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Shelby's, a Classic Downtown Bar, Could Soon Be Gone

Shelby's is an endangered species in downtown Denver's real estate market.
Shelby's is an endangered species in downtown Denver's real estate market.
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The building at 519 18th Street has housed a bar of some sort for at least ninety years, according to Howard Nelson, who owns the current incarnation, Shelby's Bar & Grill, with his wife, Nanette. The Nelsons took over Shelby's in 1991, but they could soon find themselves without a home for their saloon; the building and the property on which it sits are for sale.

"This is the fourth time that it's been for sale in the past few years," Nelson says. According to city records, the property currently belongs to Antelope Real Estate: an Anschutz company, Nelson notes.

Because the property has been on the market several times, Shelby's has been in somewhat of a holding pattern for the past decade. There's a ninety-day demolition clause in the bar's lease, so if the lot sells and the new owner wants to develop it — which is almost certain to happen, given the value of the land — the Nelsons would be forced to close. According to Nelson, the building that houses Shelby's is the last freestanding, single-story building downtown. It started out as a funeral parlor in 1906 and housed the Pink Lady, a legendary watering hole, before it became Shelby's.

So what will the couple do if their bar goes the way of so many other classic dives around the city? "We're in a little bit of transition about that; we're not quite sure right now," Nelson says. Moving the bar to a new location would be expensive and could destroy the spirit of the watering hole that generations of Denverites have come to love.

"It's definitely going to be hard," he adds. "I'm going to need time just by myself in the place if it's going to close. But the month-to-month waiting gets to you...so we're just hanging in, doing what we're doing."

The Nelsons have two sons and one daughter who work at least part time at Shelby's, and if the building goes, he points out that they'll be out of jobs, too. So he and Nanette have been saving every penny, putting off improvements to the place while doing little things to drum up business. For example, several years ago they decided to open on Sunday. "Back then, if you were on 18th Street on a Sunday over the years, it was because you were lost," the bar owner says.

But then a Carolina Panthers fan said he could get get 20 to 25 customers in to watch football games during the NFL season. That fan made good on his word, and Shelby's now sees close to forty guests on Sundays (when all TV screens are tuned in to the Panthers, even if there's a Broncos game on). That clientele has spilled over into the rest of the week; visitors from North and South Carolina often come in because of the bar's reputation, Nelson says.

The price of growth is change, and sometimes change means losing something of value. Shelby's may not be worth the $10 million or so that will probably end up being the selling price of the property (which includes the paid-parking lots next to and behind the bar), but for those who love the little slices of Denver history that have managed to stay alive for so many years, you can't put a price on memories and nostalgia.

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