Remembering The Tip Top Café

The following article appears in my book My Marquette. A photo of some of the staff of the cafe is also included in the book:

By that time, she knew the library was closed, yet Ron still did not come home. She suspected he was down at the Tip Top Café, hanging out with his idolizing students. He was always seeking to be worshiped for his mind. — The Queen City

For forty-five years, from 1938 to 1983, the Tip Top Café was a popular college hangout, owned by Nick Arger and operated by Gert Johnson. In The Queen City, Ronald Goldman is a professor at Northern who hangs out there with his students. Since the Tip Top closed before I ever entered college, my memories of it are limited to one visit made there about 1980.

That evening, my brother Danny, our friend Ronnie, and I were to be taken by Ronnie’s mom out to supper and to the movie. The plan was to go to Taco John’s for supper, but Ronnie’s mother said her stomach couldn’t handle eating there, so she suggested we go to the Tip Top. When I asked, “What’s the Tip Top?” she replied, “It’s a place I think everyone should experience at least once.”

I don’t know what I expected when she said that, but I did not expect what it turned out to be—a bar! My brother and Ronnie ran off to play the pinball machines (this was in the days before video games). Meanwhile, I sat in the booth with Ronnie’s mother, refusing to go play. College students were there and I’m sure they were drinking beer. I knew my mother would not want me in such a place. Besides, everything smelled of smoke—a clear sign it was an unsavory bar. We had fish which I barely ate—it tasted like smoke. I was embarrassed and ashamed because I felt I was doing something very bad by being there.

I was much relieved when we left for the movies—we saw Mary Poppins—nothing I could complain about there, and Ronnie’s mom let us sit by ourselves right in the front row and buy gigantic sodas.

When we got home, I felt I had to confess to my mom that we had gone to a bar, but strangely, she was a lot less concerned about it than me.

In 1983, the Tip Top Café closed. The building was sold and became Ten O’Clock Charlie’s for the next several years before becoming Mainely Wood. Today, the building is home to Casualties Skate & Snow, a retailer of brand name snowboards and skateboards, both very popular in Marquette.

Ronnie’s mom had said the Tip Top Café was a place everyone should experience at least once. I had my once, but if I’d had a second, I’m sure I would have liked it better.

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4 Comments on “Remembering The Tip Top Café”

  1. I
    I grew up in Marquette, and the Tip Top Cafe was right around the corner from our home. As a young man, many many a Sunday, after Mass, was spent at the Cafe, eating an ice cream sundae with my Brother and Sister, as our parents enjoyed a nice cold beer.

    The only waitress/cook was a young lady by the name of Gert Johnson. She actually babysat my brother and me, before my sister came along. Gert never forgot a face nor a name. In later years, coming back from school, everybody from either Michigan Tech, or Northern Michigan, always congregated to the Tip Top. It was THE number one college hang out for all students who were either home from across the country or just the locals. Gert worked for the Arger’s from her teens until Nick Arger paced away, and she bequeathed to be the Manager of the Cafe until she so desired.

    You can’t begin to make any comments about the Tip Top until you have at least read her Obituary in the Mining Journal:!/photo.php?fbid=10100633003742627&set=a.545526603557.2109996.40608069&type=1&theater

    • Hi Ollie,
      Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories and the link to Gert’s obituary. I wish I had been older and could have known her. I’ve heard many wonderful stories about her and the Tip Top since I published my book.
      Best wishes,

  2. Harold Mattson Says:

    When I started at Northern in the fall
    Of 68, last minute decision as I was
    Working on construction in Detroit,
    I had forgot my check book at my
    Parents place so I was in a bind
    No money in a strange town . One
    Of the vets , Jerry Perttunen from
    My hometown , took me down to the
    Tip Top and explained my problem to
    Nick who proceeded to pull his roll out
    And gave me $500.00 so I could get
    Started at NMU. For the next 13 years
    The Tip Top became my second home
    Between Gert and later my land lady
    Jenny Johnson , Dwight’s Mom, I
    Was well taken care of.

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