Uptown Bill’s may soon close

Uptown Bill’s Coffee House at 730 S Dubuque St, Iowa City. — photo by Jason Smith

In a city with a surprising number of coffee shops, Uptown Bill’s stands out as a unique place. Part coffeehouse, part performance venue, part used bookstore, in the words of Tom Gilsenan, who ran it for eight years before his retirement in June, it’s “a place where everybody is welcome, no matter what their station in life… a place where you could have discussions about political and social issues. And also a place where could you get a nice little lunch.”

But now that place, which opened in at 730 S Dubuque St, Iowa City in 2001, is in danger of closing, the nonprofit Extend the Dream Foundation announced on Monday.

“There isn’t steady revenue coming in right now,” Mary Vasey, president of the Extend the Dream Foundation’s board of directors, told Little Village. Uptown Bill’s is a project of the Iowa City-based foundation, which focuses on helping people with disabilities connect with the wider community and find meaningful employment.

“Tom did a great job, and was always able to get us to the next month, but it’s been going month to month for a while,” Vasey said.

She explained that as the board has been searching for a replacement for Gilsenan, who was both manager of Uptown Bill’s and executive director of the Extend the Dream Foundation, they became concerned about a lack of reliable funding. Certain fundraising efforts on which the foundation has relied in the past fell through this year.

“We’re trying to figure out a sustainable revenue stream,” Vasey said. “We’ve started applying for grants and are looking for ways to increase what we’re doing at Uptown Bill’s.”

Uptown Bill’s was originally modeled after Wild Bill’s, a coffee shop in the University of Iowa’s North Hall that is a service learning project of the university’s School of Social Work. Both Wild Bill’s and Uptown Bill’s were started by people inspired by Bill Sackter.

Born in Saint Paul in 1913, Sackter spent nearly 50 years institutionalized at the Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. When attitudes towards people with disabilities began to change in the 1960s, Sackter was moved to a halfway house, where he began engaging with the wider world. Sackter’s famously optimistic approach to life helped further change public attitudes.

He was befriended and brought to Iowa City by filmmaker Barry Morrow in 1975. The following year, Sackter was made proprietor of Wild Bill’s, which was started to provide him with a job. He worked at the shop until his death in 1983.

The Extend the Dream Foundation was founded in 1999, and opened Uptown Bill’s in 2001. In addition to music performances, the coffeehouse also hosts meetings by approximately 15 different support groups every week.

“It really is an unusual kind of venue,” Vasey said. “People always say they feel safe there.”

As part of its attempts to make sure Uptown Bill’s will remain open until new sources of funding are secured, the foundation has set up a Fundly page. The goal is to raise $30,000.

Asked how people can support Uptown Bill’s beyond the online fundraising effort, Vasey said, “They can come to the music events [at the coffeehouse]. They can come down and have a cup of coffee. That’s a big thing.”

“We always need volunteers,” she continued. “And right now, we’re also in great need of a vacuum cleaner.”

“I’m quite hopeful about working out the funding. We’re building on what we’re already doing and thinking about some major fundraisers,” Vasey said. “I really think we’ll be able to work this out.”

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