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On the Town

Pub of Brotherly Love

By Eleanor Hong
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page WE05

NESTLED BETWEEN the rowhouses along Clinton Street in Canton, Mike McGovern's (1129 S. Clinton St., 410-534-2200) is different from a typical neighborhood bar in Baltimore. It isn't the latest in a spate of recent openings trying to revitalize Charm City's night life or among the older bars trying to attract the city's young professionals.

When you order your drink at the bar, you'll notice the numerous framed photos among the eclectic array of Irish-themed posters and memorabilia decorating the brightly lit pub. Hanging on the warm red walls are scenes of the Irish countryside and coastal cliffs, artistic black-and-white images with frayed edges of old cathedral steps and saturated color scenes of fishing boats resting in still water. They are original photos quite different from the cheesy sports displays or overdone cliched themes found in normal bars.


On the walls at Mike McGovern's pub in Baltimore are photos by owner Jim McGovern's brother, Mike, a photographer who died four years ago. Friends help Jim McGovern run the bar, where word of mouth has drawn a loyal following. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)


In fact, you might mistake the pub for an art gallery.

Which would please owner Jim McGovern immensely. He built the pub as a living tribute to his late brother, Mike McGovern, a freelance photographer whose work has been published in several publications, including The Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore, Newsweek and Time magazines.

Four years ago, Mike died in a kayaking accident in Alaska at the age of 38. Mike was not only Jim's older brother, but his best friend. Both shared a love for the outdoors and hanging out in Baltimore. The photos show some of Mike's best work and chronicle the brothers' last trip together to Ireland.

"It's important that they know that he's behind these photographs and that he's the guy that took them and [that] he was a real person," McGovern says. "It's not a fictitious thing. It's not corporate. It's somebody who used to live here."

Jim McGovern doesn't aggressively market or talk extensively about his personal tribute to his brother. Most of his clientele learn about the pub through word of mouth, and he relies on the help of friends to run the bar. The pub is open only on Friday and Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. During the week, McGovern works full time as an engineer for Swales Aerospace.

"I love to help out because it's more than tending a bar," says Alison Gibbons, 29, a yoga instructor who occasionally bartends at McGovern's. "It's helping Jim out and about something bigger, the spirit of the bar and in the spirit of what he created. It's about his love and respect for his brother and his appreciation of Mike's art. And I feel fortunate to be part of that."

Gibbons says that first-time visitors who don't know the story always comment on the photography and when they find out the source, they are always impressed.

"It's something different in the Canton area and not just a bar in the square. It's low-key, and the purpose is something different than what most bars are about."

The nonsmoking pub has a noticeably bright and friendly atmosphere, fostering a sense of community. Regulars are a mixed crowd of locals and out-of-towners. Singles and couples alike range in age from their twenties to mid-thirties to empty nesters.

Retired scientist Edward Kaufman, 76, has lived in Baltimore for 15 years. He likes how most patrons are cheerful and easily inclined to engage in conversation.

"It's essentially what a tavern should be for," Kaufman says. "An evening diversion with pleasant conversation and a place that's congenial with happy moments."

"There are other bars around here that cater to neighborhood folks, but if you're not a regular, you feel like the conversation stops when you walk in," says Aileen Flynn, 33, who lives around the corner on O'Donnell Street. "But here, it's very welcoming. If you sit down at the bar and you start talking, people start a conversation and you feel like a regular after being here for a short time."

Most of the locals agree that McGovern's provides an alternative to the cluster of bars at Fells Point or Federal Hill catering to a younger and more boisterous crowd.

"More traditional bars change into dance clubs [later at night]," says Rob Wilkerson, 33, a software developer and neighborhood regular. "This place doesn't change. It's never crowded and people are just friendly. You can sit and talk to people without screaming. It's a great place to unwind and relax. You can enjoy a couple of beers and talk."

Bargoers can also order food from neighborhood restaurants and have it delivered to the pub. Last month, the pub celebrated its one-year anniversary. For the future, McGovern plans to fix the upper level of the bar to showcase local artists' photography as well.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company