(Editor's Note: Even as lives become more and more digital, Petaluma has shown that it cherishes its brick and mortar gathering spots — the taverns, bars and cafes where people can meet up, talk about their days and learn what's happening in the community. Those institutions play a rich role in Petaluma's history, and this is the third in a series that profiles them.)
It's early afternoon on a Saturday and inside The Aquarium Bar the jukebox is playing country tunes. The bar is full, with small clusters of friends sharing a beer as some howl along to the mournful lyrics, while others turn their attention to a sports game on TV.
At one end are two women; the younger one is smiling and nursing her drink while the elder trills the words to the tune in a voice that belongs in a church choir. Her white hair frames a cheerful face and twinkling blue eyes belie her age — 87.
The bartender leans over and confides, "You won't believe this, but Norma Jean was chosen to sing for the official opening and ribbon-cutting of Highway 101 in 1957."
Norma Jean Woelbing and her daughter Cindy Womack chose The Aquarium when they found out that another neighborhood bar, Mario & John's Tavern, was closed for repairs that night. Today was the anniversary of Woelbing's husband, Mickey's, 2010 death. He patronized Mario & John's. She wanted to commemorate the day in a place that, "…reminded me of the good times and good friends we had," she said, and the Aquarium had many of the same patrons.
Squeezed in between The Washtub, a laundromat, and The Alano Club, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting space, in a nondescript parking lot dominated by Lucky's supermarket, The Aquarium has enjoyed a continuous operation since the 1960s when the bar was first opened by Jake Mischel. In spite of a few different owners and concepts over the years, the bar still draws many long-time patrons, and has attracted a new generation of customers who value the history of the establishment.
Unlike many neighborhood taverns that are mostly masculine enclaves, The Aquarium has four female and three male bartenders. The newest, Karen Haverty-Scarpete, married to owner Dennis Scarpete, credits her customers with helping her learn the job. "I'm kind of an introvert…or I used to be," laughs Scarpete, who also breeds and trains sport ponies.
The women who come in like the laid-back atmosphere: "We don't come here to meet guys," said one woman who came in recently with a friend, looking for a place to drink and talk. "We can relax in here, it's not rowdy or out of control like some bars."
A bear of a man comes over to give Woelbing and Womack a hug on his way out. Steve Figone is a bartender at The Aquarium, and he asks in a booming voice, "What are you two beautiful women doing at "The Tank?" That's the nickname regulars gave the bar long ago. They ask why he's leaving so early.
"Have to be back to open at 6 a.m. We just started serving breakfast last week."