The gospel according to Grant

Grant Henry’s path travels a circuitous route from church deacon to owner of a bar named Church.


Grant Henry sweats on the porch of his new bar one boiling afternoon in downtown Athens, waiting for a sign.

Vintage church chandeliers hang overhead and a huge painting of Jesus frowns behind Plexiglas. It’s here, on the porch, where two elderly women recently walked by and told Grant, Y’all are going to hell!

The notion by some that Grant is sacrilegious is nothing new. Four years ago, Grant raised hackles when he opened his popular Atlanta bar, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium. Called “Church” for short, it’s a cathedral to high camp and table tennis, which the website BuzzFeed recently named best kitschy theme bar in the world.

Grant talks about the pushback with a devious smile. While he may be a provocateur, the vitriol can sting. But it hardly diminishes Grant’s euphoria today as he watches workers install a ribald neon sign best not described in a family newspaper at his second location of Church, expected to open any day now.

“Oh, man, look at that,” Grant says, snapping iPhone photos of the sign. “That is so superbly perfect!”

It’s a significant milestone for a 58-year-old businessman whose life has had enough setbacks, fortuitous twists and wacky adventures to make Forrest Gump seem like a static character. It’s ironic that he wears the same thing every day: a black T-shirt, a baseball cap with the word “pray” stitched across the front, thick-rimmed hipster glasses and a silver medallion emblazoned with his motto — “(Expletive) Fear” — which is also tattooed like a bracelet around his right wrist.

The Athens bar echoes the dive-bar aesthetic and irreverent themes of the Old Fourth Ward establishment that has proven wildly popular and financially successful. The buzz is palpable as Grant directs Internet installers and the cable guy while neighboring business owners stop by to welcome him to the neighborhood.

“I think it’s going to be fantastic,” says Sarah Guerin, bar manager at nearby Ciné, an art-house theater. “So many friends have been telling me about Church in Atlanta for years.”

Just then, two young women come to the door. The one wearing a nice black dress hands Grant a résumé, inquiring about a job. The other says her mother would kill her if she worked at a place like this.

They perfectly illustrate the polarizing power of the bar and its irrepressible owner.

 

2

Jack of all trades

One night in his Edgewood Avenue loft, about 100 steps from Church in Atlanta, Grant tabulates his many former careers, cracking himself up in the process and laughing so hard he trails into a wheeze as he pounds the dining room table.

The former machine shop is loaded with pricey mid-century furniture, art from eBay and random kitsch, including dozens of vintage Tonka trucks in the rafters. Grant lives here alone, and he keeps it so meticulously decorated, each chair sits at exactly the same height and the living room carpet matches the color of his Cockapoo, Georgia, which is also the name of his mother.

Grant’s résumé includes stints as an antiques dealer, a corporate hotel “spy,” a swimming pool salesman, an insurance provider, a real estate agent, a beach bum, a notary, a teacher at a psychiatric hospital for teens, a seminary student, an elementary school official, a church deacon, a bartender and an artist.

Tonight Grant is pressed for time, because he’s making a rare peak-hours appearance at Church, and his pals are waiting.

Friends describe Grant as a social magnet, a showman, a shopaholic, a good-times instigator and the “ringleader of the psycho circus,” in the words of his friend, Atlanta magazine columnist  Hollis Gillespie, for whom Grant has been a long-time muse. His exploits are often the subject of her columns, which previously appeared in Creative Loafing and Poets, Artists and Madmen.

Grant is also a devoted father, a besotted grandfather and a gay man twice divorced from women.

Along the burgeoning Edgewood Avenue nightlife corridor, Grant is a motivational force and an oracle unafraid of financial risk, according to some.

“Grant Henry is the mayor of Edgewood, as far as I’m concerned,” says Johnny Martinez, co-owner of Joystick Gamebar across the street.

For all of his provocations, Grant hasn’t seemed to keep many enemies, and his business succeeds, in part, by being an extension of himself.

“I tell people it’s like being inside Grant’s head,” says Joe Stewardson, Old Fourth Ward Business Association president. Grant’s past endeavors, says Gillespie, “are these threads that he’s woven into a tapestry that is (the bar).”

That tapestry has become a cultural phenomenon. Publications ranging from The New York Times to National Geographic have written about Church. GQ magazine called it “an altogether strange place, but pleasantly so,” essentially echoing the Wall Street Journal’s description: “surreal.”

Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill have imbibed there. Lady Gaga pleaded with Grant to sell her a ceramic Virgin Mary from behind the bar; he refused. He’s been known to don a chauffeur’s cap and pick up VIPs — including Jessica Biel — in his 1975 Rolls-Royce, which he calls the “Hot Buttered Rolls,” and deliver them to the bar with fanfare. During ping-pong tournaments, Grant has trounced Ben Stiller, who described Grant as “the Rafael Nadal of ping-pong” on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show. When Owen Wilson stopped by Church to avenge his friend, Grant won the hat off his head.

But for all his bravado and his “(Expletive) Fear” motto, Grant is deeply afraid. What scares him most is failure and letting down his daughter, Mary Grace, 32, who recently moved home from Mexico to be Church’s co-owner.

Grant was never more afraid than he was one day last July. He wasn’t feeling well, so he visited a doctor, who quickly admitted him to a hospital. Tests showed a high probability of colon cancer.

 

3

A bar called Church

Walking down Edgewood Avenue one night last month, Grant doesn’t get within a block of Church before two guys call out his name across the street. They’ve come from Alpharetta, bearing paddles. It’s Monday — time for Church’s weekly ping-pong tournament.

The devout will probably make it no farther than Church’s front door, where a sign reads: “No open or concealed Bibles allowed on premises.” Nevertheless, not a single seat is open; Grant calls his regulars “parishioners.”

A server brings him a fruit-filled glass of Spiritual Sangria, a potent wine-brandy blend that is Church’s signature drink.

Above the bar hang velvet paintings of Jesus, Elvis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — the “Three Kings,” Grant calls them. Elsewhere, a mannequin dressed as a nun whirls on a ceiling fan, a protrusion jutting from her pants. The walls are filled with thrift-store paintings, which Grant (aka Sister Louisa; more on that later) has adorned with brightly hued phrases that range from profane to plain corny: “Jesus (hearts) country girls!” “It’s all about Love.” “Smile if you (heart) Jesus!”

Grant sits at a table next to his best friend, Steven Carse, the frozen-treat entrepreneur who founded King of Pops. While Grant’s pals must number in the hundreds, he keeps a cadre of only a dozen close friends, he says.

Carse, a ping-pong enthusiast, was an early Church patron. In him, Grant found a kindred soul chasing a crazy dream and finding success.

“Neither of us tried to build what we ended up with,” Carse says with a chuckle.

“Everybody said you can’t have a bar with no TVs, a bar with no smoking, with no parking,” Grant says, flipping through iPhone photos of his newborn grandson. “You can’t have a bar that offends people — it’s like a recipe for disaster.”

Grant’s tendencies to go against the grain might reach further back than his own birth. Working as an usher at age 17, Grant’s father, Sid, quit his job at a Tampa movie theater when management wouldn’t allow him to seat African-Americans.

Open-mindedness was a touchstone of the Henrys’ Panama City, Fla., household, where Grant was the middle of three brothers. Influenced by the whimsy of Dr. Seuss and the positivity of the “Jungle Book,” Grant was a happy, funny kid who got good grades and befriended everyone.

“There’s no question Grant was the family clown,” says younger brother Mike Henry. “It was impossible for me to be mad at Grant, ever.”

The family attended a Methodist church, where Grant felt pressured to conform. Around that time, his ping-pong skills hatched in his elementary school gymnasium, where the Henry brothers waited for their parents — Georgia was a teacher, Sid the principal — to finish work.

Grant’s parents divorced when he was 13, a life lesson that taught him to adapt. Georgia headed north with the boys, eventually settling in Acworth, where Grant was voted “Most Dependable” at North Cobb High School.

While pursuing his first college degree — a bachelor’s in hospitality management at Florida International University — a professor gave Grant advice that echoes today: If you want a bar to become an institution, make it such an experience that people can’t talk about anything else at work the next day.

As customers crowd around Grant and Carse at Church, the experience is apparent. They slap Grant’s back or, like one woman, kiss his hand. The scene belies the grim subject matter of the entrepreneurs’ conversation: Grant’s health.

When Grant was hospitalized, Carse was by his side, thumbing through Wikipedia entries about colon cancer and life expectancies as nurses discussed something in Grant’s X-rays about the size of a golf ball. Mary Grace wept, saying, Daddy, I love you so much, but her father was busy being pragmatic. If doctors expected him to live for more than a year, he’d get the bar running in Athens; if not, he’d sell it immediately.

Carse left his friend’s bedside about 2 a.m. Driving home, he was scared. He realized how much of his confidence — in business and personal matters — was derived from his talks with Grant. If he could just live two years, healthy, Carse thought, that’d be such a treasure.

 

4

Pillar of the community

The spoofing at Church knows few boundaries. There is a plaque containing the Ten Commandments next to the toilet in the men’s restroom. But at times, Grant has earnestly leaned on religion, especially one night in Florida, back in 1978, when he wrote a letter to God.

While finishing college, Grant fell for an older woman named Charlene, who was in the midst of a divorce. He helped move her and her two young children to a townhome in Tallahassee, and that night, there was a knock at her door. A drunk driver had just killed her estranged husband.

As friends filed into the house with casseroles, Grant holed up in the basement, writing page after page, seeking guidance from God. He was just 21, but he decided to help raise her children, John and Anne. He married Charlene the next summer, and they settled in Marietta.

Grant traveled the country in the hotel management industry, the first of several careers he excelled in, only to abandon them in fits of restlessness. He earned a master’s degree in education from Georgia State because he thought it would make him a better parent.

In Marietta, the future Sister Louisa was a community pillar. His many titles included PTA president of West Side Elementary School, historical society board member, co-founder of a Marietta neighborhood association, United Way of Atlanta board member and ordained deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Marietta. He says his upbringing — to be righteous at all times — motivated his busyness in those years.

When Mary Grace was born, named for “the Grace of God,” she was a hit with the congregation, who passed her around at church suppers like a bowl of baked beans. But a conflict was rising in Grant. As deacon of the church, he says he was instructed — like his father decades before — to keep certain people from prime pews: He couldn’t come to terms with that.

After nine years, Grant’s marriage was fizzling, but his faith was not. In 1986, he attended Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur with hopes of becoming a pastoral counselor to kids, though others told him he’d make a fine preacher. But he couldn’t make peace with one tenet of his lessons: That salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ. He gave his instructors an earful based on his experience working with Christmas International House, an organization that hosts students of diverse ethnicities and religious beliefs in Christian homes over the holidays.

They don’t know who Jesus Christ is, they have no concept and have still found enlightenment, he told them. What you’re calling born again, or salvation, they have found it, but it’s not through Jesus Christ.

As the date of his ordination approached, Grant quit the seminary. By then he was divorced, too, and he fell into a deep depression because he felt his mission — to be “super dad” and shield his stepchildren, with whom he remains close, from the pain of losing their father — was gone.

“I felt like I’d lost my reason,” he says.

He landed a job leading therapy sessions at a psychiatric hospital for teens in Virginia-Highland. Although he loved the work, he struggled to keep up with child support payments. Often, he found himself digging in roadside trash piles (a practice that continues today) looking for salable antiques.

Mary Grace recalls one weekend she came from Marietta to stay at her father’s Little Five Points apartment, and he admitted they had only $7. But he had a plan! They’d eat cheese pizza, drink water and write checks for antiques at yard sales and thrift shops — and then sell their purchases to antique dealers. The adventure masked the desperation. Grant swears no check ever bounced.

“My friends, when I was in school, would beg to come spend the night with my dad,” Mary Grace says.

At the psychiatric hospital, Grant met his second wife, a fellow teacher. But the union lasted only five years, which is when his life took a loony, liberated turn. He opened Resurrection Antiques in East Atlanta Village and started painting words on mass-produced religious artwork, or scrawling phrases like “Flush Away Your Sins” on old toilet seats. He was drawn to paint-by-numbers pictures of Jesus in particular, but they rarely sold in his shop, without a few painterly adjustments.

To Grant, the artwork —which he calls “anti-art” — was less a revolt against piousness than a challenge to the pious. It also succeeded in cracking up nonbelievers. One day, a local scribe who moonlighted as an airline stewardess (Gillespie) walked into Grant’s shop and freaked out. The chance meeting would change their lives and eventually give birth to Grant’s alter ego, Sister Louisa.

