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The Mermaid Inn: One of the Philadelphia Folk Music Scene’s Oldest and Active Homes.

June 3, 2015

MermaidInn01smallText by Dan Halma. Images by Charles Shan Cerrone.

Nestled at the base of a hill at the intersection of Winston Road and Mermaid Lane lies a quaint stone building that, if not for the simple sign hung just below the third floor window marked “Mermaid Inn,” would appear to be just another beautiful albeit unassuming house in the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill.

Without prior knowledge it might be easy for one to assume that the Mermaid Inn is a rustic bed and breakfast, or perhaps the cozy neighborhood bar.

While the latter might be an apt description, crossing through the bright red doors of the entrance on most nights of the week would have patrons finding themselves inside one of the Philadelphia folk music scene’s oldest and active homes.

Built in 1734, the building has been a staple of Chestnut Hill, serving as the inn and tavern that its name implies. If rumor is to be believed, the Mermaid was also frequented by some of the nation’s founding fathers and was a favorite Philadelphia drinking spot of George Washington. But what makes the Mermaid a special place in Philadelphia is not its list of famous patrons or the myriad ghost stories and hauntings throughout the years, but its status as an intimate music venue.

Come to the Mermaid on any Wednesday through Saturday night and you are bound to see a variety of bands and singer-songwriters performing anything from folk and bluegrass to classic rock, even the occasional jam band. However, one event is special for regulars – the open mic night held every second and fourth Tuesday since the 1980s.

“What I love about it is that it’s informal, you know?” says Mike McNichol, who runs the open mic events. “Anybody can do it.”

Dressed in a warm brown sweater and bearing an even warmer smile, McNichol has been running the program for the past decade, having taken over organizing duties from local singer-songwriter Tom Gala after Gala’s wife gave birth to twins.

Gala had been key in organizing and running the open mic night. Before finding a permanent home at the Mermaid, Gala’s open mic night was hosted at several different bars in the area including Mt. Airy’s Commodore Barry Club, Lafayette Hill’s Brittingham’s and Fairmount’s London Grill.

“It used to be called the Bothy Folk Club,” McNichol notes, and it served to incubate and promote the folk music talent in Philadelphia.

The name alludes to small, unlocked shelters found in the mountains of Ireland, Northern England and Scotland that were of free use for travelers in need. With a welcoming “come as you are” attitude, the Bothy Folk Club lived up to its name and continues this tradition presently, even though the name has changed.

“For a while there was nobody coming,” explains McNichol. “I think the name scared people away. So Joanne [Mekis, the owner] said, ‘Let’s call it an open mic and see what happens.’”

After the name change, attendance began to steadily increase until the number of people packed into the Mermaid was back to where they once were.

Yet even for its popularity with regulars, the long-standing open mic night is only a small portion of the live music programming at the Mermaid Inn. Except for Sunday, Monday and the sporadic weekday in which the inn is closed, there is always some performance taking place. Friday and Saturday night shows are routinely played to a packed house.

“Saturdays are our busy days,” says Joe Gray in between serving drinks and food to a crowded house on a chilly Saturday night.

Gray is the Mermaid Inn’s latest hire. He shares his bar and kitchen duties with longtime bartender Karen Guarino Spanton. As the duo sprints between customers posted around the bar and running to the kitchen to handle incoming food orders, it becomes clear that the weekend is the premier time to experience a night at the Mermaid Inn.

As many patrons settle in to catch the evening’s performer, others eagerly await their dinner from the inn’s small yet respectable menu of burgers, BLTs, broiled fish, salads and a changing list of freshly made soups.

“Everything we use [to make our food] is local,” says Spanton as she sets a BLT down in front of one hungry patron. “We buy all of our meat from the local butcher and all of our produce from local farms.”

As such, certain items on the menu rotate based on the availability of the necessary ingredients. But for the most part, the bar’s menu stays consistent. The only time major changes to the menu are seen is during certain holidays or special events.

“We had a special dessert for Valentine’s Day this year, “ details Gray, “an ice cream sundae for two.”

While the food and drink orders steadily come in, Gray notes that food is just a part of what makes the Mermaid Inn a special place.

“Food is pretty big here,” he explains,” but mostly people come here for the drinks and the live music.”

Almost on cue, the lights go down and everyone in the Mermaid Inn pauses their conversations to give their undivided attention to the evening’s headlining band.

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