Attention, drinkers: When was the last time you got a buyback? For that matter, have you even heard of a buyback? Among our great social traditions, few are as resonant and yet so neglected as the gin-joint buyback, that is, the disappearing practice of offering a free drink to patrons who’ve already had three or four.
The buyback is a high-water mark of civilization, a sign of warmth and good manners and, for people like myself, a test of any bar worth my time. When properly done, the buyback applies to regulars and strangers alike, though it helps to be a regular. A cynic might argue that the buyback is little more than a ploy to keep drinkers drinking-and spending money. Sort of like giving away a roll of quarters to slot-machine addicts. But there’s a lot more to the buyback. Buybacks offer a touch of humanity, a sense of secrecy and belonging. More often than not, the bartender acknowledges his buyback with a soft, friendly rap on the bar-a mysterious ritual symbolizing the bond between drinker and provider.
The buyback is important for another reason, too. Coming as it does after your third or fourth drink, the buyback is a “bridge drink.” It arrives at the very moment when an evening’s possibilities stretch out before you in two distinct paths. One path is lined with more drinks. If you get a buyback, you very likely are headed down that path, pointed toward a long night of excess, potential sorrow but also potential revelation. If you don’t, you probably decide not to buy that third or fourth drink, and your path leads directly to home and a good night’s rest.
These days, a lot of people are getting home early. Patrons long accustomed to a drink on the house and a nod from the bartender are now greeted with silence. It’s been almost a month since I last got a buyback, and there were a number of times when I deserved one.
I’m no longer content to sit back and watch a culture dissolve before my eyes, and so I’m lodging a formal complaint with the bartenders and bar owners of New York. Bring back the buyback!
Where did the buyback come from? What wonderful being first put those two words together? Apparently nobody knows. The buyback’s origins, like the secret of its powerful spell, lie buried in myth and secrecy. Madelon Powers, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans and author of Faces Along the Bar , a history of bars in New York, told me that the buyback goes way back. “Underlying the code of the buyback is this philosophy of reciprocity,” Ms. Powers said. “It goes back to Syria and Greece. Customs in the barroom are a combination of very old, traditional attitudes about drink plus a marketplace mentality.”
Brooklyn-born Kevin Davitt, raised on the magic of Farrell’s bar in Park Slope, argues that the buyback is of more recent lineage. “It came from Ireland and it was transferred as a neighborhood tradition,” he said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Thanks for your patronage and hope you’ll come back again.'” He added wistfully, “It was always accompanied by a subtle tap on the bar by the bartender.”
Roy Barnard, the owner of Kennedy’s bar on West 57th Street, noted simply, “It’s a way of building customer loyalty. It’s better than a paid ad. It’s a New York thing. I think it started sometime during the 1960’s.” So much for Syria and Greece.
Actor Malachy McCourt, whose memoir A Monk Swimming detailed a vanished world of Manhattan drinking in the 1960’s, argued, “the buyback replaced the free lunch in New York. When you went into any saloon, there used to be a free lunch-corned beef sandwiches and such. When they couldn’t afford to give away food, they had to get rid of the free lunch. So the buyback was a less expensive version of the free lunch. Now many bars try to seduce you with nuts and pretzels.”
The buyback’s demise is as mysterious as its birth. Nick Pinto, who at 65 has been an owner and bartender in New York for 34 years and currently works out of Sazerac House on Hudson Street, had one simple explanation. “The buyback disappeared because nobody drinks anymore,” he said. “Nobody spends time at bars anymore. The successful places make money with volume, not with loyalty. It originated as a kind of appreciation for someone’s patronage. But, really, how many times do you see people have more than three drinks anymore?”
Peter Doherty, a bartender at the White Horse tavern in Chelsea, said the buyback’s slow demise is part of the price we drinkers pay for globalization, mergers and acquisitions, and the general corporate takeover of every facet of modern life. “It comes down to the death of owner-operated bars, and the death of bar owners who give professional bartenders the leeway to use their discretion in giving away free drinks,” he said. “More and more bars are coming under the control of corporations who don’t allow buybacks at all, who consider it stealing. They don’t make their money on customer loyalty, they make their money on volume and cost control.” Mr. Doherty, a man of principle, said he would not work in a place that didn’t allow buybacks.
Joanie Leinwoll, who used to work at the late, lamented Lion’s Head in the Village and now works at X R Bar on Houston and Sullivan streets, said my theory about the buyback’s death was wrong. “I’ve been working in bars for 10 years, and I definitely don’t think buybacks are vanishing,” she said over the phone. “You just have to know how to get them. One way is to be a regular in a bar. Buybacks are generally given after three drinks, but a lot of it’s about money-a person who’s dumping a lot of money and who takes care of the bartender. The people who never get buybacks are people who say, ‘When am I getting a buyback?’ There’s no bartender on earth who would give a buyback after that.”
Ms. Leinwoll’s point is well taken, but the evidence suggests that she is something of a throwback. Maybe I ought to stop by the X R Bar more often, but as far as I can tell, the buyback is going the way of free lunch. And its disappearance from the landscape would not be so cruel if it did not transcend the narrow confines of barroom etiquette and tap, as it were, something much deeper. The buyback is a token of faith. We go to the bar believing that our patronage will be acknowledged and rewarded, that when we shell out for three drinks, our faith will be redeemed.
“I always look upon bartenders as being priests because they’re standing there behind the altar and then you have the congregation lined up at the bar,” Mr. McCourt said. “The tabernacle is the cash register, and the priest turns the miracle of transubstantiation. He turns water into whiskey. There’s an affinity between the barman and the client. He bestows the body and the blood on you and anoints you. The barman gives absolution, and at the end of the night he says all of you are dismissed.”
In the buyback, we have, in miniature, the symbol of a greater faith and a greater journey to come, at the end of which we may receive the final gift, that big buyback in the sky.
Bring it back!