Police close alleged speakeasy in downtown Birmingham

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 24, 2021

BIRMINGHAM — Police are being mum on the details of an alleged speakeasy operation downtown that reportedly was busted up last month.

During his regular report to the City Commission April 26, City Manager Tom Markus detailed an illegal bar and music venue operating in an empty retail space in the 200 block of Willits Street. He said police closed the establishment and issued 16 citations for misdemeanor offenses ranging from illegal occupancy where a special land use permit is required to selling alcohol without a liquor license.

“We had what I call a blind pig or a speakeasy running in the community, and we put them out of business,” Markus said. “I think it went on longer than most people realize but, in its later months, probably got a little more cranked up. They were clearly in violation of the law.”

Birmingham Police Cmdr. Scott Grewe said the name of the business is Willits Records, located at 237 Willits Alley. The website for Willits Records has been disabled. Requests for comment made on the company’s social media page were not answered before the Eagle’s press time.

According to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Eagle, police were tipped off to the venue’s activity during night hours March 25, activities that included alcohol, dancing, no masks and “general overall revelry.”

Around 3 a.m. March 28, Chief Mark Clemence and Officer Kyle McCanham went to the venue in plain clothes to investigate the claims.

Upon entering, they saw a live band playing to a crowd of around 50 patrons, most of whom were drinking White Claw Hard Seltzers. They also noticed liquor bottles, mixers, beer cans and red plastic cups around the establishment.

“Chief Clemence and I inquired to a patron about how to get a drink, and she gladly opened the fridge and provided us both with White Claw Hard Seltzers,” McCanham wrote in his report.

The operation was also reportedly advertised on social media, calling itself a “Record Label + Rock Punk Pop Band + Private Event Space.” Posts describe the Willits studio as a space available to rent for bands, corporate parties, private parties and holiday parties, as well as a “top destination in Birmingham for bachelorette parties.”

Clemence wrote that he and McCanham were greeted at the entrance by an attendant, who collected a $50 admission fee from each of them — though admission was advertised online as between $20-$30 per person — and checked McCanham’s identification to confirm he was over the age of 21.

He added that none of the patrons inside were wearing masks, which was mandated by the state at that time, and besides the door attendant, there appeared to be no distinguishable employees.

McCanham explained that patrons appeared to be paying for their drinks electronically.

“On the door to the bathroom was a 8.5-inch by 11-inch piece of paper with a QR code printed on it and the phrase ‘Tipping is not a city in China’ on it,” he said. “I scanned the QR code, which took me to a Venmo page with the account name of (redacted)… The Venmo account (which is public) has payment titles of a beer emoji, ‘drink,’ ‘tip,’ and (dates) back to July 22, 2020.”

“I bring this up because we all need to be paying attention to these types of things,” Markus said. “We rely on the community to let us know what’s going on.”