Ann Arbor's Aut Bar Announces Closure

Jason A. Michael

The Aut Bar in Ann Arbor has become the latest victim of the novel coronavirus. In a statement, the BarStar Group, which purchased the restaurant and bar just over a year ago, announced the iconic LGBTQ hot spot would not be reopening once the stay-at-home order has been lifted.

"In moments of upheaval and uncertainty, bars and restaurants play a critical role in offering comfort and stability," BarStar posted on Aut Bar's Facebook page. "For the LGBT community, bars have long-served as spaces for essential refuge and sanctuary, community-building and activism which, in fractured moments like this one, have never been more critical. Queer bars, simply put, are essential, and we know that. Which is why it is with heavy hearts that we share the news that we won't be re-opening Aut Bar in Braun Court when in-room dining and drinking resumes this coming week.

"Aut Bar is a special and historic place and dear to so many, and we were honored to be its caretakers this past year when Martin and Keith retired," the statement continued. "Despite the countless hours dedicated to building, strengthening and reimagining the bar's future, the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis has proved — as it has for so many small business across the country — to be simply too much to bear."

Original owners Martin Contreras and Keith Orr said they were disappointed in the news. Micah Bartelme, CEO of BarStar Group, called the couple personally the night before issuing the public statement.

"We are, of course, saddened to hear that they are closing the Aut Bar," Orr told Between The Lines. "We had hoped it would thrive, as Ann Arbor needs a queer space, and it is our legacy. Obviously, this is a difficult time to be a bar or restaurant owner. I am in no position to second-guess their situation."

Contreras and Orr helped transform Braun Court into an LGBT gathering spot after transforming La Casita de Lupe, the Mexican restaurant they had owned for a decade, into Aut Bar, Ann Arbor's only gay-owned full-time gay bar and restaurant.  The couple continued to buy up property in the Court and added to its LGBT appeal by opening Common Language Book Store and renting space to the Jim Toy LGBT Community Center. The couple walked away from restaurant and bar and the bookstore in 2019.

"Martin and I are retired and have no desire to jump back into the service industry," Orr said. "Thirty-four years was plenty. Along with pursuing our own interests, we remain politically engaged."

Recognizing Aut Bar's historical significant, BarStar Group has pledged to return to Contreras and Orr all of Aut Bar's intellectual property.

"We honor Aut Bar's historic significance to the LGBTQ community, and will be returning the brand name, intellectual property, and vintage signage and décor to Martin and Keith, in the hopes that they can find an entrepreneur who can carry on the Aut Bar name," the statement continued. "We will also be turning over social media channels to them to keep the Aut community engaged."

The announcement was met with great appreciation from Contreras and Orr.

"We are heartened that Micah has stated privately and publicly that he is returning the intellectual property to us," Orr said. "That includes name, logo, brand and control of social media for the Aut Bar. This allows us to try and find someone who wants to continue the legacy, even if it is in another location."