Brooklyn's Finest: Checking in on the Brooklyn Bowl - Party Week on BTR


Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Bowl.

It seems to encapsulate all of life’s great pleasures – music, libations, bowling. What more could you ask for?

In a nutshell, this was the impetus behind Charley Ryan and Peter Shapiro’s call to action when creating the Brooklyn Bowl. The two New York entrepreneurs, and former owners of Wetlands, detected the ingenuity and necessity for a “center of everything” sort of place, and it became their preemptive focus as establishment of the nightlife hub went underway. For some, it’s a bowling alley, others regard it as a musical forum. Though at its core, it’s a free-for-all nestled into the corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s hip-ster-est, happening neighborhood.

Not only have locals caught the intrigue however, Manhattanites too are making their way across the river to check out the buzzworthy club.

“We’re in a great place because it’s easy for everyone to access,” observes Ryan, also pointing out the fact space limitations in the city make this borough an ideal location. “And there’s just something about Brooklyn. It’s really hard to put your finger on it, but when you’re here, you can feel it.”

The Brooklyn Bowl is housed in a building dating back to the 1800s, formerly taking the form of an iron factory. Ryan, along with Shapiro, conjured up the idea after attending a holiday party with the Wetlands team at a different bowling alley.

“Wetlands had this reputation for being very granola, but really it was a more jaded, too-cool-for-school [place] than hippie,” recalls Ryan. “Everybody was having such a good time at this bowling alley though, all pretenses were dropped and it was fun even though many things were awful – the food was bad, the drinks were bad, the service was bad — I thought, ‘What a great idea if you could put together a place that had everything.’”

Ten years later, BOOM. Brooklyn Bowl.

It took a while to find a setting, of course; there aren’t that many vacant factories lying around New York. Plus, there were other obligations, priorities, and the constant tug of life distracting from finalizing a dream project. Nevertheless, in July of 2009, the Brooklyn Bowl officially opened its doors, and quickly, the people came.

What makes Brooklyn Bowl so special is not merely its good energy and entertainment, but rather that every detail is done with exquisite thought. Not just any band can play there, for instance–you have to be really good. The Bowl features acts in the realm of Peter, Bjorn and John, ?uestlove (who DJs every Thursday night), Bob Weir, Oh Land, Grouplove, Curren$y, The Funky Meters and Giant Panda. The food’s practically gourmet, serving an array of Blue Ribbon entrees including their very famous fried chicken, which earned the venue a nod on Food Network for providing one chef with, “the best thing I ever ate.”

The beer is local, the business is certified-Leed (i.e. green), and most importantly, there’s never a bad night to stop by.

“When we started building it, we weren’t thinking of one particular emphasis over another,” explains Ryan. “Really, it depends on the night. This week, it’s been mostly a music venue…other nights, it’s a bowling alley. It’s about the intensity of the programming.”

From the onset, Ryan and Shapiro’s vision for the venture was specific. Ryan points out the incredulously daunting task of renovating a century-old building into a contemporary funhouse, requiring improvements much more significant than a coat of paint or new appliance. Regardless, they had to find the right place, and when they found this one, they knew it would work. The costs were substantial, the changes drastic, and the risks high. Nevertheless, fortune tends to favor the bold.

“They say if you spend a lot of your own money starting up a business, you’re doomed; it’s a reason smart people don’t often take on high stakes projects.”

Despite the odds, Brooklyn Bowl was an instant success, thanks in a large part to New York’s temperamental summers. A month after launch, another Brooklyn venue – the Williamsburg Waterfront – was hosting an outdoor music festival. Much to the dismay of its crowd, lightning struck and the show was temporarily canceled. As Ryan describes, the bidding wars began between local venues to pull the artists and fans under their roofs; Brooklyn Bowl won the battle and the war. Thousands of people moved from the waterfront to an intimate stage beside a bowling alley, ready to hear Deerhunter, No Age and Dan Deacon perform.

Call it an act of fate, or, as they say in booking contracts, force majeure; either way, the Bowl hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down since. Ryan ended up negotiating two shows out of the incidental gig, at the artist’s request of course.

“I remember looking across the street and seeing Bradford Cox [of Deerhunter] and some other guys huddling under this covering with a scowl on their faces,” says Ryan. “They were disappointed for their fans because a lot weren’t going to be able to get in, so we decided to do two shows…It was great because we didn’t have anything booked yet so we were able to do it.”

Also memorable in the venue’s short, albeit efficacious history is the day it was taken over by Santa Claus. Ryan had received early warning the club would be a first stop on the neighborhood’s annual “Santa Crawl,” where thousands of drunk people dress up like Christmas’ poster child and hop from bar to bar. Additionally, prior to the event, Ryan got his hands on a snow machine.

“Dr. Dog performed the night before and used one in his set,” notes Ryan, who requested a loan on the apparatus. “Right at noon when we opened, there were literally 600 Santas at our door…Fat, skinny, elves, Mrs. Clauses…I waited for about an hour when everyone was inside dancing, then turned on the snow machine. People couldn’t believe it.”

It’s this spontaneous, open-ended spirit that so well embodies Brooklyn Bowl, enabling its progression into something beyond the mind’s eye. Such an unpredictable nature promulgates evolution, and brings a freshness to every night whether you’re a regular or a newbie. From Ryan’s perspective, the only plan is simply to “keep imagining.”