Zack Palmer says it wasn't long after he became the proprietor of Walters Downtown that he understood the place was his. It was just a matter of hours, he recalls.
"I had just got the keys to the bar and turned the lights on," Palmer told us one afternoon last week, standing behind the bar as members of Canadian pop-punk trio Courage My Love set up the stage for that night's show. "I had brought my tape player and was playing tapes over the PA. I was just in awe of it. This bar means the world to me."
The bearded, twentysomething Palmer has alert, dark eyes and an easy laugh. Beside him on the bar was a hefty leather-bound organizer stuffed with bar-related paperwork, which he says he's been referring to often. The previous night was the first time Walters had been open since the club's founder, Palmer's mother Pamela Robinson, was laid to rest at age 55. After some legal maneuvering to get the remaining permits transferred to his name, which took about three weeks, Palmer was handed the keys November 18.
"It's definitely sunk in, the level in which I'm invested in this -- like, I can put a fiscal number on it," Palmer laughs. "Which is a silly way to describe it, but ultimately it means a lot more to me than anything."
It's not hard to guess where Palmer came by such poise. Robinson was the beloved Houston nightclub doyenne who since the early '90s presided over a handful of incarnations of Walters, two on the Washington Avenue corridor and its current location near UH-Downtown, and for a time running the nearby clubs Silky's and Mary Jane's as well. Her passing on October 22, after a long battle with cancer, brought forth an outpouring of not only grief but appreciation for her gracious, no-nonsense manner and open-door policy to fledgling Houston musicians. It sounds like none of that has been lost on her son.
"I hear it every day," he says. "I grew up in bars, and a few times a week -- if not every day -- I'll be at a bar and I'll overhear somebody start a conversation about either Walters or Mary Jane's, new or old, without even being a part of it. This place is in people's hearts."
If Palmer's last name is unfamiliar, it may be because many people came to know him as simply Zack on Washington. His mother started bringing him to Walter's Ice House, her first bar, when he was around 12 or so. He began officially working for her a couple of years later, by which time it had moved a few blocks away to become Walter's on Washington.
The first show he distinctly recalls working was Japanese noise-rockers Mono's first visit to Houston, which the band's Web site lists as taking pace at Fat Cat's (an alias of Mary Jane's) in 2003.
"Ridiculously loud," Palmer recalls. "They were all very humble, too. They barely spoke English at the time and they were trying to talk to me. I don't know (laughs) -- I think they were kind of fascinated that I was so young and still there."
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Palmer may be young still, but green he ain't. He's already logged countless hours at the various Walters, both on and off the clock, learning alongside longtime employees Terry Nunn and Roy Mata -- and of course his mom. According to Palmer, he mostly learned "by osmosis" from her, to a point where he was comfortable taking over the business when Robinson's health began to fail.
"Me and my mother were very close," he says softly. "We always were."
Palmer also put in time at several other bars, dives to craft-beer boutiques and upscale cocktail joints, as well as a few other live-music venues. If it's possible for someone still so young to sound nostalgic, he does when he talks about the days when local indie promoters like I Heart U, Hands Up Houston and Hatetank were going strong, Palmer does when he talks about the years when Houston was a "mecca of grindcore." It was clear pretty early on what he wanted to do with his life, he says.
"I made it a point to get a good knowledge of what it is to be in this industry as a proprietor, and I took that very seriously," Palmer affirms. "And I've always known."
Even in his rare off hours, Palmer says his interests run towards nightlife-related activities, namely studying the art of "cocktailing" and craft beers. And he lives not far from the club at Houston House of Creeps the combination residence/music venue in the Warehouse District that is well-known around town for its robust DIY parties.
"We do a lot of house parties, which is always fun," "That's what I get to do 'for fun,' is book more shows," he laughs.
His family, he says, is doing well.
"The whole battle with cancer was very difficult," Palmer admits. "I feel like my mother held on for so long that it actually gave my sister and my stepfather enough time to actually cope with it, and by the end of it all we were all together. We were right where we needed to be."
Palmer says he's planning to carry out Robinson's wishes to make a few minor improvements to Walters' building, but otherwise doesn't foresee any radical changes.
"There's nothing I can do to change the heart of this bar from what it is," he says. "And I don't need to."
That absolutely extends to the welcome mat Robinson always rolled out to local musicians making their first tentative steps toward a viable career onstage. Evidence of that can now be seen by the brief messages of thanks, too small to count as graffiti, that a few people have already scrawled on Walters' exterior walls.
"That's something special," smiles Palmer. "I take that to heart. It's a lesson I learned from her, how important it is to give people a chance.
"That's what it means to build a community," he adds. "It's not just a scene."
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