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A Hotel is a Place…”The Captain of the Snug”

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By Jake MacDonald

Everybody who frequented the Oak Bay Beach Hotel had their favorite room, and for Joe Smith, it was the cozy bar known as The Snug. “The ambience of the place was mind blowing,” he says. “On a stormy night the logs in the fire would be crackling, and the windows would be fogged up, and everyone would be talking and laughing, and it all added up to this powerful feeling of energy and potential. It was just an incredible place.”

Joe Smith knew The Snug better than anyone, because he worked there as the bartender for 22 years. After growing up in Hamilton, he headed for the West Coast in his mid-20s, hoping to find an interesting place to live for his wife and child. When he arrived on Vancouver Island, he fell into the usual round of seasonal blue-collar jobs – logging, commercial fishing, labor, and construction. He was often laid off, and had to rely on unemployment insurance in the off season to pay the bills. “What I really wanted was a job that was layoff-proof.”

He was intrigued by the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. “I just loved the character and style of that place,” he says. “

And I was determined that I was going to work there.”  He didn’t have much of a resume, so he opted for style and persistence. “I would put on a three-piece suit and show up there at least three times a week. My idea was that if I kept showing up and telling good jokes they would recognize me as management material. I bugged them three times a week and finally, after a year, they offered me a job washing dishes.”

Joe says he couldn’t see himself “writing the folks back home” and telling them that his grand plans had ended up with a job washing dishes, so he kept showing up in his fancy suit, and finally the manager at the time, Kevin Walker, offered him a job as a general laborer. “I chopped firewood, hauled trash, cut the grass, you name it. I didn’t really like cleaning the toilets – maybe it’s a guy thing – but I enjoyed everything else and I think I did a pretty good job. One time I drank a bunch of coffee and furiously cleaned and polished the brass rail in The Snug for a couple of hours until it just gleamed. I don’t think it’d ever been that clean before. So the boss was happy with my work and I was happy working there.”

After two years of work as the hotel’s all-purpose “Joe boy,” he began working as a volunteer at The Snug. “My maintenance night shift started at 1 AM, so I would come in at 10 PM and work for three hours in the lounge, washing dishes, bussing trays, and just generally making myself useful. I was doing it for free, trying to learn how a bar operates, and hoping that I might work myself into a job there. Sure enough, after a while a shift would come available and I would jump in there and pick up a shift as a bartender. I don’t even drink, so maybe it was an odd choice of job, but I like talking to people and hearing their stories, and if you’re a people person, there was no better place to work. Boy, it was full of characters. It was like a very stylish men’s club. There were limousines out front, people coming in tuxedos, and beautifully dressed women. Next to the Bengal Room at The

Empress, The Snug at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel was the most stylish bar on the west coast, so everyone was putting on a show, being fabulous – waving those long cigarette holders. I was pretty fast when someone had an unlit cigarette in their fingers. I wouldn’t dream of starting my shift without my trusty lighter.”

He says The Snug had a number of ceremonial routines that weren’t written down but were well understood by everyone who knew the place. “Boxing Day was a big deal,” he says. “People would be in town for Christmas, and maybe they haven’t seen their cronies for a year or more. The bar was packed with people from all over the world. The regulars would expect to have the same seat and the same drink. There was this one barfly who regularly sat at the corner of the bar and sketched the room. He was an incredible artist. He’d capture the faces and the mood of the room just perfectly, then he’d rip off the page and hand it to me. I’ve got a pile of his sketches at home – they make quite a visual history.”

As the bartender, he wore many hats – chief justice, master of ceremonies, confidante, entertainer, big brother, and constant fixture in a place that was loved for the fact that it never changed. “Each season came with its own rituals,” he says. “When spring was coming we’d open those big patio doors at night and a beautiful ocean breeze would waft through. And later in the year we’d get the great sunsets. The best sunsets were in September. The sun would be setting on the San Juans and shards of light would shoot through the purple clouds – it was the most beautiful sight in the world. I wanted to create a drink named after it – ‘September Sunset’. Maybe I still will.”

For more than four years he’s been waiting for the new Oak Bay Beach Hotel to arise from the ashes of the “old girl” he loved. “Kevin Walker has been nice enough to keep me on the payroll,” he says. “I’ve been tearing down, hauling, shoveling snow – doing the same kind of odd jobs I did when I started. We’re trying to use a lot of the original materials so that the new hotel will have the same feel as the old one. There will be many of the same fixtures, and the same furniture. I cleaned seven thousand old bricks to be used in the new building.”

He says there are countless details showing the determination of the Walkers and the others to capture the spirit of the old Oak Bay Beach Hotel. “What gave the old place its magic wasn’t the building, it was the people. And we still have the original team, so I have high hopes for the new hotel, and the new Snug.”

A Video Tribute to Joe Smith

* Update: The Oak Bay Beach Hotel team is sad to announce that our dear friend, Joe Smith, passed away on Tuesday, March 20, 2012. He has touched the lives of so many people and he is already very missed. We love you Joe!