MISHAWAKA — Inside, there's cigarette smoke, beer bottles, music pouring from the jukebox and a crowd of regulars, shooting darts.
Outside, on the corner, is a for sale sign, signaling that the Yakety Yak Cafe — just the latest name for the West End neighborhood bar that dates to 1908 — could soon be under new ownership.
Back inside, Paul Gurson puts his beer bottle on a table and picks up a fistful of darts.
Quickly he launches them, one by one, into the electronic dart board against the wall. He checks his score and picks up his beer.
It's darts night at the Yakety Yak Cafe, and Gurson is in his element.
He pauses, then cracks a joke. He sips beer from the bottle. He high-fives one of his darts teammates.
It's hard to believe, after a lifetime in the bar business, that soon this could all end.
"It's a young man's business," says Gurson, who opened his first bar, in Buchanan, in 1974. "I want to spend time with my grandkids."
To meet that goal, Gurson and his wife, Carol, have listed the Yakety Yak Cafe, one of several bars that dot the old working class neighborhood. Asking price? $250,000.
If that sounds like a lot of money, it might help to ask Gurson what it includes.
First, a two-story brick building, built circa 1908, that has housed a bar of one name or another nearly continuously since the 1920s, when it was known as a "Sample House" to avoid Prohibition laws.
Besides the bar, Gurson says the price tag includes an upstairs two-bedroom apartment, perfect for someone looking to invest full time into running the neighborhood bar.
And besides all that, maybe the best part, Carol says, is that you also get a family.
"We know the name of everyone who comes in here," Carol says. "It's almost always regulars; they are like our family."
Paul and Carol have owned the Yakety Yak for six years, buying after fire forced the closing of their What-A-Bar, on South Bend's Western Avenue.
Paul says he learned the business from family members, who owned taverns and bowling alleys. The 63-year-old opened his first place when he was in his early 30s.
Like any small-business owner, there were tricks to learn and problems to master. But Paul says it was a good time; he could sell bottles of beer for as little as 50 cents each and still make enough to grow the business and support a family.
More than 30 years later, Paul says he knows those days are over. There are more regulations, he said. More liability. More costs eating away at the profit margins.
"It's not like it used to be," Paul says. "But you can say that about any small business."
For much of Mishawaka's history, neighborhood bars like the Yakety Yak served as the local gathering place, for people just getting off work or looking for a night of entertainment.
Although Mishawaka's West End neighborhood has maintained many of its small bars and restaurants, the Gursons know they're also competing against chain bars and restaurants like Applebees, which calls itself America's "neighborhood bar and grill."
But even against the national chains, Paul says it's possible for the smaller bars to compete.
"You just need someone who's a go-getter, someone who's going to be there, put the time in," Paul says.
Carol agreed but says a new owner would need something else, too, something she sees in her husband's personality.
"He's a BS'er," she says, laughing. "He's never met a stranger, always telling stories, always telling jokes. People come because they like him."
It also doesn't hurt if the food's good.
Although she's worked as a part-time waitress at the bar for the past three months, Erin Woolett says she's long been a regular at the Yakety Yak because of its hot ham and cheese sandwich.
"It's like the one they used to make at the old B&L Inn in Niles," which closed several years ago, Woolett says.
The Gursons said they make the same sandwich, which developed a cult following, at the Yakety Yak and that it brings in customers from several counties.
"When I was pregnant, I was here a couple of times a week," Woolett says. "It's all I wanted to eat."
The Gursons say neighborhood bars like theirs really survive on their kitchens, meaning they have to strive for high-quality, priced-right food to compete.
"I'd say we have the best food anywhere around," says Carol, who oversees the kitchen. "But I'm a little biased."
Despite the difficulty of running a small business, especially a neighborhood bar, Paul thinks there's someone out there looking for the challenge. And the opportunity.
"It's all about the promotion, that's what it takes. It's what I was good at," Paul says.
With annual block parties, bus trips to Cubs games and tailgates for Notre Dame games, Paul says his specialty was creating big events that drew in big crowds.
Every Christmas, Carol covered the bar's black tile with more than 2,000 paper snowflakes and served up a buffet dinner for the regulars. Paul says things like dart tournaments and corn-hole game nights were part of creating a fun but low-key form of entertainment.
Although the Yakety Yak is simply a place to buy food and drink, the Gursons say what they were really doing was creating an excuse to bring people together.
"That's what we're going to miss," Carol says.
'Someone who has a dream'
But for now, they work.
Carol says she doesn't know how long it will take to sell the bar, but she's hopeful the process will move quickly. Paul thinks it's the perfect opportunity for someone who's always wanted to run his own place.
Paul and Carol can't promise that the work won't be hard. That the hours won't be long. That the glamour of owning your own bar won't always seem so glamorous.
But on a quiet weeknight, when most people sit at home and stare into the glow of a lonely TV screen, the Gursons say there's something special about having a place where people can gather.
"It's the ideal place for someone young," Paul says. "Someone who has a dream."
Staff writer Dave Stephens: