raise a glass to susan yund

an ode to the gcb

Imagine trying to describe the White House without mentioning the president. Or giving a tour of the Sistine Chapel without talking about Michelangelo. Not only would you miss the big picture, but the underlying details also wouldn’t make sense. Without a president, the Oval Office would just be a small room in a big house. The Sistine Chapel would still be stunning, but the experience would be diminished without knowing about the formative hands and mind behind the stories painted across the ceiling.

Similarly, you can’t fully understand Brown University’s Graduate Center Bar, known affectionately as the GCB, without knowing about Susan Yund. Susan came to the GCB in 1991 as a bartender, became the manager three years later, and has been running the show ever since.

The GCB is a small bar tucked away in the underbelly of the Grad Center dorms. Entering the GCB feels like approaching a secret hideout. It’s hidden in plain sight, beneath the large, slightly ugly, but easy-to-miss concrete block that sits several yards away from the Bear’s Lair. The entrance itself, a glass door with the GCB’s hours listed in small font on it, is so nondescript that it’s hard to believe you’re entering a bar. But once you push open the door and make your way down the steps, the smells of beer and popcorn and the sounds of music and conversation flood your senses, welcoming you into this underground world.

Despite how often I’ve opened the GCB’s glass door and stepped into the cloud of beer fumes, I had never heard Susan’s name before last week. I had spent a chunk of one Monday evening attempting to do homework in the GCB with a couple of friends. With my laptop screen growing dark every time I got lost in conversation, and my hands resting on the keyboard like I was getting a manicure, I wasn’t fooling anyone. I shut my laptop and biked home, wondering as I pedaled through the still night about the origins of such a unique spot—the only place I knew where you could, in a single moment, see people playing board games, ordering shots, chatting with professors, and meeting up for dates. Curious about the inner workings of this wondrous campus bar, I emailed the GCB and set up a meeting with Susan.

Susan carved out a chunk of time for me between a day of working in the GCB and watching the Red Sox take on the Astros that evening. I walked to the GCB tentatively, unaccustomed to visiting the bar when the sun was still shining, bouncing off of Brown’s buildings as it made its way to the bottom of the horizon. But once I stepped inside, any concept of time and season vanished. The GCB was the same as always, but everything had a slightly calmer feeling, as if someone had turned down the volume. The steady murmur of voices and clinking of glasses filled the room, which had a few more open tables and a slightly older crowd than usual. A group of graduate students huddled around a table in the center of the main room, heads bobbing in conversation and laughter, and hands occasionally reaching for the pitcher in the middle. Other smaller groups sat scattered throughout the room. Two bartenders leaned against one end of the bar, chatting with each other and the regulars. When I stepped up to the bar and asked about Susan, one of the bartenders motioned towards the darts room, pointing to a door I had never noticed.

Susan stepped out of what she called “a storage room with a desk,” but could be more accurately described as the office of a beer lover’s dreams. The small, brightly lit room was bursting with every beer-related item imaginable, from stacks of stainless steel kegs by the door to colorful beer tap handles on the walls.

Susan greeted me, and we made our way to the barstools. She grabbed a glass of water and sat down. Over the next half hour, as the glass of water slowly grew empty, Susan shared the layers of history that rest beneath the surface of this bar so many students have come to love.

A group of graduate students and faculty members opened the GCB in 1969 with a charter to “facilitate intercourse.” Besides its property lease from Brown and its charter’s expressed goal of serving the Brown community, the GCB has no formal ties to the University.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the GCB’s operations is its commitment to giving. The GCB is a nonprofit private club. No one in the GCB makes money off of commissions; after employees are paid, some profits are channeled into maintenance and emergency funds, and the rest goes to charity. Susan explained that one of her favorite parts of the job is sitting down and writing out checks to organizations like the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and the Nature Conservancy. The GCB has also sponsored the local Little League for almost two decades, and Susan and other bartenders have even coached teams in the past. Susan chooses organizations that everyone can get behind and that she sees making an impact in the Providence community.

As we talked, it became clear that Susan has shaped not only the way the GCB operates but also the physical space itself.

The GCB was initially located below the Bear’s Lair. This large space housed six pool tables and a video game area. In 1986, the University asked the GCB to move, and it relocated to a smaller space nearby in the depths of Grad Center, which it has occupied ever since.