 

5

Sister Louisa is born

The stairs at Church lead up to the ping-pong area, where the crowd hoots as Grant wins his first match, a 21-to-12 trouncing.

On the landing, flamboyant art pieces pay homage to Gillespie and her first three books, in which Grant costars. When Paramount Pictures bought the rights to one book a decade ago, David Arquette was tapped to play the role of Grant. But neither a sitcom nor movie ever materialized.

It was Gillespie who, in the mid-1990s, rallied Grant and other pals she frequently writes about — wild man Lary Blodgett and artist Daniel Troppy — to take a trip to Amsterdam. They stayed at the home of an attorney named Louisa, “a little spiritual bird” whom Grant adored.

There, Lary bluntly informed Grant that despite his marriages and the birth of Mary Grace, he was gay. All you want to do is decorate! Lary said. Initially, Grant resisted the idea, but it wasn’t long before he began dating a former Episcopal priest who moseyed into his shop one day.

Back home, Gillespie insisted Grant gather his art into a gallery show at the Telephone Factory Lofts in Poncey-Highland, where three of the four friends lived. Grant agreed but lacked the courage to sign his work with his birth name. He told himself: I’ve got to trick these people, like a folk artist, and the fake name has got to be a girl — a nun! He recalled the Amsterdam attorney, and the first Sister Louisa art show was a hit, with pieces selling for $25.

While his side job as an artist took off, Grant earned a real estate license, made a series of wise property flips and spent a year in Mexico. But he came home bored and on a whim started training as a bartender at The Local on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Never a barfly, Grant quickly learned the logistics of the business and earned a following, thanks in part to Gillespie’s columns, which captured his zany magnetism.

“He made more money from me writing about him than I did writing about him,” Gillespie says, “and that is no exaggeration.”

But after 10 years, Grant grew restless again. His brother Mike planted a bug in his ear: If Grant combined his art with his own bar, it could be a place for people to rally behind Sister Louisa’s expressions — and express themselves by virtue of their patronage.

Bingo! Church devotees will tell you today.

Upstairs during the ping-pong tournament, a 29-year-old actor named Ben Lamm is trying to pinpoint why he’s a Church regular. The theme, he concludes, acts as a filter.

“I feel like it makes interactions with strangers so much easier when there’s so much to comment on.” Like the plastic choirboy in the corner, the wall-mounted angels or the Last Supper painting with Jesus declaring, “Talk to the hands!”

Elsewhere upstairs, Church’s longest-tenured employee, bartender Andrea Gianino, collects glasses and extols the diversity of Church’s customer base. She nods to an ethnic stew of revelers ranging from undergraduates to the middle-aged.

“It’s a rare thing,” she says.

Around midnight, Grant steps to the ping-pong table to face his second tourney opponent. He bends low to the table, as if this is Wimbledon, and shouts, “This is ping-pong on four sangrias!”

 

6

Matters of religion

Edgewood Avenue was just starting to transform when Church opened in 2010. Since then, new bars and restaurants occupy once-vacant storefronts (with more in the offing), partiers cluster on the sidewalks, and hip-hop and house music thumps in the night.

The Atlanta Streetcar promises to usher even larger crowds into the mix.

The area is famously rich in religious history, with at least eight congregations concentrated into a few square blocks, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist.

When word got out that a bar called Church planned to open, many in the Sweet Auburn community were puzzled, if not outraged. But Stewardson, the business association leader, thought Grant’s idea would lend “a unique panache” to the area.

Grant lined up two business partners, but they both backed out.

Worst-case scenario, Grant thought he’d live off bar-tending tips for a couple of years and have a grand time. For start-up capital, he sold antiques and maxed out credit cards. If Church was going to flop, it would shutter in a matter of weeks.

When the alcohol license was granted a few days before Christmas, Grant hosted a small party for friends. Around 9 p.m., he posted a message on Facebook for kicks: “Don’t tell anybody, but Church is officially open.” They unlocked the doors.

And ... floodgates.

Grant awoke the next morning, recalled the throngs who’d shown up and had a panic attack. This wasn’t like his one-off art shows; he’d have do it again that night, and the next night, and the next. Everyone was counting on him. I will never have another day off, he thought.

