On Krista Burton's 23rd birthday, she roller-skated around Minneapolis' Pi Bar. On another night, she recalled winning a sex toy at a bingo event.

The bartenders were "hot." The tater tots were extraordinary. To Burton, it was perfection.

"I basically lived there," Burton said.

What the bar really offered to Minneapolis was more than just a fun night out or fried potatoes. It was the only establishment then and since created mainly for lesbians to gather with each other.

"A community was created," said Pi Bar owner Ty Yule, who uses he/they pronouns. "It's been closed for 15 years, but people still talk to me about it and what it meant to them. Some people found their partners there. It's just a really sweet, intense memory."

When Pi Bar shuttered in fewer than two years after its 2007 debut in the Seward neighborhood, it left Burton and other LGBTQ women in the Twin Cities with limited options for other safe places to come together.

While there are several bars in the Twin Cities aimed at gay men — a handful of the 194 nationally, according a study by Oberlin College & Conservatory — there hasn't been a lesbian-specific bar in Minneapolis in the past decade-plus. The closest lesbian bars are in Milwaukee and Chicago, and very few of the just 29 remaining nationally are in the Midwest, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, a campaign to preserve remaining establishments.

The number of lesbian bars has actually grown in recent years from just 15 in the country in 2019, according to the study. Gay bars have plummeted, averaging about 400 nationally from 2017-21 before a post-pandemic tumble.

While there are efforts to revive the lesbian-bar scene — from pop-up events to theme nights at other establishments to a group working to open Minneapolis' first cooperatively owned queer-lesbian bar — some think lesbian-specific bars might be a relic of the past.

"I'm not sure if nostalgia is enough to save lesbian bars," Yule said.

But the future could be more inclusive. Bars serving a mixed crowd are on the rise and have overtaken gay bars as the most common type of LGBTQ bar, increasing from 333 nationally in 2021 to 547 this year.

Alejandro Caballero, left, Wednesday Ezaki, and Zoja Anthony Chmielarczyk gathered outside the Black Hart of St. Paul on Tuesday night Aug. 1, 2023. The friends met at the bar for after watching the new Barbie movie together.
Alejandro Caballero, left, Wednesday Ezaki, and Zoja Anthony Chmielarczyk gathered outside the Black Hart of St. Paul on Tuesday night Aug. 1, 2023. The friends met at the bar for after watching the new Barbie movie together.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

'80s heyday

In 1980, there were around 200 lesbian bars in the U.S. But since the early 2000s, a slew of economic factors exacerbated the already rapid decline of lesbian bars, including cost of owning a business, lack of capital in the LGBTQ community and online forums or dating apps reducing the demand for in-person spaces for queer people to meet.

This gradual loss stung for many with fond memories of finding comfort, safety and love in lesbians bars.

"These bars have meant an enormous amount of queer joy for me," Burton said. "To think that other queer youth coming up are not going to have those spaces was really terrible."

Minneapolis was home to a flourishing LGBTQ community starting in the 1970s, local experts said. Spaces like a women's coffeehouse and a feminist bookstore didn't explicitly label themselves as lesbian exclusively but were popular meeting spaces for LGBTQ women.

The Lesbian Resource Center, founded in 1972, was one of the first organizations in the country where women could come together and make friends in a "specifically lesbian space," said Lisa Vecoli, founder of the Minnesota Lesbian Community Organizing Oral History Project.

"We had a remarkably vibrant lesbian community in the '70s and '80s, which I think would shock most people today," Vecoli said.

The Amazon Bookstore Cooperative sold feminist books and promoted lesbian and women-focused events in Minneapolis starting in the '70s until its closing in 2012. A grant from the Lesbian Resource Center helped fund the coffeehouse in 1974. Coffee, cookies, poetry readings and dancing brought easily 100 women together each night, founder Candace Margulies told Vecoli in an oral history interview.

In 1984, though, the membership collective voted to ban transgender individuals from the coffeehouse. Another group, the Women of Color Stir Fry, also struggled with controversy. While it intended to offer an informal space for LGBTQ women of color to connect, it dissolved after some members asked to change the name, which they felt was racist.

Finn Enke — professor of history, gender and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin and former Minneapolis resident — remembered seeing leaders in the lesbian community fragment politically while businesses became more expensive to keep open in the late '80s and early '90s. This combination turned fatal for many businesses.

"One thing about the 1970s is you could do so much with so little money," said Enke said, who uses he/they pronouns. "And by the late '80s, that just wasn't true."

Pi Bar closed in 2008.
Pi Bar closed in 2008.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

The crowd danced on Pi Bar's last night in business in November 2008.
The crowd danced on Pi Bar's last night in business in November 2008.

Ty Yule

Minneapolis memory

Yule founded Pi Bar in 2007 hoping to revive that magic of the '80s and aiming to preserve a permanent space for his community.

"I wanted to sort of relive my past. I came out in the mid-'80s, and in the mid-'80s, we still had lesbian bars everywhere," Yule said.

Opening the bar, Yule said, was initially well-received. But patrons dwindled, and the cost of running the business became overwhelming. In 2008, he bought the building contract for deed, leaving him with two years to refinance and make the bar profitable. But the 2008 financial crisis caused Yule to lose the building.

Though short-lived, Pi's legacy is surprisingly evergreen, Yule said. He's still in touch with the bartenders and some regulars who reflect fondly on nights spent there.

Burton, who now lives in Northfield, noticed the decreasing prevalence of lesbian bars. When the iconic Lexington Club in San Francisco closed in 2015, she became "hyper aware" of closings.

"I spent the next couple of years just yell-complaining about that to anybody who would listen," Burton said. "There's nothing quite like being in a space that is emphatically made for you and welcoming you and you feel incredibly comfortable and safe in."