Lovers of the GCB went through painstaking measures to save one of the bar’s most iconic pieces of art during the move. In 1978, artist The Mad Peck (Brown Class of 1967) and writer Les Daniels created a poster called “Providence.” The poster includes a series of cartoons that describe Providence as a city “where it rains two days out of three except during the rainy season, when it snows like a bitch.” The Mad Peck had projected these iconic images onto the wall of the GCB, and another artist painted it in. When it was time for the GCB to change locations, no one was ready to leave behind this artwork—so chainsaws were used to remove this section of the wall and move it to the new bar location. Susan noted that alumni often ask to buy the piece, but thankfully for us, she rejects all of their offers.

The other art in the GCB comes from a variety of sources, most of it curated and hung by Susan herself. The current collection features abstract art, a depiction of the back entrance of the GCB that bartender Bill France painted, and other pieces Susan and other employees have tacked up throughout the years. The cartoon theme extends to the bathrooms, the walls of which are covered in carefully curated comic strips. With subjects ranging from feminism to thesis advising, these comic strips have entertained scores of customers desperately waiting for their turn in the single-stall bathrooms. Susan selected and pasted each of these strips onto the walls and continues to update them when students take it upon themselves to peel strips off of the white tiles.

Other items evoke specific moments from history. A fake lizard poses in a fish tank next to the front entrance. A cigarette protrudes from the lizard’s mouth, and a sign in the tank reads “only this lizard may smoke.” Susan informed me that, in 2005, someone gave the lizard this cigarette on the night that smoking was prohibited in Providence bars, and it has remained there ever since. Susan added that before this policy existed, cigarette smoke used to fill the GCB, to the extent that one of her friends used to bring a garbage bag into which he could stuff his jacket while he sat at the bar to keep it smelling fresh.

Beyond the endless operational and interior decorating contributions Susan has made, she has also built a community in this basement bar. The bartenders are a tight-knit crew; in fact, Susan’s son and one of his childhood friends work there. A community tends to form among the grad students who frequent the bar for years. Susan explained that one of the hardest parts of the job is when the grad-student regulars leave Providence after completing their degrees. However, sometimes a few stick around. Luckily, Jim, who started GCB trivia nights a few years ago, got a position as a professor at Providence College after finishing a PhD in Economics at Brown. Students can still join the “quizmaster extraordinaire” and his wife, Stephanie, who obtained a PhD in English at Brown, and try their hand at the questions this power couple crafts.

The GCB also brings Brown’s undergraduate community together. For upperclassmen, the GCB serves as an important gathering place, a watering hole where you go to feel like a whole person, not just a student, even just for a little bit. For those living off-campus and off meal plan, the GCB fulfills the function of the Ratty or a dorm common room; it’s the spot where you run into friends you haven’t seen in a while. First-year students can catch up with each other at the V-Dub’s omelette station; seniors can bump into each other at the GCB’s pool tables. The GCB provides a spot away from the hubbub of campus life, a hideaway where the only challenge is choosing the right IPA.

As Susan spoke, the motions of the bar seemed to rotate in smooth ellipses around her. Bartenders floated through the rooms, collecting empty glasses and prepping the TVs for the Sox game. Customers approached the bar for a drink every now and then, nodding in greeting to Susan or the bartenders before sliding back into their booths. Even while Susan spoke to me, it seemed as if she were silently directing the seamless flow of the bar. Susan was like a coach of a pro-soccer team, sitting calmly in the middle of the field as her players ran drills, passing and running in graceful, never-ending circuits around her.

I returned to the GCB later that week with my roommates. The paintings hung on the walls like they always had, and the countertops reflected the glow of the lights in the same way as before. But this time, I knew who had tacked up each piece of art, who had sat in the back writing out checks to charity, and who has dedicated so much of her life to creating this center of community. I understood why I had so instantly fallen under the GCB’s spell; as I looked around the room, I could see the level of effort and care that went into creating this bar. I could see it in the decked-out map room, in the cabinet stuffed with board games, and in the walls lined with paintings. And I could see it in the impassioned pool game in the next room, the hands digging into a fresh bowl of popcorn, and the comfortable conversations of close friends. It all flowed naturally, but Susan and the bartenders had worked to put all of the pieces into place. So next time you go to the GCB, raise a glass to Susan. Or, better yet, say hello.