building owners.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kevin Shaw checks in on a table of customers from Cape Cod during a moderately busy lunch hour at CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Kevin Shaw checks in on a table of customers from Cape Cod during a moderately busy lunch hour at CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bartender Kevin Shaw pours a beer CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014 for Mike McQuinn of South Palm Beach, Fla., who is a regular at the bar when he travels to the area for business. The White River Junction bar is closing on August 13th due to a failed lease agreement with the building owners. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Kevin Shaw checks in on a table of customers from Cape Cod during a moderately busy lunch hour at CJ's at Than Wheeler's Tavern in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

White River Junction — Regulars at CJ’s at Than Wheeler’s Tavern were saddened to find out this week that the popular local bar and restaurant would be closing next week.

Christene Demers, who runs the tavern with her husband, Joe, and her parents, Chris and Debbie Riley, posted the announcement on Facebook on Monday.

“Tonight all of us at CJ’s regret to inform you that after many failed attempts to negotiate a lease agreement with the building owners, CJ’s At Than Wheelers will be closing from its current location in the Gates-Briggs building on August 13, 2014,” the announcement read. “We would like to thank you all so much for the amazing run!”

Than Wheeler’s Tavern has been on South Main Street in White River Junction since about 1972, according to Joe Demers. Christene and Joe Demers took over the restaurant five and a half years ago, christening it “CJ’s” after their first initials.

Joe Demers said business was strong, but his family and the Briggs family, who own the Gates-Briggs building and the Hotel Coolidge, couldn’t reach terms for a lease renewal. The Briggs’ lawyer, William Donahue, had sent the Demers an eviction notice that gave them until Sept. 15 to move out, but they have opted to leave earlier.

Briggs said he had not received communication from the Demers family recently.

“We’ve not been told that the conditions that we had met on, and seemed to have reached consensus on, were totally unacceptable,” Briggs said. “We never heard that.”

According to Donahue, he sent the letter on behalf of the Briggs family when the lease expired.

“The lease expired, and it hasn’t been renewed,” Donahue said. “The Hotel Coolidge hates to lose them.”

A handful of patrons were at the subterranean restaurant Wednesday at lunch. CJ’s often gets bigger crowds during its 50 cent wing nights and when it hosts karaoke events. Mike McQuinn, who is visiting from Florida and was eating at CJ’s on Wednesday, was surprised to hear that CJ’s was closing. “It’s the most authentic pastrami I’ve ever had,” he said.

It took the family some time to build their customer base, Demers said.

“None of us knew what we were getting into when we started,” Joe Demers said. “We learned how to run a business and met a lot of great people.”

Briggs said that Than Wheeler’s has been around since the 1970s, and that he hopes to retain the Than Wheeler’s name.

“We don’t have any plans for changing the function of the place,” Briggs said. “We would look for another tenant.”

Demers said he and his family have a few locations in mind, but nothing firm.

“We’re on the hunt for another place,” Demers said. “We’re going to try and stay in the area and keep our customers close.”

The liquor license is in his family’s name, but they may have to apply for a new one if they move to a different town.

“If they are staying in the same town, it is a simple change of address along with the Local Control Commissioners approval,” said Bill Goggins, an official at the Vermont Department of Liquor Control. “If they are moving to a different town, they would need to go through the entire application process.”

Many White River Junction residents said they are upset to see a favorite local watering hole go elsewhere.

“The most important thing they offered in White River was a convenient place to go hang out,” said Steven Krall, who recently graduated from the nearby Center for Cartoon Studies. “CJ’s was always the place to go to meet up with a friend, talk after a movie or sit and draw. It was very much a staple of the social life at the Cartoon School, even for people who weren’t big drinkers.”

Alex Bullett, a White River Junction resident, said CJ’s fulfilled a need in White River for late night dining and drinking.

“It catered to a lot of different needs,” Bullett said. “It was a clean, safe place where anyone could go down and get good service and a good drink. It’s important to have that late-night option for eating and drinking in WRJ.

“It’s sad to see another empty storefront in the Gates-Brigg building.”

Chris Moye has worked at Than Wheeler’s Tavern since before the previous owners, Donna and Bruce Koenke, left. He said the Demerses and the Rileys have done a good job of running the business.

Moye said he was disappointed a deal on a new lease couldn’t be reached.

“It sucks that they couldn’t reach a happy medium, but that’s business.”

As for what Moye will do after Aug. 13, he said he doesn’t know.

“I just take it day by day,” he said. “I go wherever the wind blows me.”

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com.