Bartender of 39 years prepares to retire

Jimmy, founder of The Other Place
Jimmy Fucci, founder of The Other Place (The “Penny Bar”), stands behind his bar, which he built himself. After 39 years of owning The Other Place, Fucci retired at the end of 2012, selling the rights to another local bar owner.

Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” plays on the jukebox as Jimmy Fucci, 75, founder and keeper of The Other Place, bustles behind his well-known “Penny Bar” to serve a customer a drink. After 39 years under the same ownership, the Penny Bar is now in the process of being sold to Donny Beverage, who also owns the Chestnut Street Pub & Grill. When the sale is complete, Fucci will retire.

The date of the switch isn’t set in stone: Jimmy is currently waiting for the state Liquor Control Board to approve the change before he starts the closing process. Only one thing is for sure: the switch will occur before December 29. But if the approval goes through beforehand, it may very well happen earlier.

“If I could tell you a date, I’d like it,” Jimmy says. “But I don’t lie. You get caught up in a lie, because if you tell one lie, you gotta tell another lie to cover up the first lie. And then you start contradicting yourself.”

Fucci’s straightforward manner is part of what makes him so popular among Allegheny students. The friendly conversations he has with his customers, the casual atmosphere and the low prices are also attractive to college kids. Since the Penny Bar opened in 1973, it has certainly made its mark on the Meadville and Allegheny communities.

“My first visit to the Penny Bar was one of those love at first sight moments,” says Wonjoon Jang, ’13. “It is exactly what I was looking for in a bar…and on Tuesdays, the Penny Bar is probably a better place to do homework than the library.”

One of the first things most people notice upon entering the Penny Bar for the first time is the quantity of pennies everywhere—on the walls, the tables, the bar and in structures built by Jimmy himself.  Jimmy cites Carl Sagan as his primary inspiration for beginning his enormous penny collection.

Sagan, an astronomer from Cornell University, hosted “Cosmos,” a 13-episode television show about science from the 1980’s.

“He impressed me because as smart as he was, he could talk to me and I could understand him. He talked on my level,” says Fucci.

Fucci says Sagan was always mentioning the word “million.”
“That’s all he ever talked about, ‘cause he was talking about the universe,” he says. “I watched all 13 episodes and boy, I’ll tell you – I got real smart.”

When Fucci started noticing how often people use the word “million” to refer to everyday occurrences, he realized they must not understand what a million really signifies.

“I used to hear people come in here and say, ‘Jesus, I walked a million miles today,’” Jimmy says. “I thought, these people, they don’t know what a million is. But I do, ‘cause I’m smart.”

Jimmy became determined to save a million of something so he could prove just how large of a number a million is.

It was then that he began collecting pennies.

After a year and a half, Jimmy had saved a small jarful of pennies. He realized collecting a million pennies would be quite difficult.

“Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought I am. Maybe I don’t know what a million is myself,” Jimmy says, recalling his feelings at that moment. “But I can’t quit. I gotta find a way to do this.”

His next idea was to hold “penny nights,” on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9-11, when 15 pennies would buy a customer a draft beer. This was in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, when the normal price for a draft beer was only 25 cents.

“Man, did the pennies come rolling in then,” he says. “They were bringing bags in and setting them on the bar. Bags!”

Eventually Jimmy did achieve his goal of collecting a million pennies. In fact, at one point he had 1,300,000. But he does not still have quite as many today due to an incident many would call an act of public service.

Penny shortages hit a number of national banks in 1992. Jimmy’s bank, the name of which he didn’t disclose, was one of the institutions hurt by the shortage.

“The girls [from my bank] used to come in on Friday nights and have a few beers before they went home. They knew how many pennies I had,” Jimmy says. “The bank could not get pennies, no way. So they asked me if I could help.”

Jimmy agreed. For the next month or so, he carried a huge bag of pennies down to the bank once a day.

“I didn’t mind, because I had already reached my goal,” he says.

For most people, sitting on $10,000 in a public place would be unnerving, even if it is in the form of pennies. Jimmy says before the monuments were cased in glass, they sat out in the open, surrounded by a moat of a half a million pennies lying loose.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Jim, aren’t you afraid people will steal those pennies?’” Fucci recalls. “But even if they fill up their pockets with pennies, they probably wouldn’t have but ten dollars’ worth. And by the time they got out the door, their pants would fall down. So who’s gonna take the pennies?”

However, once an Allegheny student did succeed in stealing a pillar of pennies from one of the monuments at the Penny Bar. Jimmy’s sister Joann Gilbert, who helps out at the bar during the early evenings, remembers the situation well.

“He wanted something from the Old ‘P,’” Gilbert says of the culprit. “The kids must have stood around while he sawed it with…it had to have been a nail file. And it took Jimmy eight weeks to build a replacement pillar.”

Three years later, a friend of the culprit approached Jimmy, asking if he’d be able to forgive and forget if the pillar was returned to the bar. Jimmy said sure. In two days, the student came into the bar with the original pillar and Jimmy told him he’d be receiving prosecution papers in the mail.

“You don’t do that to my brother,” Gilbert says. “This is Jimmy’s house. There was no reason for that. It broke his heart that someone would vandalize those monuments…That’s why they’re covered by glass now.”

Gilbert says Jimmy’s not the right person to get on your bad side. “I know what my brother is liable of. When he’s mad, look out. And if you’re thrown out, you will never, ever step foot in this place again,” she says.

