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After a year on the market, Carbondale bar PK's has a new owner
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After a year on the market, Carbondale bar PK's has a new owner

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Walter Wit (left), the new owner of PK's in Carbondale, and his life and business partner, Emily Jones, are pictured at PK's on Monday.

CARBONDALE — A year after being put on the market, PK's, the beloved Carbondale dive bar that opened in 1955, has found a new owner in an old face.

Walter Wit has worked, in some capacity, at PK's for the better part of a decade. He started as a janitor and has since worked his way through every position — and now he's the bar's new owner. It all became official earlier this month, he said.

Wit said there had previously been another buyer lined up to take the reigns. The 65-year-old bar had been operated by family after PK's matriarch Gwen Hunt died in 2018. However, the deal fell through amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Wit said that made the future of the bar unclear.

A year after matriarch Gwen Hunt dies, Carbondale bar PK's goes up for sale

“It seemed very unsure what the family was going to do,” he said. “I had a feeling they would shut it down permanently.”

Not ready for he and his friends to be without work — and their favorite watering hole — and with help from his life and business partner, Emily Jones, Wit put together an offer that the family then accepted. Not an official owner, Jones will help behind the scenes. She said Wit taught her all the boring stuff that comes with owning and managing a bar. 

Wit said it’s one of his chief goals as the bar's second owner to keep Hunt’s legacy alive. When she died in 2018, Hunt was remembered as a trailblazer. A Southern Illinoisan story about her life showcased her list of firsts, including being the first woman in Carbondale to hold a liquor license and being the first business to serve pizza in town.

What may have turned off the previous buyer has, in a way, been an interesting start to business ownership for Wit. He feels like he’s getting the hard stuff out of the way first with taking over during the pandemic.

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“It’s only going to be the best way to start,” Jones said, adding that she felt he was handling things the same way Hunt would have.

Wit said he treated Hunt, like many have, as a grandmother.

“She helped me buy my first motorcycle,” Wit said, remembering Hunt handing him some cash to go buy a bike. She would even ask after it from time to time, he said.

Because of this, in a sense, Wit taking ownership of the bar is almost like it staying in the family. Regulars need not worry about overwhelming change. Wit said the bar will still adapt with the times as it always has, but he doesn't have anything drastic planned.

“I’m not going to start taking credit cards and (opening) tabs,” Wit said. PK's is one of the last businesses on the Strip that is still cash-only. 

Jones and Wit said the plan for PK’s as it moves into this new chapter is to be there for the community for another 65 years — they want any and all to feel welcome.

In earlier years, PK's established a reputation as being a home for rough biker clubs. Trouble-makers were eventually booted by the unflinching Hunt, who was known for her warmth as well as her dedication to the institution she had built. The bar is rough around the edges, sure, but it has become a home away from home for townies and college students alike. For evidence of this, look no further than the wall of personalized mugs used by regulars. This is the image Wit and Jones want for PK's — they want it to stay the people’s bar.

“We want this to be a safe space for everyone. We want PKs to be part of the community moving forward,” Jones said. “We can keep the grit, but we aren’t going to keep the other things that (come with) biker culture.”


Look back photos: PK's has been a Carbondale Strip mainstay for more than 60 years

isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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