Our People: Q&A with Milton Howard

Nickel Bar owner offers intimate atmosphere at reasonable price

Milton Howard was, quite literally, born to be a party animal.

“Growing up, I pretty much was always that party kid, always liked to go out,” the Huntersville, N.C., native said. “It has always been my passion. Maybe I’m a victim of my birth: I was actually born on New Year’s Eve. And here it is, almost 50 years later, and I’m still kicking it!”

Milton owns The Nickel Bar, a nightclub on Rozzelles Ferry Road that has developed quite a reputation as the place to kick back and relax.

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The Nickel Bar opened Feb. 6, 2009.

Milton, bar staff and customers celebrated the nightclub’s seventh anniversary in late January.

QN: What inspired you to open The Nickel Bar?

MH: When I was about 22, I was working in a restaurant downtown and met a guy that owned a club. He invited me to it. There wasn’t anyone there. So, I told the guy: Why don’t you let me turn this into a gay bar that basically caters to the African-American community? It wasn’t so much about separation, but about bringing more culture to the city. In my travels, I would go to Atlanta or DC and I would see a Latino club, a black club. I had worked in a few bars around the city and always held in the back of my mind the idea of opening my own bar. I didn’t have any money at all, so I took out a small loan. We have been there ever since.

QN: What inspired the name?

MH: I opened it up when the recession was kicking into high gear. Everyone had lost money out of the 401(k). So, I wanted a name that sounded affordable, a name that was catchy and easy to remember. There was actually a Nickel Bar in New York. Friends told me about it, so that’s how I came up with the name. That’s what I want it to be, a place you can go that’s not overpriced, a place you can relax and just come out and have a good time. Even though the economy is better, we’re always conscious about our budget and money.

Milton Howard and his sons, Milton II and Connor, spend the day at PowerHouse in the Park, an HIV awareness event.

Milton Howard and his sons, Milton II and Connor, spend the day at PowerHouse in the Park, an HIV awareness event.

QN: You said you’ve been to bigger cities and seen Latino clubs and black clubs. What made you decide there was a need for this in Charlotte?

MH: Most of the clubs that have opened over the years have been big box clubs, the ones where there’s not too much one-on-one personal interaction. They have major light shows, the huge dance floors, big bars. You would see that cute guy or cute girl across the room from afar and the space dynamic, itself, would be rather intimidating. That’s a great experience for when you’re coming out, 18, 19 or 20 years old and you’re all excited about the life. But, there’s also what I call the after-life. That’s the life you start to experience after 30, when you want something that’s a little more up-close and personal. That’s what The Nickel Bar offers. It’s similar to Cheers, a place you go where everybody knows your name. I wanted to add back into the LGBT community here in Charlotte the humanity piece, where you don’t walk into bar intimidation but into a more welcoming environment.

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QN: I was in a bar last night and noticed just about everyone at the bar was staring down into an iPhone. How has that technology changed the ability to be intimate in a bar?

MH: The technology advances have been great. They allow people a lot more exposure and contact. Some people share a lot more of their inner personalities online. The technology has definitely hurt the nightclub and bar industries, though, just like it has hurt shopping malls. In a bar situation, you’re talking to someone or approaching someone face-to-face. It’s, more or less, like how the shopper would go to the mall to see the fabrics, try on the clothes, things like that. The technology has stripped the face-to-face interaction out of things. The technology has been good and it has been bad. The Internet gives some people confidence that they otherwise would not have, but it also hurts relationships in that we’re paying more attention to what’s going on in the outside world than to our partners and what’s going on in our own homes. It also concerns me as an owner how a lot of people are not taking into account their personal safety. It’s definitely something that should always be considered with any form of technology.

QN: Why do you do what you do?

MH: I was always able to freely express myself. Fortunately for me, growing up in the early ‘80s, when I basically came out to my parents, it was more or less like: “Oh, I thought you were going to tell me something.” There was never any Bible thumping, you’re going to hell, any of that. I was embraced from one side of the family to the other. They love my boyfriend. They just think he’s the best thing since sliced bread. So, I definitely had a different kind of an experience than a lot of people do. I was very blessed in that area.

QN: Tell me something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know.

MH: They wouldn’t know that I’m the father of two little boys, Milton II, 12, and Connor, 11. He was named after my mother. Her maiden name was Connor. His middle name is De’Leon, so he’s named after his maternal grandmother’s last name. They are interesting kids. One is in middle school. I came out to them in the summer of 2015. They have been great about it. This is very interesting for them.

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