Tim Gillaspie knows what the people of Tuscaloosa really want. When he first set up shop in T-Town he sold University of Alabama merchandise, from umbrellas to nail polish to puppy sweaters, and he eventually owned Bamaland, one of the biggest distributors of UA-themed memorabilia.
Most recently he has taken the Tide pride to Mike’s Place, a bar on James I Harrison Jr Pkwy, and transformed it into Crimson Bar.
“I got into that houndstooth craze, just like everybody,” Gillaspie said. “The fans are rabid around here. They show more support for a team than I’ve seen anywhere else.”
As soon as he took over the venue, Gillaspie went to work decking out the exterior in crimson and white. Elephants galore cover every wall and portraits of Bryant-Denny stadium are hung in plain view. Loyalty and nostalgia keep an older, reliable crowd coming in regularly, and the sports atmosphere and dance floor draw in university students.
“We get everyone from truckers, cowboys, old guys, college kids, hip-hop, rockers, you name it,” said Melanie Jordan, a bartender at Crimson Bar. Jordan grew up in Tuscaloosa, and remembers when it was still called Catfish Cabin in the early 80s.
“We have people still coming in that I know from my childhood,” Jordan said. “That’s a lot of loyalty.”
The look of the bar isn’t the only thing Gillaspie has taken in a new direction. He’s made the atmosphere a good deal friendlier by keeping customers in line.
“It went from a real redneck sh—-kickin’ bar to more of a mellow place since I took over,” Gillaspie said. “There was a pretty bad reputation of fighting all the time in here, but we’ve straightened all that out.”
Keeping the crowd under control has been the greatest challenge since taking over, but Gillaspie runs a tight ship and arms himself with the right managers and bouncers to keep the rowdiness in check.
“People from out of town want to come here and get riled easily,” Gillaspie said. “When you first open up people are gonna test you, see what they can get away with. I call it the zoo, in a way.”
Gillaspie has a history of defending the right to sell the spirit of “Roll Tide.” When artist Daniel Moore defended his paintings before the Supreme Court after UA accused him of violating the Crimson Tide trademark, Gillaspie was on the bench of witnesses to testify for Moore.
“They want to control not only the athlete, but his image and the way he’s represented,” Gillaspie said. “They can’t do it. As long as I don’t copy a logo, they can’t stop me.”
For more than eight years Gillaspie travelled back and forth to China where he did business with memorabilia manufacturers. During that time he explored the culture and breathtaking sights of China and hit another business jackpot: Beanie Babies.
Gillaspie rode the Beanie Babie craze to the bitter end, buying and selling at shows during the height of the marketing whirlwind.
“I told people, ‘it’s gonna die out some time,’ but nobody listened,” Gillaspie. “One weekend I spent two thousand and made six thousand just turning and round and selling them. It was like free money.”
Though, when one of Crimson Bar’s frequent bands, a Tuscaloosa group called River Band, needed to raise funds to pay for the medical bills of guitar player Phil McGill, Gillaspie hosted a benefit night to pitch in.
“One of our guys needed a lot of work on his leg and we raised a lot of money at that benefit,” said Tom Holman, a member of River Band. “Tim’s got a good sense of giving back to the community.”
On November 1, Crimson Bar will raise money for the Eagles’ Wings of Tuscaloosa charity organization, which provides rehabilitation services for adults with disabilities. In addition to great food and music, drawings will be held for vacations to Cancun and other extravagant prizes. This month Crimson Bar serves Halloween-themed libations like the Hannibal Lecter shot, a mix of Irish cream, cherry vodka and lime juice that looks like a brain floating in a glass of blood.
Music at the Eagles’ Wings event will include one of the hottest bands that frequently plays at Crimson Bar, Cottonbox Road. The group, led by James Derrick, plays swaggering country rock that celebrates the Southern lifestyle, and they will play at the benefit on Nov 1 and again Nov 28. Their “A Little Dirty” EP is available on iTunes.
“I think they have a shot at Nashville someday,” Gillaspie said.
The Birmingham rock group Who Shot Lizzy also makes regular appearances at Crimson Bar, and draws a loyal fan base.
The biggest crowds for any bar come off a win from the Crimson Tide, but night games put a damper on business. Ultimately, football season at UA controls the night life as much as any other circumstance, so Gillaspie is always rooting for the right conditions for a busy night.
The otherwise bare corner off Greensboro Ave might not draw the most traffic to any bar now, but Gillaspie has high hopes for the long term. As enrollment grows at UA and the college town expands out in all directions, Crimson Bar may find itself in the middle of the night life. The front may become a crimson spotlight that draws in thirsty students and loyal Tuscaloosans for one big party.
“It’s all in the fate of the universe— the University that is,” Gillaspie said.

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