In a building once home to an iconic but dark dive bar in the heart of St. Paul's Mexican-American West Side, Greg and Dolly Agnew are pouring their hope and money into Papa Legba's Crossroads Lounge, a club meant to honor Black musical culture and featuring two nights a week of live jazz and blues.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time," said Greg Agnew, who said he's about a year from retiring from his full-time construction job. "I've looked at this spot [for a couple years]. There's a diversity to this neighborhood. I think it's a hidden gem."
Dolly Agnew, who has kept her full-time job in finance, said their daughter Krystal Williams is in charge of the day-to-day operation of Papa Legba's. Surrounded by Mexican restaurants, bakeries and shops, Dolly Agnew said she's confident Papa Legba's will find its own neighborhood groove.
"We're just working to get the word out," she said.
Neither has ever owned a bar before.
It was no easy task to transform the former Cozy Cantina into a club featuring live music for 50-somethings. It wasn't cheap, either. The couple said they've spent about $500,000 buying, gutting and renovating a building that dates to 1901.
Greg Agnew said he's wanted to own a bar and live music club ever since visiting a neighborhood joint in Atlanta in the 1980s. He wanted to recreate the joyful atmosphere he experienced that night, when a small band and female vocalist "brought the house down," he said.
He fell on the Papa Legba theme after researching the story of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, who as fable has it found fame after making a deal with the devil at the Crossroads in Mississippi. Actually, Greg Agnew said, the deal was with Papa Legba. One of the best-known figures in African spirituality is believed to be gatekeeper to the afterlife.
"At first, I just thought the name was cool," he said. "But after researching Robert Johnson, it seemed right."
Photos of dozens of musical artists who have died — such as B.B. King, Miles Davis, Howlin' Wolf and James Brown — cover the walls. But there are also pictures of Elvis, Kenny Rogers, Kurt Cobain and Prince, all renowned and now gone.
"We got pop and we got rock too," Greg Agnew said. "Our thing was to bring all these legendary people together."
Putting a bar that pays homage to jazz, blues and funk greats on Cesar Chavez Street in the center of St. Paul's historic Mexican and Latin American neighborhood is not as risky it may appear, Greg Agnew said.
"It's not just that the neighborhood is diverse," he said. "But so is the taste in music here."
Bill Lindeke, a local historian, columnist and co-author of "Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities," said that from what he can tell, the Cozy Cantina took that name in 1954 and had the same owner up until the 1990s.
A classic "dive bar," the Cozy was no stranger to occasional trouble. In the '50s, it was among 10 bars busted for "whiskey tampering" in a sting of bars that were watering down their product or secretly swapping cheap whiskey for more expensive brands to avoid paying taxes.
In the 1960s, it became more of a Mexican American hangout after the demolition of homes in the West Side Flats brought many of those families to the surrounding area.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lindeke said, fights, police calls and even the occasional shooting were not unheard of, although other neighborhood bars were more notorious. Cozy Cantina also elicited fierce neighborhood loyalty. When a shooting at the Cozy Cantina threatened the loss of its liquor license, patrons wearing matching "Cozy" hats filled the City Council chambers.
"They got it reduced to a two-week suspension," Lindeke said.
Dark and windowless, he said, "The Cozy was the kind of place where you could go in the middle of the day and not see anyone."
Lindeke, who used to live on the West Side but now lives in the Frogtown neighborhood, said he's excited by Papa Legba's opening. "I've got to get over there," he said.
After gutting the building, knocking out walls and putting in a large front window to let in the light, Papa Legba's owners say they hope to attract a wide swath of customers as well as well as longtime neighbors — although maybe not the hard-drinking Cozy regulars. After three weeks in the bar business, they know there are many lessons still to be learned.
"This really is a labor of love," Greg Agnew said. "We're hoping people love it too."