For a bit over a decade, The Flea has operated as a laid-back bar with a tolerant vibe. It starts at the front door, on which hours of operation are listed as “noonish to close.”
A few steps inside, the bar is polished to a luster, and bottles reflect the gold-tinged glow from Victorian-style hanging lamps overhead. The bar itself is a little piece of history; it’s original to Harlow’s, the bar that operated for three decades before The Flea opened in 2012.
Everywhere the eye lands, there’s something to capture its interest – beer signs, armor, license plates, vintage photos, artwork, a skateboard, a sword.
Grady Wisdom owns the place with business partner Brad Hitchings, and the two own another bar, also called The Flea, in Oklahoma City.
Wisdom says the guiding vision for the Springfield watering hole was a flea market.
“The Flea started as a vintage, eclectic dive bar for all generations,” Wisdom says.
And just as any item can be brushed off and nailed against the wall to pique the imagination, any person who enters can strike up a fascinating conversation. That’s how Wisdom sees it, anyhow.
He also sees the label of dive bar as a badge of honor.
“A place has been around long enough, you call it divey, rundown, not maintained,” he says. “We view it as a successful place. It’s been around so long and looks the same – a million things on the wall. We take that as, ‘Congratulations for making it so long.’”
The Flea is located near the Missouri State University campus on Kimbrough Avenue and shares a capacious parking lot with a smoke shop and a burger eatery. It’s larger than it looks, with an occupancy of 180, and it includes a game room and a spacious patio equipped with a rare outdoor pool table. Patrons can also play cornhole, darts, mini-golf or various other games, though there is no kitchen: This is purely a drinking establishment.
Another inspiration for the name of the business is the insect – the tiny bloodsucker, who, like the bar’s patrons, loves to drink and hang out.
Wisdom says a flea is flexible.
“It can adapt and evolve to whatever organism comes in the door,” he says.
When asked about The Flea’s typical clientele, Wisdom says there’s no such thing. On a recent midday visit, the customers looked to be mostly men in their 20s and 30s.
“At 4:30 or 5, grandma starts walking in,” Wisdom says, gesturing to the front outdoor seating area. “This table will be full of people in their 60s drinking Budweiser cans.”
Mandy Motsinger, manager, agrees: Students, townies, out-of-towners looking for local flavor – just about anyone comes to The Flea.
“It’s very diverse – very, very diverse,” she says. “I love it, though.”
There’s a sign on the cash register that spells out the bar rules, which are as serious as a heart attack. According to the sign, The Flea allows no disrespectful talk – best to veer away from politics and religion, Wisdom says – and no mass shaming.
If a problem does arise, Wisdom and Motsinger say they often don’t even hear about it.
“Nine times out of 10, the issue is handled before it ever gets to us,” Wisdom says. “The regulars are very proud of this place as well.”
Another rule: “Drink responsi-flea.” Wisdom loves a good flea pun, and that may be why the bar hosted its 10-year celebration last month with a 10-event competition called, not the decathlon, but the “flea-cathlon.” About 85 participants were cheered on by spectators as they competed in a series of tavern-related contests, like darts and beer pong.
As Wisdom and Motsinger grant an interview for this article, a customer chimes in.
“The Flea has always been like the ‘Star Wars’ cantina,” says Uli Gulje. “It brings people together from every walk of life.”
And there’s no concern about who might draw first, Han Solo or Greedo, because no one’s dueling it out at The Flea.
“Everyone’s super respectful of one another,” Gulje says. “We come here just to unwind and everyone’s kind. It’s a good vibe.”
Gulje’s companion makes it back to the table just as he’s finishing his testimony.
“I go to the bathroom for one minute,” the other guy says, gesturing to the reporter in the room, “and you’re giving your statement to The New York Times.”
Wisdom offers the exchange as an example of the give-and-take that’s common in the bar.
“He’s going to get s--- about this every time he comes in now,” Wisdom says laughing.
Wisdom says customers were eager to get back to the bar after the pandemic shutdown. The staff took a serious approach to safety, disinfecting the bar to the point that it started to wear away and needed a new epoxy finish.
There are antique frame windows by the cash register as sneeze guards, and booths are now separated by office cubicle walls someone found while thrifting. The outdoor area was improved with heaters, awnings, a projector to show the big game and an ordering window so patrons don’t have to come inside to get a beer. Seats by the bar have been removed. Wisdom declined to disclose annual revenues, but he noted patterns have morphed, with more daily customers but none of the weekly special events that once drew large crowds.
The place once known for its live music has discontinued entertainment, Wisdom says. He doesn’t know if it’s ever coming back.
“Instead of fighting change, let’s move on – be part of a new narrative,” Wisdom says.
“Adapt and evolve,” Motsinger agrees.
“Instead of complaining about it used to be this way, let’s make the story,” Wisdom adds.
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