In the middle of a conversation about the tenth anniversary of Brooklyn Bowl — the live-music-and-bowling venue that opened a second location in Las Vegas in 2014 — owner Peter Shapiro casually mentions that he’s planning on opening a third location in the U.S. within the next 12 months. He declines to provide any more details, but that tidbit certainly added a showman-esque, looking-ahead touch to a conversation that was largely about looking back.
Still, Shapiro and the venue have earned the right to pause a beat and consider at how far they’ve come: Surveying a boomtown Brooklyn today, it’s hard to imagine that the concert hall-bowling alley-restaurant was once considered a long shot. But Shapiro, along with partners Charley Ryan and Alex Cornfeld, faced down plenty of naysayers when he started converting a 140-year-old barn into a 600-capacity venue with 16 lanes.
“I remember reading some blog before we opened where this guy writes, ‘Bro thinks he’s going to bring String Cheese Incident to northern Williamsburg. This is what it’s gonna look like.’ And there was a photo of tumbleweeds,” Shapiro recalls in the Manhattan office that houses his other ventures, including Relix magazine and the Lockn’ Festival.
Ron Delsener, the grand poobah of New York concert promoters, paid him a visit during construction and, as Shapiro remembers it, “He looked at what we were doing, put his arm around me and said, ‘Are you OK? I’m worried about you. There’s a bowling alley next to the stage. No one’s going to play here.’”
Well, play they have. Seven nights a week, with as many as 10 shows a week, for a decade.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary, Brooklyn Bowl is presenting six nights of Soulive between July 11 and 20 with guests such as John Scofield and Meters bassist George Porter Jr. The gigs will take their Brooklyn Bowl tally to 74 shows, taking them past Talib Kweli’s 72 performances (although both pale when compared with Questlove’s 321 DJ sets at venue).
Being open seven days a week has given Brooklyn Bowl a leg up on its competition at times, making it a favored venue for artists that want to do multiple-night residencies as well as surprise shows: Kanye West appeared in 2010 during the CMJ Music Marathon; Jane’s Addiction played “Nothing’s Shocking” in full in 2015; M.I.A. held a last-minute 2010 show after her Hard Fest set was cut short; Aaron Neville filmed a PBS special with Paul Simon as a guest in 2012; Guns N’ Roses’ played a warm-up show for their Governors Ball set in 2013… the list goes on.
“When you get a last-minute thing, we already have people scheduled to be here. You want to do Guns N’ Roses in 48 hours? We’re already staffed,” Shapiro says. “Look at the talent that we have had for the last 10 years — I think it’s at a level that stands with any live music venue’s 10-year run. That’s a strong statement, but it’s true, probably because we’re open seven nights.”
Brooklyn Bowl is also growing its private and charitable event business, recently hosting a fundraiser for Democratic Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris (pictured below) and Endeavor’s 2018 holiday party.
Shapiro, who planned to be a filmmaker until he attended a Grateful Dead show outside Chicago in 1993, entered the New York club world in 1996 when Wetlands owner Larry Bloch sold the venue to him. Shapiro, who was barely into his twenties and had no prior venue experience, ran the club until shuttering it soon after 9/11. He created the Jammy Awards and Lockn’ Festival, and produced the film “U2 3D” while looking for another venue to run.
The search for a building took a year — a Times Square location, the building that now houses the PlayStation Theater, and a Brooklyn movie house were all considered — before he settled on 61 Wythe Ave. It took two years to build in a neighborhood that was largely barren.
The initial plan was to improve on the Wetlands design: Improve the sight-lines, have the bar face the stage, and build a stage that is larger than most clubs — 35 feet wide by 20 feet deep — and still offer gathering areas for patrons.
They installed special bowling machines with string-based pin setters “so there’s no low end hum or mechanical grinding sound,” he says. They added food at a higher level than nearly any other club in the city by bringing in Blue Ribbon to run the kitchen.
And where most bowling alleys have screens filled with scores, Shapiro and partner Charley Ryan, the general manager at Wetlands, installed screens to display anything from video of performers to light shows to data.
“We set out to create a multi-sensory experience that the classic music venues had,” Shapiro noted. “And we wanted to try to push what the idea of a live music venue is into a new place. The bowling enabled that visual experience.”
The bookings connected with his past as well, as the demise of Wetlands had created a void for rock, soul and funk bands that emphasize improvisation — Drive-By Truckers to Antibalas — and they were able to add hip-hop to the mix.
“That spirit of people coming together and playing and jamming late into the night with two sets — no one really fully grabbed that. We knew we could not do Tori Amos on a piano there, and we can’t really do stand-up comedy. But we can do anything else.”
The side benefits of bowling and the restaurant went beyond cashflow: It allowed Shapiro and company to give a higher percentage of the door to artists — plus 100% of merch sales. As the neighborhood has become packed with businesses and residents, Shapiro has found that Brooklyn Bowl’s audience has grown far beyond city limits.
“People are coming to the city from all over the tri-state area, staying in a hotel and going down the street to see a band,” Shapiro says. “I love doing multiple [nights] and I love that people don’t tire of their favorite music. We might love a restaurant but we won’t go three times in 12 days, but you might go see your favorite band [that often].”
Since opening Brooklyn Bowl in 2009, Shapiro also renovated and took ownership of the 1,800-capacity Capitol Theater in Post Chester, N.Y., in 2012; launched the annual Lockn’ Festival in 2013; opened a Las Vegas Brooklyn Bowl in 2014 (a London location of Brooklyn Bowl closed in 2017 after three years in business, though it could return to the O2 entertainment district in the future ); promoted the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well shows in 2015; and taken over Relix magazine as publisher (he calls these ventures Brooklyn Bowl’s “cousins”). Just last week, it was announced that Shapiro would serve as Chair of the Board of Directors of HeadCount, a non-profit which facilitates voter registration at thousands of live music events each year.
Even with all that experience under his belt, Shapiro surmises that Brooklyn Bowl “could not be what it is if we opened it today.” It took the roots and history of Wetlands, a rite of passage for scores of area heads, to make the concept possible in 2009. That it remains just as strong in 2019 is a testament to its visionary owner. Says Shapiro: “I feel proud that we brought some of that energy and vibe.”