To the uninitiated, Alice's Lounge is an unassuming corner tap with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it facade. But once Alice Boron permits you, with a quick touch of a door-buzzer button, entrance into her Avondale domain, you realize it's an oasis filled with cheap drinks, good company, and some of the best karaoke in town courtesy of Fred Wood, a middle-aged man who plays a mean inflatable saxophone.
Still, a showman such as Wood takes a backseat to the fast-talking firecracker whose name is on the sign. Even in a Saturday-night mob, Boron (short blond bob, petite frame, flawlessly applied makeup) is easy to spot, hustling back and forth to make sure all of her guests are having as good a time as she is.
Boron wasn't always so upbeat about bartending. She reluctantly went into business with her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law in 1986; the two men wanted to open a bar and dragged their wives along. The space they found had previously been occupied by taverns called Sullivan's and Helen's. Before the bars, the place was a butcher shop; the coolers that now keep the Euro-brand beers frosty once held cuts of meat. Within the next few years, Alice's sister and brother-in-law moved to Tennessee, and her husband passed away leaving the mother of two to run things on her own.
"I just sort of held on for dear life," she says. "It was hard, but it's better than working for somebody, it's better than struggling who-knows-where to make ends meet." At that time, Alice's was a 22-hour-a-day operation; Boron would arrive at 7 AM to a line of third-shift factory workers waiting to end the day with some breakfast-time boozing.
But these days Boron has seen business boom. Thanks in large part to the karaoke Alice's hosts four nights a week, the bar has evolved into a destination for a younger crowd looking to drink heavily and sing their hearts out.
When Boron was six, she and her family left their native Poland for Chicago. She attended Catholic high school and one year of college before becoming a hairdresser. Soon thereafter she dedicated her life to a business which she entered as an utter novice.
"I'm a Gemini, so I enjoy working with people," she says. "That's probably what saved me—liking people, always trying to be like a mother hen."
Alice's is sort of Boron's kingdom, and there's no question the queen is in control. When the occasion demands, she'll personally escort a belligerent drunk to the sidewalk, never again to be buzzed in. Boron admits to witnessing her share of drunken drama at the bar over the past 29 years, but when she looks back she remembers the good times: the Halloween parties, a sweltering summer day when the bar became the battleground for a water-gun war, all those endless nights of karaoke. (Alice's standby? The Sonny & Cher classic "I Got You Babe.")
As the matriarch of an increasingly popular nightlife institution, Boron hasn't quite gotten used to being something of a local celebrity.
"People will come up and say, 'Oh, you're the Alice!' and it's weird," she says. "But it's a good feeling. I don't know what else I could be doing besides this."