The typical 21-year-old college student who makes A.C.’s his or her home on Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday morning knows next to nothing about the way things used to be at the Upper King Street dive. They were just wee children in 1997, and back then, A.C.’s was located below Calhoun, before a fire forced the owner to move north to 467 King St. 12 years ago. They never ordered a whiskey ginger and watched as the bartender cracked open a tiny plastic mini-bottle of booze and poured it into a glass. And they surely don’t long for the days when they could light up a cigarette inside the bar, shoot some pool, and talk some shit. Kids these days are perfectly OK with going out to the sidewalk instead and texting their friends.
But while A.C.’s has changed quite a bit over the entire 25 years it’s been open, we’re only looking back on 15 of those, and 15 years ago, A.C.’s was in a much smaller space at 338 King St. Still, the bar kept rather busy, mainly with their late-night business. “When I say late night, we would often be open till dawn,” owner Jim Curley explains. “All the food and beverage working people, that was the mainstay of our clientele.” There was some college business too — basically, anyone who was out on the town until 4 a.m. was at A.C.’s.
Curley has worked at A.C.’s for 21 of its 25 years and has owned it for about half that time. He’s in there seven nights a week, though nowadays he can leave the day shift to his staff. “One thing I might advise is for people who have a mind to operate a small business: Just keep showing up,” he says. “If you hang around long enough, they run out of bad things to say about you.” He’s been there as Charleston’s late-night landscape has changed, as laws were enacted to make things, in some opinions, less fun.
People thought the bar wouldn’t survive the 2 a.m. closing law (which went into effect in 2003) because A.C.’s was so established as a late-night place. But Curley thinks they still are a late-night bar, only the definition of late night has changed; now it means 12-2 a.m. The 2006 mini-bottle law wasn’t as pivotal for the business. People from out of town always thought the South Carolina tradition was strange anyway, and while the mini-bottles were a fair deal for consumers (who knew exactly what they were getting and how much), it’s less expensive for the bar staff to free pour from liter bottles since they can now save on the packaging costs of hundreds of little plastic bottles. Smoking was the last thing to go in 2007, and with it, a lot of A.C.’s older, cigarette-puffing happy-hour crowd. On the one hand, Curley doesn’t think the city council should be telling him what to do with his business on his private property. But when it comes down to it, now he doesn’t have to drive home with his sunglasses on in the early hours of daylight.
For a while after A.C.’s moved to Upper King, people used to come up to the bar and stick around. It was a destination. Today, they’re seeing people churn in and out the door throughout the night on their way to the next beer within walking distance. Yes, the crowd is decidedly more college-centric, but that’s because the college has grown too. Curley says that, invariably, people will return to A.C.’s after some time away and grumble that the bar has changed. And he’ll be the first to admit that it has. In fact, he surmises that it’s evolved every year or two for the last two decades. “I often say to people, there really aren’t any dinosaurs in this business because you adapt or you’re gone. It’s a changing market all the time,” Curley says.
After all these years, there’s still a crush of people at A.C.’s on any given weekend night, knocking back beers underneath a mural that says “A.C.’s: Up All Night.” There’s a good chance they’ll still be here in another 15 or 25 more.