Uptown Bill’s, a community for all abilities, in danger of closing

A local coffee house and nonprofit organization known for its advocacy for abilities awareness and employment of people with disabilities is in danger of closing down.


Thomas A. Stewart

Uptown Bills is seen on Monday, August 27th, 2018. The coffee shop is at risk of closing due to insufficient funds. (Thomas A. Stewart/The Daily Iowan)

Josie Fischels, News Reporter

Uptown Bill’s, a coffeehouse, bookstore, performance venue, and public gathering place on South Dubuque Street, may be in danger of closing its doors for good.

Since 2001, Uptown Bill’s, cousin of the original Wild Bill’s on the University of Iowa campus, has operated as a community for people of all abilities.

In addition to providing organic coffee, a wide selection of tea, milkshakes, and entertainment ranging from open mics to musical artists, Uptown Bill’s has publically advocated for abilities awareness since its founding.

“It’s just a unique place. It really is,” said Brian, a regular customer at the coffeehouse. “The combination of the books, and the music, and the coffee … it’s a convenient place. A comfortable place.”

Partnered with the Extend the Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at serving people with disabilities, the coffeehouse welcomes people of all abilities. It provides employment for people with disabilities, including local business opportunities, and provides a community built on advocating for abilities awareness.

However, because of insufficient funds, the coffeehouse is in danger of closing. Largely made up of volunteer staff members and in need of a new director and many utility upgrades, the establishment’s goal is to raise $30,000 to remain open.

The company has a Fundly page open for donations while it works to obtain more funding. With 46 days left on the page, 58 people have donated $5,903.

“It is a place where people get together, a lot of people depend on it,” Uptown Bill’s Director Jason Grubbe said. “We do have different meetings here. I think people would miss the music we provide, we provide an open mic, a safe place for people to come express themselves. A lot of people really just find it a safe place to come; they’re not going to be judged.”

It’s all in the spirit of the coffeehouse’s eponym, Bill Sackter, an intellectually disabled man with a lovable, upbeat personality who went from being an abandoned inmate in an institution to a beloved and well-respected member of the Iowa City community and sole proprietor of Wild Bill’s in the 1970s, according to the Uptown Bill’s website.

Even after Sackter’s death in 1983, Wild Bill’s has continued to be run by the UI School of Social Work. Uptown Bill’s, run by Extend the Dream, keeps Sackter’s story and memory alive off campus.

In addition to raising money through the Fundly page, Extend the Dream President Mary Vasey said Uptown Bill’s is looking to the university for inspiration.

Vasey noted that some students are taking a class in the Tippie College of Business to learn about various kinds of fundraising and how to get grants.

“Our goal is to be more sustainable and really get ahead so we don’t worry about it so much,” Vasey said. “A nonprofit always has a little bit of worry because you’re always depending on grants, and fundraising, and things like that.”

Despite the financial difficulties and the strain that inevitably comes with running a nonprofit organization, Vasey said, the spirit of the establishment is alive and well in the hearts of the patrons.

“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this,” she said.