This is where Peter Shapiro chose to open his family-friendly combination restaurant, bar, concert venue and bowling alley, with its spotless interior, charmingly distressed brick, candy-colored bowling balls, and huge wall of vintage carnival games. It wasn’t cheap, either, especially by the standards of Williamsburg at the time—a catfish sandwich was $14, a plate of mac & cheese $12.50, and a basket of pork rinds $9. He booked big bands, like The Roots, and waited for people to come and see them. It seemed like he’d made a huge mistake.
Today, it hardly stands out. Across the street is the Wythe Hotel, where a drink at the bar runs about $14 and a room for the night is anywhere between $250 and $500. Down the street is Aska, a trendy Nordic-influenced locavore restaurant where a seven-course tasting menu costs around $80 (10 courses are $125). Towering above everything are the glass condominiums—the Edge, Northside Piers, and others—where prices run about a million dollars per bedroom. Brooklyn Bowl, for its part, is packed nearly every night of the week. “In a weird way, Brooklyn Bowl has come to represent a certain part of Brooklyn in 2014,” Shapiro says . “I don’t know how. It just kind of evolved.”
“It’s really neat to see how he’s driven that cool customer into that area,” says John Gray, a Vice President at Las Vegas casino conglomerate Caesars Entertainment. This year, Caesars is bringing a vastly expanded Brooklyn Bowl to Las Vegas. Specifically, it will be one of the major anchors of The Linq, a pedestrian-friendly, casino-free outdoor development Caesars is building on the site of a former alleyway located in the center of the Vegas Strip. (Estimated foot traffic is well in excess of 20 million.) The Vegas Brooklyn Bowl—three floors and 80,000 square feet containing 32 lanes of bowling, a full restaurant, and a 2,000-person-capacity concert venue—will be in its own freestanding building (not within a hotel or casino) and sit underneath the world’s largest observation wheel, the High Roller. It will be the largest live music venue in Las Vegas, and one of the largest nightclubs in the country. In January, a Brooklyn Bowl outpost opened inside the O2 in London, a gigantic dome with a concert arena, movie theaters, and more. These are just the expansions of Brooklyn Bowl that are public knowledge. “There a few things coming that haven’t even been announced yet,” Shapiro says.
It’s a good time to be in the business of Brooklyn. Whether you’re a beer brand, a family-oriented music venue, or a producer of artisanal mayonnaise, entrepreneurs from around the world look at Brooklyn and see dollar signs. “We’ve got people knocking on our door to distribute in different countries constantly,” says Ben Hudson, the marketing director of Brooklyn Brewery. “We’ve got two different suitors in India right now. Stockholm is our second biggest market outside of New York City.”
“Brooklyn has become what the East Village was 15 years ago,” says Nick Bodor, co-owner of Cake Shop, the Lower East Side music venue and café that’s also considering expanding to Las Vegas.
“It’s clear that the concept of Brooklyn is just being packaged and commercialized at an alarming rate,” says Ric Leichtung, cofounder of Williamsburg concert venue 285 Kent, which was recently forced out of its Kent Avenue space due to rising rents. “Brooklyn has turned into a brand. It no longer really represents an ethos, like it did years ago. You have to think: how rock ‘n’ roll is The Hard Rock Café?”
I’ve been waiting to talk to Peter Shapiro for about 15 minutes when he pokes his head out of his spotless office at Relix magazine—which he saved from bankruptcy in the depths of the economic crisis—apologizes to me for running late, and makes a phone call. He’d been in one meeting that had run long, and would be leaving the office for another as soon as we finished speaking. As he steps back inside his office and closes the door, I hear him say, “Heee-eey, dude. So, there’s this photographer…” before the door forms a
At 41, he’s one of the city’s younger and more successful nightlife impresarios. He’s the owner or part-owner of The Slipper Room, Relix, JamBands.com, The Capitol Theater, and Brooklyn Bowl, the former owner of Wetlands Preserve, and the producer of several music movies, including the recent U2 3D. On the day we meet, he wears an Allman Brothers Band T-shirt and cargo pants, occasionally running his hand through his shaggy blond hair or twirling a set of drumsticks as he thought. His habit of pausing dramatically in the middle of a bit of stonery wisdom can make him seem like a stouter Matthew McConaughey; at one point, after talking at a rapid clip for a few minutes about what makes Brooklyn Bowl distinctive, he leans in towards me, looks me in the eyes, and says, “So I strive… to create a good vibe,” before he leans back with a grin.