Using this inspiration, Burton visited all 21 remaining lesbian bars in the country in 2021 and wrote a series of columns about the importance of them for the New York Times.

In her new book "Moby Dyke," she recounts the tales of her travels and interactions at each bar. Burton recalled the stunning amount of love and gratitude for the bars and the community formed from having a permanent "home base" for queer people.

The Back Door in Bloomington, Ind., was one that stood out to Burton.

"People appreciated the hell out of this bar," Burton said. "They loved the bar. They were so grateful that it was there in the middle of Indiana."

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Back Door is one of a few queer/lesbian bars in the Midwest. Co-founder Smoove Gardner said she prioritizes welcoming everyone and typically calls the Back Door a "queer bar."

"​​We're not checking at the door to see how you identify or who you want to be with," Gardner said. "Inclusivity is important, and if you're not striving for that, then you're not going to be viable."

Drag nights and dance parties appeal to a variety of people in Bloomington, with a customer base that spans generations and identities.

"We can have nice things too in the Midwest," Gardner said. "People are always surprised to find such a sweet little spot in Indiana."

In the bar's early stages, Gardner said she and a business partner faced a lack of capital along with struggles most small businesses face.

Though she had to take on debt to open the Back Door, Gardner said the bar has overcome initial obstacles and blossomed into a permanent community asset.

Christopher Schmidt sings during Tuesday night karaoke at the Black Hart of St. Paul bar Aug. 1, 2023.
Christopher Schmidt sings during Tuesday night karaoke at the Black Hart of St. Paul bar Aug. 1, 2023.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

In lieu of ...

Minneapolis hasn't had an official lesbian bar since Pi, Burton and Yule said. But a new trend in queer spaces is pop-up events.

LGBTQ groups or gay bars hold events that appeal to all communities, like Minneapolis' Grrrl Scout, a queer-focused events company that organizes dance nights and theme parties every few weeks.

Being able to coordinate pop-up events specifically targeting lesbians or queer people can meet some of the demand for a permanent space, according to Bailey Hosfelt, a master's student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched lesbian community-building.

Hosting pop-up events eliminates barriers LGBTQ people face in amassing necessary capital to start a brick-and-mortar business, said Hosfelt, who uses she/they pronouns.

She added owners of lesbian bars face similar challenges to many small businesses — especially those women, people of color and other marginalized individuals own — including rising rent and gentrification, which can push historic lesbian bars out to make way for new development. Organizers of pop-up events avoid these difficulties.

"It's hard to pay rent on a space and maintain it," Hosfelt said. "When your primary clientele is women or gender-expansive people, trans folks, [they] have less disposable income as gay cis men."

The Twin Cities are still home to many surviving gay bars, including the 19, Gay 90's and the Saloon. The Black Hart of St. Paul, a soccer bar serving the LGBTQ community, is intentionally planning events that appeal to the queer community beyond gay men.

Wes Burdine, who owns the Black Hart, said women's soccer showings — along with karaoke and drag king and burlesque shows — attract a more diverse audience.

"One of the missions of what we've tried to maintain is really trying to cater to and make it very explicitly inviting to the trans community, to women, to different types of gay men as well," Burdine said.

He's hoping to broaden the bar's traditional customer base and appeal to younger queer people, too.

"People want to be out, and they want to celebrate it. That, to me, is really joyful," Burdine said. "And that's why we do this."

Maddy Flisk, Natalie Ollila, Victoria Leonard, Zant Peralta and CJ Jennings, the co-founders of new queer bar the Brass Strap pose together in Minneapolis on Monday, July 24, 2023. Opening in 2025, the Brass Strap will be the city's...
Maddy Flisk, Natalie Ollila, Victoria Leonard, Zant Peralta and CJ Jennings, the co-founders of new queer bar the Brass Strap pose together in Minneapolis on Monday, July 24, 2023. Opening in 2025, the Brass Strap will be the city's...

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune

Cooperative future

Through GoFundMe and pop-up events, a group of friends is working to bring a lesbian/queer bar back to Minneapolis.

Outside of their day jobs, the six co-founders of the Brass Strap are working to build Minneapolis' first cooperatively owned queer-lesbian bar by 2025.

"We have lofty dreams about what it's going to ultimately look like. ... We'd really like it to be a community hub," said co-founder Victoria Leonard

Prioritizing the safety and comfort of the entire LGBTQ community is important to the founders, as well as hosting a variety of events like sober nights. But funding is the current initiative.

They're also asking for feedback on location, community needs and accessibility concerns through social media. Co-founders have already hosted pop-up events featuring art, DJs and dancing to raise funds and gauge interest.

"The community is there, and I think they're hungry for this," said co-founder Maddy Flisk. "We've just got to make sure that the space is one that is what they want to see and that they'll show out for."

The number of lesbian bars were declining sharply from the 1980s through 2020, according to the Lesbian Bar Project. But that number has grown in recent years, with eight bars added in the past three years.

The cooperative model — meaning community members have ownership and democratic power in the business — was an intentional choice to align with the Brass Strap's broader mission to represent Minneapolis' LGBTQ community fairly.

"We want to have some intersectionality. ... We want this to be for everyone," said co-founder Zant Peralta, who uses they/she pronouns.

For other LGBTQ bar devotees like Burton, the possibility of Minneapolis being home again to an inclusive queer space is exciting.

"I really am hoping that the Brass Strap is able to open up a bar," Burton said. "There is definitely no bar that is like the queer/lesbian bar in Minneapolis."

"If there were, I would be there all the time."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of the closest lesbian bar to the Twin Cities.