She describes the moment years ago, when she first started helping Jimmy at the bar, that she realized this was true.

“A kid came in here, said ‘hi, Jim!’ Jimmy said, ‘Turn around and get out.’ The kid said, ‘But Jim, that was ten years ago!’ Jimmy said, ‘And it’ll be another fifty. Get out.’”

She adds that the “kid” looked to be around 30-35 years old.

“I have no idea what the kid did to make him mad,” Gilbert says.

What makes Jimmy mad? Everybody who’s been to the Penny Bar knows nothing infuriates him more than vulgar language—especially the “f bomb.”

“I don’t need it,” Fucci says of cursing. “I didn’t go very far in school, but when I hear somebody use that language, you know what’s the first thing I think? They’ve got a very limited vocabulary. Because if you had a good vocabulary, you wouldn’t need that word. You could find other nouns, adjectives, adverbs to use.”

Fucci is certainly a man that sticks to his word. “The one thing I enjoy doing is throwing ‘em outta here when they’re not respectful,” he says.

Respect is big for Jimmy, especially when it comes to respect for women.
“My dad used to ask me, ‘Who’s your favorite person in the world?’ and I’d say, ‘Mom,’” Fucci says. “He’d say, ‘That’s right. And most likely, all women are gonna be mothers someday, so you show ‘em respect.’”

Fucci holds true to his dad’s belief, because, as he says, “there’s no one more loved in the world” than mothers. “Let me give an example,” he says. “At football games, when they’re doing interviews, what do the players always say? ‘Hi, Mom!’ It’s never ‘Hi, Dad!’ Mom is the best of the best.”

When you come to the Penny Bar, you must play by Jimmy’s rules. “What you do outside…that’s your business. But you come to my house, you show respect. And the only way to get it is to give it,” he says. “If you act like a jerk, you’ll be treated like one. If you act like a nice, respectable person, you’ll be treated like one.”

“That’s the way I see it. Right or wrong…that’s the way I see it,” Fucci says.

“Usually it’s a nice, quiet place to do homework,” says Kyle Adams, ’13.

Although he doesn’t have a million pennies anymore, Jimmy’s collection is still impressive. With his pennies, he’s even constructed a map of the United States. Jimmy had to splice pennies to fit into the shape of Hawaii; he used Canadian pennies for this part of the process because it is illegal to melt or deface U.S. tender in any way.

Before he built the bar from the ground up in 1973, Jimmy worked at his father’s billiard hall, which was located right where Tops is today. He decided to move to the bar business in 1968, when the state drinking age was proposed to change to 18.

“That would’ve taken all my customers from the billiard parlor,” he says. “But [the change to the law] never ended up happening. But it all worked out…the bar was more profitable.”

Jimmy admits he missed working in the pool hall. But in his typically realistic manner, he came to terms with it.

“Everything comes to an end,” he says. “Sometimes for the best, sometimes, sadly, not…It might be five billion years down the road, but it’s gonna come to an end. Whether you wanna believe it or not, that’s a fact.”

One thing that won’t come to an end, though, is the penny collection.

“I sold the Penny Bar. I didn’t sell the bar. Now from what I can gather from this guy, the only thing that’s gonna change is he’s gonna utilize the kitchen. I never did that ‘cause I didn’t want to be bothered…I wanted to run a place by myself,” Fucci says. “But he’ll probably have wings, fries, hamburgers…but he’s gonna leave everything else like it is.”

As an afterthought, Fucci adds that he’s not sure whether the pictures lining the wall behind the bar will remain. “[Beverage] said he wants to hang the pictures on the wall [in the jukebox room]. I told him that every year there’s a reunion, and people will come back and want to see their pictures,” Fucci says.

He suggested to Beverage that he get a photo album, put the pictures in it and keep it at the end of the bar. “We could call the album something like, ‘Reminiscing of the Other Place,’” he says.

“All I can tell you is, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Keep it the same! It’s doing very good. Forty years it’s been here,” Fucci says of his bar.

Gilbert says she’s glad that her brother will finally be able to rest. “I know he probably feels bad that he has to retire. He’s just too tired to do it anymore,” she says.

Gesturing to a stool behind the bar, she continues: “He’s never brought that. Forty years he’s been there, and he only just started bringing a stool. That told me something: he’s tired.”

When the bar changes ownership, Fucci will probably return to Italy, the home of his ancestors. “I watched the bar for a whole month once when he went to Italy,” Gilbert says. “It was scary without Jimmy here.”

She does say that she believes Jimmy is ready to retire. “He’s been ready. But this is his baby. I think he was kind of worried that the right person wouldn’t get it…but you can tell just by looking at [Beverage] that he’s the right person,” Gilbert says.

Jang says he has heard that several changes will be made to the bar –for instance, the ability to accept debit cards as a form of payment and the elimination of the “no swearing” rule. But Fucci and his sister believe the essential aspects of the bar will be retained.

“He’s not changing anything,” Gilbert says of Beverage. “He wants everything the same for the kids. Except he’ll have food.”

It’s unclear whether or not the small selection of food the bar does have will remain after Jimmy retires. Just in case, Jang has a crucial piece of advice:

“To students that have yet to try the Penny Bar: before it changes ownership, you better go down there and try a pickled egg. It complements beer so nicely,”  he says.