When Shapiro took over Wetlands in 1996, he was only 23 years old. “I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the background,” he says. “My father was like, what the fuck are you doing? But I said, you know, if I can do a good job at this, then when I’m in my mid-30s, or 40, I’ll be a veteran. And that’s kind of what happened.” Wetlands was famous for hosting jams and jam bands; they’re obviously still one of Shapiro’s passions. Members of the Grateful Dead—now touring as the Dead, or under individual band members’ names —play frequently at all of Shapiro’s venues, including Brooklyn Bowl. Relix’s office is decorated with huge glossy photos of Phish, Dr. John, and multiple framed music festival posters.
His bookings can also run to what Leichtung calls “suburban.” Scheduled for the near future at the original Brooklyn Bowl are shows by Reel Big Fish, the North Mississippi All Stars, and a grab-bag of Weezer, Talking Heads, and Grateful Dead tribute bands; Brooklyn Bowl Vegas will open with shows by Primus, Jane’s Addiction, and Phil Lesh, among others. Brooklyn Bowl’s lineups can veer from this tradition, too: also scheduled soon are internationally famous Touareg band Tinariwen and 90s Japanese absurdist pop band Cibo Matto. Also frequently in the mix are hip-hop, modern indie, and EDM acts. (Skrillex played Brooklyn Bowl a few hours after I spoke with Shapiro.)
Brooklyn Bowl was Shapiro’s first major success (Wetlands was forced out of its Tribeca home, somewhat ironically, due to gentrification in 2001.) It has put him in the strange position of having people with money listen to his ideas. His pipe dreams become reality, usually quicker than he expects. He has a kid-friendly music venue opening soon in Gowanus (pending approval by a skeptical community board); he runs a music festival in Virginia. You can almost picture Shapiro saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and having sacks of money thrown at him before he can finish his sentence.
His success isn’t accidental, of course. One factor is his relentless attention to detail. In many ways, his interest in opening nightclubs seems to boil down to a fascination with paint and upholstery. He talks with me at great length about the thinking and planning that went into replicating the look and feel of the bar at the original Brooklyn Bowl in the Las Vegas and London locations. When I ask him for something he fought to include in his Vegas outpost, I expect to hear a big picture answer about the kinds of bands he wants to book, or some effort to balance the family-friendly and late-night aspects of the space; instead, he talks to me for five minutes straight about a new kind of screen they’ll be using in Vegas—LCD, instead of the projection screen used in Brooklyn.
“He gets so passionate about every detail,” says Caesars’ Gray. “He’s talking about the wood grain, and he’s so into it, and you’re just like, man, that is the best wood grain! I find myself talking to other people about the wood grain.”
Another factor, Shapiro tells me, is a total lack of self-awareness. He says a few times in a row that he tries not to think about either his success or his failures, his voice dropping an octave as he stares into the middle distance. “If you start thinking about it, it’ll get fucked up.” He admits he’s tired, that he’d like to slow down his life. “Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and be like, I’m fried. I’m done. But then, 30 minutes later, I’m back. And I can’t put the phone down.”
In the summer of 2012, the New York Times published a front-page story about food trucks arriving in Paris. In it, the author claimed that in these mobile culinary hotspots, the highest compliment a dish could receive was to be called “très Brooklyn.” What this appellation meant, exactly, has never been clear. In the article, its author, Julia Moskin, writes that it is supposed to connote “a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality.” Recently, over email, she wrote that, in fact, she’d heard her friends use it to refer to “a particular steampunk-ish aesthetic that ranged from reclaimed wood and vintage clothes to graffiti and skateboard logos to muttonchop whiskers.” On Twitter, people use the #TrèsBrooklyn hashtag to refer to everything from a bar that has a record player as a sound system to “rad, local salsas.”
Brooklyn Bowl sits at the center of a few Brooklyns. It fits perfectly in a homogenized iteration of Brooklyn in a newly gentrified part of town frequented by rich people from around the world. It hosts interesting indie bands. It takes pride in the quality of its food. And, ultimately, it’s a safe space for families and those people who want some sort of alternative experience that isn’t confrontational. This makes it uniquely well-suited to succeed outside of Brooklyn. The fact that this interest in Brooklyn is largely because of the artists and musicians who can barely afford to live here anymore is an unfortunate irony.
Perhaps what’s most admirable about Shapiro’s expansion of Brooklyn Bowl is how true he stays to his own instincts. For him, making Brooklyn Bowl represent Brooklyn comes down to how authentically it recreates the original Brooklyn Bowl. He doesn’t seem to care if anyone else thinks it’s authentically Brooklyn or not. In the end, that’s likely not what’s going to make a tourist in Vegas, London, or (who knows?) Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Minnesota, or anywhere else decide whether to spend some time and money there.
“That’s the challenge: to bring our vibe and feel and to bring Brooklyn Bowl, really, as true as we can, to there. That doesn’t exist in Vegas right now. If we can bring it, we think we’ll do well. We want it to go well. It’ll have to, or it’ll fuck things up.”