Pandemic, Looting Leaves Maxwell's Owners Pondering Uncertain Future

Maxwell's owners Mike Casey, left, and Alex Tortolani. They say their business may not be worth trying to save. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 14, 2020

First there was the pandemic that shut their business, then the looting that shattered their spirits. For Maxwell’s owners Mike Casey, 46, a former firefighter with nearby Ladder 1, and Alex Tortolani, 40, the good times that filled Maxwell’s, their bar and restaurant on Reade Street, are now relegated to the past.

The christening and first birthday party for Casey’s daughter, and the ritual gatherings on St. Patrick’s Days and 9/11 anniversaries with his firefighter buddies. Dozens of newlyweds, fresh from the Marriage Bureau, who came through the doors to celebrate. The regulars who made the place feel like home. Those are the memories that Casey said came back to him as he swept up wreckage from the June 1 attack by looters, the night that other businesses also were targeted during protests.

“I’ll never compare it to a church,” Casey said, seated in the rear of the room with Tortolani, and with Ernest Hammer, 87, his longtime friend and personal lawyer. “But it was a place where we were safe. We knew everybody and no one would ever be judged here. It was a safe haven. It was a community.”

Michael Casey gives a brief tour of Maxwell's after it was looted. Video courtesy of Stephanie Watkins.

Casey and Tortolani opened Maxwell’s in 2011, in a space left vacant when Spaghetti Western closed years before. They revived the bar’s name from the early '30s, after owner Joe Maxwell. (Hammer had known Maxwell and was a customer as far back as 1957.) Casey brought men over from Ireland to help restore the place. “Almost a duplicate” of the original, Hammer said.

“It took almost four months to bring this wood back to life,” Casey recalled. “Those mirrors behind the bar, those are priceless. Thank God they didn’t break those. The mirrors, that bar, and the history behind it, you can’t wrap your head around it.” 

With his wife and 6-year-old daughter safely out of town, Casey spent the city’s darkest months of the pandemic mostly alone and feeling down over the emptiness of the streets and stores. Just when some life seemed to be returning, he said, when he was feeling a glimmer of hope, looters smashed their way through the glass of his front doors, breaking bottles and forcing open an empty cash drawer. “Destruction for absolutely no reason at all,” he lamented. “To say that I’m losing faith, I am.”

“Never in a million years would I think something like this would happen here,” he said.

Having received news of the destruction, Tortolani arrived at 6:30 that morning to survey the damage. After some sweeping up, “I had myself a little cry with my mask on, then found some wood and a drill and drilled up [the door]. Worried about their other Maxwell’s, in Harlem, he rushed uptown. It was untouched.

Now the partners talk of giving up the place, not because of the looting but the bleak near future that lies ahead. “For the most part the core of our business is our lunch and our happy hour and private events coming from companies,” Tortolani said. “Without those people it doesn’t really make sense for us to try the takeout model.”

He went on. “I’m sure the landlords are going to have to make concessions but what are those concessions going to be? And the place is old. It was built in the 1800s, it needs a lot of work. We were figuring on taking out a line of credit. I’m not willing to take out any more loans that I have to personally guarantee in order to save something that might not be worth saving, or might not be worth saving for another 8 to 12 months”.  

“Everyone says, we’ll keep in touch,” said Casey. “But I know for a fact they’ll never walk through this door again.”