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CHICAGO -- One by one, about 8 a.m. on a Thursday, three men walked into the G & L Fire Escape on Chicago's Northwest Side and settled into their usual stools at the bar.
The bartender popped a Miller High Life for one man; Busch Light for another. The third, retired lithographer Bob Bartlett, 71, nipped at a Miller Lite poured over ice, a serving style he adopted when he cracked beers after work at shops where temperatures hit 100 degrees.
Early mornings used to be busier here -- with third-shift workers, firefighters, and others who just wanted to drink at dawn -- but the crowd thinned to seven regulars in recent years, said manager Annie O'Hara. Then two died, one moved, and a fourth quit coming because his liver no longer abided alcohol.
That leaves the three graying men, who gather most mornings shortly after the firehouse-themed bar opens at 7 a.m. to sip beer, shake their heads at the TV news, and make fun of one another.
Mr. Bartlett, who grew up in the neighborhood known as North Center, remembers when early-opening bars stood at more street corners. Now they're rarer, but Ms. O'Hara, who lives in an apartment attached to the tavern, said it's worth opening to "ring the register" while cleaning up from the night before and to serve the three men who still want to hunch over the bar at 8 a.m.
"They make it worth it," Ms. O'Hara said, and it was clear that she wasn't just talking about their money.
No organization seems to keep track of the prevalence of early-morning taverns, but bar owners and industry observers agreed it has grown harder to find places to drink while others brush their teeth before work. The trend mirrors a reduction in bars statewide and in Chicago, where licensed taverns dwindled from some 6,400 in 1900 to about 1,000 as of July, according to city figures and Tribune archives.
Historians said the neighborhood bar declined with advances in home entertainment and changes in family life and social customs. And barkeepers blamed the drop in manufacturing jobs for drying up early-morning business, saying overnight factory workers once crowded bars while the world awoke.
Many would not consider the disappearance of daybreak drinking a tragedy, given the physical and social costs of alcohol abuse, but morning customers remain the lifeblood of some local taverns.
"They're the ones that keep the lights on," bar manager Ralph Monge said of the handful of customers who come into the Woodstock (Ill.) Town Tap after it opens each day at 6 a.m.
Even the trumpeted return of third work crews at two local auto plants doesn't appear to be inspiring a pronounced increase in early-morning bar-going.
The Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill., about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, changed to a three-crew schedule July 23 and added 1,800 workers, spokesman Jodi Tinson said.
The Ford plant on Chicago's Far South Side added a third crew in May, along with 1,200 new employees, spokesman Todd Nissen said.
But neither plant is running a third shift that lets out at 6 or 7 a.m. because both have switched to systems in which employees work four 10-hour shifts per week. The last shifts at both plants end closer to most bars' closing time than their opening time.
A little more than a mile from the Ford plant, the Beacon Tavern in the Hegewisch neighborhood still opens at 7 a.m. Down the block, the Old Time Tap used to open at that hour, but owner Don Jones said he moved back to 9 a.m. a few years ago because "it was a waste of two hours in the morning."
"A couple people would get off the night shift and come in," Mr. Jones said as he watched over his barroom, with its brick walls, tile ceiling, and Christmas lights. "And now, nobody's working."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics hasn't recently tracked third shifts, said Parker Harvey, an agency economist in Chicago. It's clear, though, that the number of manufacturing employees, nationally and locally, has dropped.
Nationally, manufacturing employment boomed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s and then slid consistently until 2010.
The figures since have moved upward modestly, though employment remains well below its peak, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bars too have disappeared. Nationwide, alcohol consumption has been on a mostly downward trend for the last 35 years, from an average of 2.64 gallons per year for a person over 14 in 1977 to 2.3 gallons in 2009, according to the federal National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Only anecdotal evidence links the dip in manufacturing to the decline of early-morning bars. But stories of disappearing third shifts cutting into early-morning crowds are common among the state's tavern owners, said Daniel Clausner, executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association.
"If a shift got out at 6 a.m., the bar would be open at 6 a.m.," he said. "Now a lot of places open up at 10:30 or 11 to get the lunch crowd."
Starting in the 1950s, TV diminished the tavern's pull, said Michael Ebner, a Lake Forest (Ill.) College professor emeritus of history. Men, most of the tavern's clientele, were more often called to play a role in parenting. And Americans became more aware of the drawbacks of sitting in smoky bars taking in liver-punishing alcohol and calories, he said.
But some neighborhood taverns survived, and morning bars have maintained quirks and rhythms all their own.
Such bars' clientele can include third-shift workers, retirees, the unemployed, and the alcohol-dependent.
In Chicago's South Loop, Fred Feirstein, co-owner of Cal's 400 Liquors, said morning business has slid, though he still opens weekdays at 7 a.m. The height of his daytime business came during construction of what was then called the Sears Tower, when supervisors would occasionally check the tavern for delinquent workers.
Around 8 a.m. one recent day at Woodstock Town Tap, just off the city's postcard-ready town square, retiree Denny Hogan, 65, sipped a vodka cranberry and recalled how factory employees used to jam into a nearby early-morning bar that would cash their paychecks and then rake the money back on drinks. Six in the morning was sometimes indistinguishable from 6 p.m. in the tavern, which has since closed, he said.
Mr. Monge, the manager, said morning business suffered with the recent recession. He estimated about half of his morning clients most days are overnight workers.
Ed Kline, a 74-year-old who lives two blocks away, works cleaning the tavern most mornings before it opens and then sticks around for drinks, often a brandy and coffee, which he calls "steak and eggs." Asked what he gets from drinking at the bar early each day, Mr. Kline said, "A lot of friends."