The BarThe following interview following with Joshua Schwartz took place on a walk from DUMBO to his home in Park Slope on April 26, 2023 after 5pm. It has been edited for brevity.
Brackett Creek Exhibitions: Do you have any memory of your first notable bar experience? Maybe a first fake ID?
Joshua Schwartz: I've been asked a lot of things… never this [*laughs*]. My dad got me my first fake. As a Jew from Long Island, I naturally went to sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. And when you're a senior at sleepaway camp, you go for a couple of days to Canada, and you only need to be 18 to drink. So, my dad took me to Times Square to buy a fake ID because I was only 16. And I guess I could also go to strip club as an 18-year-old.
BCE: Wow. And how was that?
JS: I think it was probably too much for a 16-year-old… I mean it was the late 90’s in Canada. You didn’t get the same things as you did in the US then. But. first bar experience… I don’t remember.
BCE: What makes a bar good to you?
JS: No fuss, but good. Simple quality. The essentials. I'm a bottom-shelf liquor kind of guy.
BCE: What are some specific bars you like?
JS: The Commodore, I used to go to all the time in Williamsburg. There's a bar in Maine called the Upper Deck that I really like. The Montero Bar & Grill over there on Atlantic. They have a good karaoke night. All sort of sailor bars. The Mt Royal Tavern in Baltimore is classic. Ask anybody from Baltimore. I'm not saying the best, just classic.
BCE: What was the first bar you ever made yourself? Did you do any bars in the studio while at MICA?
JS: No, but at Hunter I would have people come to my studio to play beer pong once in a while, which doesn't officially count. I also threw house parties in high school whenever my mom was away. I was pretty bad at it… not that many people came. At other high school parties there were like 200 people. I think I had about 10 at mine.
BCE: And that's when you knew you had the knack for making the most underground bar.
JS: Yeah. I guess the first real one that I could think of was Cheboigon.
BCE: Which is named after a town in… Wisconsin?
JS: Yeah. The bar was technically called Le Cheboigon, but people would call it Boigon.
BCE: When and where was that?
JS: Williamsburg, North 12th Street at our old studio. I got the studio from Cole Sayer in 2012 when he was leaving to go to Columbia. And then in 2016, these other guys had the storefront in the building, which was not a storefront, it was just a garage at that point. They were some dudes who would paint art on NYC Subway maps and sell them in Union Square. Anyways, they just up and left. The landlords were going to rent it to a florist, but somehow, I convinced my business partner Kyle and the landlords that we needed to rent the space. Kyle and I had started LanningSmith only a couple years before and we didn’t have much money, so it was kind of a risk to do that. But we got the space, we did a bunch of renovations, and for the next ten years we had this storefront we could change into whatever we wanted.
BCE: What did y’all do with the space first?
JS: First, it was sort of just an office for LanningSmith. Then it was Moiety for three years, which was our gallery space. Each show, we’d completely change the space – you can hardly tell it’s the same space. I don't know why we did a gallery. It was definitely fun and different and a ton of work. Working with artists is a pain in the ass. But we did some cool shows. I think it was great because we never needed it to be a gallery for money. It didn’t pay the bills... It was what sent the bills, I guess.
Installation at Moiety
BCE: Le Cheboigon came next then?
JS: Yeah. I was single, I think, at the time.
BCE: Ready to bar mingle?
JS: Ready to bar mingle again. I don't know how I convinced Kyle that we should open a bar, but we opened an illegal bar next.
BCE: Right off McCarren Park… And nobody cared?
JS: No. It was actually really serendipitous. We called the landlords “the parents” because they lived above us, and any time we wanted to do something, I'd be like, “Let me ask the parents.” And that summer we opened the bar they were at their other property in Block Island, Rhode Island the entire summer. So the building was basically empty.
BCE: Mom and dad were gone. And did you meet your next lady at the bar?
JS: No, I never met anybody at the bar. Shortly along the way of getting the bar, I met Vera, my wife, but not in the bar.
BCE: What was your original slogan for the bar?
JS: No cell phones, no lying.
BCE: Were you strict on the no cell phone policy?
JS: We had a sign that said no cell phones, no lying. But the real policy was no cell phones at the bar. And I just figured, if you’re at the bar, I don't feel like looking down at your phone (I was usually the bartender). So, at first, I would just be a little reprimanding. Like, hey, look at the sign. Most people first time got it. Except for Vishwam. And Lotfy. I had to take their phones a couple of times. So that was during Summer 2019. And then after that we were usually closed. Which is fun because people are excited again when you do something.
BCE: What came next?
JS: Next we opened The Shops at Cheboigon. Basically, a beach shop, like Wings in Miami, off McCarren Park. We had everything. Name something you would buy.
BCE: Little turtles. Toe rings. Boogie board.
JS: Ok, no real animals but yes, toe rings, boogie boards, shot glasses, bracelets, mood rings. There was a head shop in the back that was black lit where we sold bongs and stuff. After that it became Dreem Street. And then Midriff. Midriff was pretty much Janet Braunstein. There are these little doors in the church in Italy that you can knock on and give them a few euros and you get a glass of wine. So, we did the same with gelato. She made delicious gelato, and we made a tiny door that you knock on to get the gelato.