Since then, each week has been busier than the next, Grant says. Hotel concierges routinely send guests. Airline magazines have featured the bar, spurring a recent influx of Brits. Grant hasn’t spent a dollar on advertising.

As for his religious neighbors, Grant feels more tolerated. “I don’t want to say that Church has lost its edge, because Grant wouldn’t like that,” says Joystick owner Gonzalez, “but the pushback has quieted down.”

That doesn’t mean everyone’s happy.

One church official after another declined comment for this story, until the Rev. Michael N. Harris, Wheat Street Baptist Church pastor, put some thoughts about the bar into an email. The two establishments are separated by a couple of blocks.

“That it has such a name as ‘The Church’ is not only an affront to the biblical concept of the church ... but the name is as ridiculous as a regular church calling itself ‘The Bar,’” Harris wrote. “While the bar ... has a right in this country to its name and the City of Atlanta has given its approval to its location, I know of nobody in the Wheat Street congregation or any other congregation that applauds its name or the nature of its business in using that name.”

During interviews, Grant is peppered with questions about his own beliefs. Each time, his reply is rambling, hilarious and evasive. He’s not religious, per se, but believes in an “alive deity.” In his book, we’re all seekers responding to our own light. He’s definitely not a Christian, he says, because he defines a Christian as someone who sells everything they own, follows Jesus and dedicates their life to helping those less fortunate.

“I have a (expletive) $5,000 sofa,” he says. “I ain’t selling that (expletive) thing!”

Gillespie puts it another way: “People think that he’s an atheist, but he’s not — he’s just not afraid of God like everybody else.”

 

7

Planning for the future

Long story short, Grant isn’t dying.

After a couple of days in the hospital, to everyone’s relief, tests proved that the golf-ball sized blur in the X-rays was actually a shadow. There was no colon cancer, not even a polyp, and the root of Grant’s ills speaks to his zealous nature: He’d been taking an all-natural colon cleanser every day for 15 years.

The directions, which he’d never bothered to read, cautions against using it more than seven consecutive days.

“Hallelujah!” Grant blurts one day in an Athens café, over a bowl of tofu. “That would have been an awful way to die — colon cleanser!”

But watching his daughter cry at his bedside, his only grandson, Emilio, in her arms, motivated Grant to file the necessary paperwork that would transfer the bar, or bars, to her, should he die. Her husband had recently finished architecture school in Mexico, and Grant furnished a Cabbagetown apartment for them in the short term. Church, he hopes, will support them much longer.

Grant has trained Mary Grace in every facet of running the bar, and each time she walks in, she says, it’s like hanging out with her dad.

And so it is that Grant Henry’s life has brought him to the ping-pong table on a Monday night, beneath a canoe emblazoned with the words “Jesus Floats My Boat,” yipping and darting around as he sends the white plastic ball flying — until he loses his second match, 21-15.

He looks stunned.

The crowd rises from the red couches and old church pews that furnish the upstairs ping pong-parlor. They clap and whoop, in a show of respect for the proprietor who has brought them together tonight. Grant downplays the attention and waves away the applause, blaming his defeat on sangria.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Former Old Fourth Ward resident Josh Green watched as Grant Henry’s bar, Church, transformed from a curiosity into an overnight sensation. When Church was singled out by the website BuzzFeed as the world’s best kitschy theme bar, and with a second Church opening in Athens, the timing seemed right to find out more about the man behind the bar. For this story, Green researched Henry’s past exploits, interviewed him in various settings, spoke with family members, old friends, business associates and Henry’s detractors in the religious community. “Whatever you think about the bar and his artwork, it’s pretty difficult to dislike the man, if you don’t mind profanity,” Green said of Henry. “I’ve never laughed so hard transcribing interviews in my life.”

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

About the reporter

Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. An Indiana native, Green has won top journalism awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. His debut book, “Dirtyville Rhapsodies,” a short story collection set mostly in Atlanta, was published last year.

About the photographer

Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at the University of Georgia and Cal State Hayward.

COMING NEXT WEEK
Sean Costello was  a teenage phenom when he hit the local blues scene in the mid  ’90s, but his life tragically ended at age 28 in the Cheshire Motor Inn. 



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