EIU Memories: Friends & Co.

This is the first in a new series reminiscing about my college years at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. Both my dad and my great-uncle John Kleen graduated from EIU, so you could say it was a family tradition.

When I attended, there were around 11,000 students at any given time. Attendance has since fallen to 7,500 (a 7.1% increase from the previous year). Carman Hall, where I lived my freshman year, was closed due to budget cuts and falling enrollment. This has been devastating to the local community, which was already struggling when I was there. On return trips to Charleston, I’m saddened to see all the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts.

So this series is meant to not only share some of my own history, but preserve these memories of a rapidly vanishing past. Hopefully there are readers out there who have their own memories of these places and events. Feel free to leave a comment with your own stories. Why start with Friends & Co.? It seems as good a place as any.

Friends & Co. used to be located at 509 Van Buren Avenue, a few blocks south of the Charleston town square. It was attached to a music venue called The Cellar. It opened in the early 1980s (I think), and the owner was a schoolteacher named David Gherardini. My impression was Friends & Co. attracted an intellectual crowd. It was a bar for English and Philosophy majors, and this review on Yelp from Sean R. confirms my impressions:

What the hell happened to this place? Way back in the 90s this was the bar the non-bar-scene folks could go: the granola crowd, the philosophy majors, the flannel-wearing grungies, the band geeks,  basically the not-Greek-and-proud-of-it crowd who wouldn’t be caught dead with a Bud Light in their hands. The mixed drinks were solid, the beer selection had snob appeal, the prices were college-budget friendly, and the juke box had the finest alternative music of the 80s and 90s.

I never drank alcohol until I was 21, so the first time I went to Friends was in 2002 for my 21st birthday. I guess that’s why this place sticks out in my mind, because it was the first bar I ever went to when I was legally old enough to drink. My friend bought me a “Three Wise Men,” a combination of Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels whiskeys. I went back several more times to watch live bands, but after the place got taken over by a new owner, it rapidly went downhill.

This is the only photo I have of Friends’ interior, although I could’ve sworn I had others. This was a Halloween show, and according to an ad in the Daily Eastern News, the band was either Bad Wizard or Whitenesses. I don’t remember whether I was there on Friday or Saturday.

In 2003, Friends & Co was voted best bar and best music venue in Coles County, according to a Daily Eastern News poll. “Both national touring acts and Chicago and St. Louis-based projects have played Friends this year,” they wrote. “Friends has continued to stress musical variety and originality and thus no band that strictly plays covers has taken the stage this year.”

This is the earliest exterior photo I have of Friends & Co., taken in the summer of 2005. This must have been when it closed and transitioned to the new owner.

This was the exterior after the renovations. As you can see, they removed the roof and wooden trim that gave it a pseudo Tudor feel. Taking off the roof revealed the building’s original facade.

In spring 2017, a local man named Brent Furry and his business partner Nathan Douglas opened a restaurant called Alexander Briggs, named after a late 19th Century stonemason, at the location. According to Yelp, it’s already closed. If you look closely, you can see a ghost sign just below the roof. I can’t make out the whole thing, but I think it has a name and then “feed store.”

Do you have any old photos or memories of Friends and Co? Leave a comment below!

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