Speakeasy in Willits Alley shut down by city
By Lisa Brody
It seems the roaring '20s are indeed back, with an illegal speakeasy that had been operating in a storefront in the Willits Alley in downtown Birmingham shut down after months of noise complaints, damage to adjacent property and close observations by police.
The illegal operation was run by Willits Records, the website for which is currently inactive and its Facebook page has not had a new posting since May 30. The speakeasy, located at 237 Willits Alley, did not have a liquor license nor special land use permit or occupancy permit, “creating an unsafe environment in violation of health, safety and fire codes,” according to a Birmingham police report dated March 28 which Downtown obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The police report identified Willits Records as “operating a liquor establishment without a liquor license and without having secured the necessary certifications and approvals from the city as set forth by ordinance.”
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said Willits Records, owned by David Harrison Martin, was 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.
“It was operating without any license, without any planning and reviews, and charging a cover,” he noted. “We investigated and closed it down. The prosecutor with the city will be reviewing charges, and we expect it to go through the court system. The illegal business is closed.”
Police had been advised on March 24, that there was suspicious activity going on in the Willits Alley during evening hours, including someone using a previously vacant location as “a party place with live music, no masks (which were required at the time), alcohol, dancing and general overall revelry.” On March 25, Birmingham building official Bruce Johnson and officer Kyle McCanham walked over to the location where “Willits Records” was identified on the door. Looking inside the window, they noted a band area with a drum set, at least three bar top-style tables, on top of which were red Solo cups along with White Claw containers, and the interior decorated like a bar, according to McCanham. They observed someone inside who appeared to be cleaning up.
Returning to the police station, McCanham looked up “Willits Records,” where he found it identified as an “independent record label, production company, '90's cover rock, punk pop, band. We also offer private party event rental space...Willits Records is the Top Destination in Birmingham for Bachelorette Parties.”
It had dates and fees posted for live band shows, with “DM for private table.”
Other posts offered a limited amount of memberships, with live music on select nights, 24/7 key code access, free entry to all member/public events, and the ability to host their private party once a month, for $349 a month.
Videos on the Facebook page shows numerous videos with bands playing surrounded by unmasked patrons holding alcoholic beverage containers, all very close together.
On March 28, around 12:30 a.m., McCanham and Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence went to Willits Records in plains clothes to investigate the speakeasy. They could hear loud music as they entered Willits Alley and saw six to eight people talking. They were approached by a middled aged white male at the entrance who welcomed them and advised there was a $50 per person cover fee, which Clemence paid. McCanham was carded, and asked if there was a mask requirement, and he was told there was not.
Entering, they observed a live band with a singer/guitarist and drummer playing to a crowd of about 40-50 people. A QR code on the bathroom led to a Venmo page with a public account for payments of beer and other alcohol. A free standing refrigerator held “common mixer beverages such as lemon juice, margarita mix and cola.” It also had White Claw Hard Seltzers and Molson Canadian beer.
Upon inquiry to how to get a drink, another patron “gladly opened the fridge and provided us both with White Claw Hard Seltzers.”
A second floor of the establishment held a table set up for beer pong, a blow up mattress and a makeshift office/living room.
Throughout the night, the two observed patrons passing a bottle of tequila amongst themselves, people drinking from red Solo cups, and several White Claw beverages littered along the establishment.
Martin, the owner of the establishment, was seen playing the drums the majority of the night.
Around 1:15 a.m., the business promptly shut down, leaving individuals drinking alcohol and carrying alcoholic beverages within Willits Alley and along Willits Street.
Police reports earlier in March document noise complaints from the address, and going back further, to October through December 2020, there are numerous – approximately a dozen – police reports of criminal activity at the location, including an October 3 report of damage to the adjacent J. Lyle Beauty Salon, 235 Willits Alley, where three males were arguing with one another, and Martin invited them into 237 Willits Alley where a band was playing.
Because they continued arguing and causing a disturbance, they were asked to leave, and one resorted to physically pushing them out. A bench was thrown through the window of the salon doors, and the three took off running southbound through the alley. They were later caught and arrested in the Martin and Bates area.