We all have dreams growing up. Some of us thought we’d be living in a brownstone in Georgetown, being a big timey government lawyer and writing best selling books. (Although some of us are happy enough to be in a condo in Ann Arbor, a small-timey writer and teacher). But there are others who have dreams and make them come true—and even do things they never dreamt of.
Keith Orr co-owns two prominent local businesses with his husband, Martin Contreras: \aut\ bar and Common Language Bookstore. Both are located side by side in historic Braun Court. The path that got Orr here is just as cool as the jobs themselves.
Born in Connecticut, Orr grew up in Madison, Wisc., which he says is a place “not unlike Ann Arbor.” Orr’s first love was music. “This was back in the day when schools had robust music programs. I started on the violin in elementary school and switched to bass in about the seventh grade,” he said.
Orr finished high school at the esteemed Interlochen Arts Academy and began his collegiate work at Boston University. He transferred to University of Michigan, earned his BA in double bass performance, and has been in town ever since.
When he was 19 years old, Orr became a member of the Toledo Symphony. It began as a part time job, necessitating other sources of income. Orr stresses that he avoided restaurant work. “I did not want to be a musician-waiter…I wanted to be a musician-anything else,” he said. Orr worked at the Ann Arbor Inn and then in an administrative role with a technical writing office.
Orr would play with the Toledo Symphony and Toledo Opera and while his music career became more of a full time job, he still avoided restaurants until he met Martin in 1986.
“Martin had just opened La Casita de Lupe in the space where the \aut\ bar is now…anyone who knew Martin helped with the restaurant.” A layoff from his technical writing job led to him spending more time at the restaurant.
Orr laughs, “Martin would be a physical therapist by day and come to the restaurant at night while I was at the restaurant all day and then was a musician at night!”
In 1995, the pair closed down the Mexican restaurant, did an extensive remodeling of the space, and opened as the \aut\ bar in August of that year. In 2003, they heard that the owners of Common Language Bookstore (then located on Fourth Avenue) were looking to sell.
“We couldn’t let it go unbought and close, so we stepped in,” Orr says. “We owned this building (where the \aut\ bar is located) and decided to move the store here in 2005. While there is less foot traffic, we knew that the LGBTQ community was more likely to find was here.”
Both businesses have missions that go beyond service food and drink or selling books. Orr says, “Our primary mission is to provide safe spaces for the LGBT community. After marriage equality and other protections, some people seemed to find this notion of a safe space to be quaint. But after the election in 2016, people realized that safe spaces are still very important.”
The \aut\ bar has been a continual source for good in the community since it opened, particularly during a cold February in 2001. U of M’s Office of LGBT Affairs, now known as the Spectrum Center, was planning hold a kiss-in in the Diag to raise awareness of LGBT issues and encourage diversity of campus. Fred Phelps, founder of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church, came to town to protest.
Orr recalls, “Various groups got together to discuss what the response should be. Martin and I had some ideas but ultimately other plans were made. But then we got a call from a customer saying that Phelps announced he would be picketing \aut\ bar on Saturday. I called Martin and said ‘remember that response we had talked about? Let’s do it.’ This was pre-social media so I sent out an email from my AOL account to about 700 people saying that for every minute Fred protested our bar, we would pledge $1.00 for WRAP (now the Jim Toy Center). I asked people to join the pledge drive and within a minute I got my first response.” Pledges came in consistently for the next 48 hours and eventually rose to a total of $120 per minute.
Altogether $7,500 was raised for WRAP and the \aut\ bar was packed. “It was cold February day around 4 p.m. … we’d normally be pretty slow but we were filled the whole night.”
The \aut\ bar continues to thrive with Orr and Contreras as the helm. In addition to weekday happy hour specials, the bar hosts numerous special events. There are frequent drag queen variety shows as well as Trivia with Terry happens every Thursday at 8 p.m. with host Terry McClymonds. “He’s been here for about 10 years…Terry invents all of his trivia questions, nothing is canned.”
This weekend is Cinco de Mayo, which Orr says is one of the biggest weekends of the year. “Martin brings out the recipes from his Mexican restaurant days…and of course, every Tuesday is Taco Tuesday!”
Restaurant and book store owner Keith Orr has served his community for decades. And throughout it all, he has been an agent for good works through his local businesses. “We stand for our rights and values in a way that a megacorporation just does not.”
To nominate someone for “Patti’s Cool Jobs,” e-mail Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org