After 27 years in the business of providing dark places to have a drink with friends, Bobby Downs announced earlier this month that he’s exiting the field. Oasis Cafe, along with the sake bar Katana, will not be reopening after the summer.
“I hope you don’t mourn the passing of these smelly, dingy saloons,” Downs wrote on Facebook. “They lived lives created from the music and energy swirling within. They marked time and created indelible memories.” In a farewell post on the Oasis Cafe Facebook page, he also adds, “My bar-owner persona has irreversibly mixed into the DNA of who I am today,” and will require some “unscrambling.”
That bar-owner persona is one cultivated out of a need for a man of smaller stature to interact with sometimes difficult people in places that are “hard to find, dimly lit, poorly advertised and maligned by polite society;” at least that’s how he describes the ideal bar on Facebook. That bar-owner persona is not the totality of Downs, however, and the rest of him is shy about answering questions from a journalist.
“Ask my enemies,” he said, or those who spent time in Oasis, Cabaloosa’s, or the Griffon, rather than ask him to “toot my own horn.” Nevertheless, he did confirm details about how he got into the line of owning clubs in the first place. He was given the opportunity to buy both 49 and 58 Main Street in the early 1990s because their owners were facing drug charges at a high level, and Downs was attractive as a buyer because he was “clean” of any illegal activity.
The bars he’s created, Downs said, were the kind of bars where he would want to spend time. He considers it more a service than a business; the money made has always been reinvested in the buildings, in hiring, or in giving raises. He just wanted a space where those who considered themselves outsiders would feel welcome.
Jack Salend was with Downs for much of that journey. Salend grew up in New Paltz, and after “two underwhelming years in college,” returned here and began dating Downs’ sister. That led him to become a barback at the Griffon, rising to run all the operations by the time he retired from the night life in 2013.
Salend agrees that profit was never the motivating factor. Rather, it was about “atmosphere.” He still feels close to many of his former coworkers, and has met “countless” patrons who found a future spouse at Oasis. “Every customer we welcomed, the circle expanded,” he said.
While Salend literally became family, fathering Downs’ niece, Jackie Northacker certainly felt like she was. After renting an apartment over the club in 2010, she soon had a job there tending bar. “The amount of money I made determined how much rent I could pay him,” she laughed. Northacker tended bar at Cabaloosa’s — which was closed in 2014 — and then Oasis.
The interaction between the two bars in the same building stood out to Northacker. Downstairs, Cabs was a “dungeon-esque discotheque playground for all things naughty and all things fun,” while Oasis fit its name by being a quieter alternative, a dive bar with a lawless feel akin to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “You could do and be whatever you wanted to be, without judgment,” she said.
“Everyone found a piece of home there,” Northacker said. It was a place that “fed, clothed, and housed me.”
While Downs gets used to the idea of not processing can returns or a managing 18-to-20-year-olds who want to party without letting them drink, he says he’s going to let the building “rest” for a bit of time. In the future, he is thinking about apartments rather than business prospects: retooling the space into residences, or knocking part of it down to make a new apartment building.
Some of Downs’ self-described enemies were invited to comment for this story per his suggestion, but none was willing to go on the record by press time.