Photo by Lisa Sorg
On each empty table, packages of saltines rest in plastic blue baskets atop plastic blue-and-white tablecloths. Napkins billow from their metal holders. Placemats of brown butcher's paper await customers. If there were a today, the specials would include grilled swordfish, cajun catfish tenders and banana pudding, all scribbled in colored marker on a whiteboard.
The orange neon sign announcing "Oyster Bar" is still lit, but nobody's home.
"It's closed!" a man yells from a passing car. "What an institution."
On the front door and window, lemon-yellow signs posted by the N.C. Department of Revenue warn, "No trespassing!! The personal property here within has been seized for nonpayment of taxes."
Fishmonger's, a 32-year fixture of West Main Street, of the Brightleaf District before there was a Brightleaf District, shut down this week after running into tax trouble.
Although the details of the most recent financial difficulties are unclear, Gary Bass, the longtime proprietor, has a history of tax problems. Bass could not be reached for comment.
In December 2005, Bass owed $21,803.01 in past-due federal taxes, some of them three years old. That same month, he was "released" from those taxes. Download Gary Bass tax lien 2005
The respite didn't last long. In April 2006, Bass filed for bankruptcy. Creditors included the state ($67,000) and federal ($38,000) tax collectors, his landlord, SEHED; several newspapers and phone directories, even the company that serviced the restaurant dishwashers.
Bass adhered to a court-ordered payment plan for four years, but then fell delinquent on the monthly installments. By the time he finished paying the secured claims in 2011, Bass had shelled out $114,000, with an additional $11,000 and change in unpaid, unsecured claims.
While the restaurant had its diehards who were unfazed by its gritty atmosphere, many of the Yelp reviews had been dismal over the past year: the smell (it was fishy), the service (inconsistent) and the cleanliness, seconded by county health inspectors who, on Oct. 15, gave it a abysmal 77 score.
The Durham-based SEHED Investment Group, managed by Terry Sanford Jr., owns the building—a former Dodge dealership—and much of the 800 block of West Main. The company also owns the space next door, the erstwhile Triangle Pint and Plate. It also closed, although that appeared to be for lack of business, not any dustup with the revenuers.
That leaves prime real estate adjacent to Torero's, the last restaurant standing on the block, near Duke Street.