When I slide into a barstool at Stumble Stilskin’s and order a soda water with maybe a little lemon or lime in it, Chris Flathers snorts and shakes his head.
“It’s just so unlike you,” he says.
It’s been a while, but back in the day Flathers bore witness to many of my finest accomplishments in the field of inebriation. Flathers was there in the Rhinoceros Club when owner John Horshok drank me under the table in 2006. Horshok — may he rest in peace — put away at least 30 Miller Lites poured over ice before I lost count. And I was at the Rhino on a Thursday night in 2001 to see Flathers hold back a crowd of at least 100 all by himself, running the long length of the tilted bar under that row of slow-waving fans, changing his own kegs, filling his own ice and washing his own glasses until he gave up and went to plastic.
Flathers had the fastest hands in downtown Greensboro — in my estimation the best bartender in town when a thing like that meant very much to me.
He and Trevor Austin opened Stumble’s during the second renaissance of downtown Greensboro — or maybe it was the third? — back in 2004. They doubled the footprint and added the kitchen in 2009.
“Things were changing,” Flathers says.
You can drink a beer in a bookstore now, and craft brewers sell directly to their fans. Bar tabs are way down compared to the last decade, Flathers says, and nobody pays with cash anymore. He hasn’t had live music in the bar for as long as he can remember — “I do all DJs here,” he says. The guys never get dressed up to go out anymore, he says. And people are always looking at their phones instead of doing the sort of drinking for which a bar like Stumble’s was designed.
The bar is still built for speed: two full wells at either end with domestic bottles in a beer box up front and the good stuff in low refrigerators below the back bar. They run as many drafts as they can possibly handle, and there’s a separate cooler just for tequila.
“You gotta do that now,” he says.
It’s afternoon, and he’s got a couple drinkers at the bar, maybe a few more at the tables. It’s nothing like the after-work crowd at the Rhino, which back in the day was something akin to a white-collar bacchanal. But back then everybody wanted to drink and there weren’t that many places downtown where we could do it.
These days we have the opposite problem.
But in a crowded downtown market, Flathers is holding his own. He’s not as fast as he used to be. But he’s still got pretty good hands.