BCE: And then about a year later the building sold, so now we’re here in DUMBO?
JS: Well, first we did The Screw, which we did in a few different places. And our slogan that time was “Usually Closed”.
BCE: Where were those at?
JS: The first one was at our studio. The next, at Elsewhere in Ridgewood. And then out in Montana at Brackett Creek.
BCE: So, back to what makes a bar “good”...
JS: You need good drinks. If you take a tequila soda, add grapefruit juice. Boom, that's a Paloma. Or maybe it also has lime or sugar?
BCE: Perhaps? I didn't go to bartender school!
JS: Well, if you make a Pink Drink and you put it in a bag with a big straw, people always think that there's no alcohol in it, and they get fucking drunk.
BCE: Yeah, dangerous. So that's how you came up with a bag drink?
JS: I definitely didn’t invent it. A lot of different cultures make bag drinks. Like juice in a bag, or that drink from Spain that’s like Coca-Cola and Red Wine… Kalimotxo?
BCE: What has been your strangest drink invention?
JS: Probably the Sock Pop. I thought they were pretty good, maybe not for everybody. I thought the cool part about it was that you’d finish your drink and then take the sock home, and then you have this dyed sock from the cocktail. But I don't know if you washed it if the color came out. Can’t remember.
BCE: What was the sock dipped in?
JS: Vodka and fruit punch. Some pink socks.
BCE: Wasn’t that a bit tough because hard alcohol doesn't freeze?
JS: Yeah, and I like to go heavy on the booze. It ended up being like a wet sock slushie. I thought it was great, sucking a cocktail out of a sock.
BCE: If you’re thinking about your general bar patron population, what else was mainly pleasing to Josh instead of the patrons?
JS: Well, I had this one idea that was a bust. I thought it'd be cool to do bags of Lays potato chips that you squirt chocolate in, like chocolate-covered Lays. It was way too sloppy. I never really even served because it just didn't work.
But also, sometimes there was a stigma around some of my drinks. People just don’t realize that you can make a good drink by mixing wine and beer and hard alcohol all in one.
BCE: Like a “suicide” drink from 7-11 where you mix every type of soda in one cup?
JS: I've never heard it call that. That's very heavy. Well, we used to make Dave Juice, named after my friend Dave Finnegan. But it's also the same thing that I would do, which is you get a big container, you put in pretty much whatever you got. Let’s say you’re making a cocktail that is vodka, grapefruit, and you want some fizz. And you don't have any seltzer on hand, just use beer. You just got to know how to handle it.
Okay, so one thing I’ve been thinking about is… Do I actually just like Republican bars? Is that a thing that I like? I think it’s just maybe that I’m from Long Island and that’s what I feel like is home. Upstate there's an old golf course called Blackhead Mountain Golf Club, and they have one of the best bars. But they just got sold to what I'm guessing is going to turn into some hipster, dumb, stupid Brooklyn thing, and it really sucks.
BCE: I like bars with signed dollar bills posted up. There’s my favorite one in Dallas called Adair’s Saloon. Or also photos of people you don’t know.
JS: Yeah, I’ve had this idea I’ve been wanting to do at a bar where we put up photos of my friends with famous people and they sign the photo. Like my friend Renzo with the Pope. Or Vera and her sister with Leonardo DiCaprio.
BCE: Other things that make a bar good? Or bad?
JS: Lighting. Lighting should be dark, but the bar should be presentable enough that during the day. Cheap drinks are important.
Here are some turn-offs. Trivia night.
BCE: Oh, God.
JS: And unless it's a sports bar, no TV. And I think it's good when bars have a water cooler, but I hate when a bartender says to you, there's a water cooler when you ask for water. Just give me the water! I have a love-hate relationship with mean bartenders. It’s great when it keeps the vibe real, but it took me a year of going to The Commodore to get in with the staff.
BCE: Why are bars important for society?
JS: Well, I guess it's tricky. My dad was an alcoholic, so there's that. Another love-hate relationship there. I think maybe that's why I like the bars that I've done so far, is, I feel like, to me. I haven't seen any debauchery. I haven't seen any especially I guess if you only do it once in a while, it's not like you have a regular there that's just like, you can tell they shouldn't be there kind of situation.
BCE: What about dancing in the bar?
JS: I guess it’s like ice cream and steak. Probably better separate. But also fine if you do it right back to back.
BCE: What about the barcade?
JS: Actually, I don't mind barcades. That’s a funny one, because I think it's exactly like what I feel like I shouldn't like. But it wears what it is fully on its sleeve. You know what I also love? Dave and Busters.
BCE: Oh yeah, it's great. I haven't been there as an adult, though.
JS: Oh, I've only been there as an adult. Their bar vibe is great. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for. It’s like $20 for a margarita but it's the size of your head.
BCE: Can you pay with the tickets that you win?
JS: No but they should do that. Like, 500 tickets, you should get a shot.
BCE: Yeah. You clearly like raffles. Although nobody took home the 25 pound bag of sugar we raffled off last week at Buzzys.
JS: We can just raffle it off again.
Joshua Schwartz at Buzzys