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We've asked Emily Titelman and Meredith Blank to tell us exactly what it's like to transform a onetime Bowery bar into Dagny & Barstow, their forthcoming high-end women's store. Welcome to Opening Diary, an account of their adventures in retail.
A little secret: Before 264 Bowery belonged to us, it belonged to the men of English Road, a very cool bourbon bar concept. They had a lease out on the space, but it was contingent upon them getting approval for a liquor license from Community Board 2—not an easy feat, considering that two other restaurant hopefuls for the space had already been denied. If their license request was denied, we were next in line for 264 Bowery.
CB2 is notoriously hard on people trying to get liquor licenses, so we decided we had to go to the February meeting. We were also reaching our deadline to find a store. Buying for the fall season takes place in February and March, and we couldn't start buying without a store address. 264 Bowery was our dream space, but we did have another Bowery spot in mind, and we needed to know ASAP which one would become our home base.
Opening your own boutique takes you to strange places, but never did we imagine we'd be sitting in St. Anthony's church on Thompson Street until all hours of the night in the freezing cold, waiting to hear the fate of 264 Bowery. The small group gathered at the church was a mix of families, young restaurant businessmen overdressed in suits, old men who had lived in the neighborhood for the past 30 years, and foreigners who knew just enough English to express why, exactly, they needed to serve booze in their Chinese and Italian restaurants. We agreed that if the board seemed favorable to the English Road proposal, we'd call our broker first thing in the morning to take the other space.
For the average New Yorker, who goes about his or her day without ever really thinking about the kind of wrangling that goes into securing a liquor license, it was a fascinating sneak peak into the world of local government. It's hard to believe the Pandora's box of crazy that gets opened every month. It's even harder to believe that a community board meeting was never used as fodder for a Seinfeld episode. By the end, we'd stopped even trying to imagine who the protestors were going to call up from their sordid cast of characters.
The English Road tenants were the most appropriately dressed for the occasion and seemed to know exactly how to woo the tough crowd at the meeting—or so we thought. English Road was one of the last proposals considered. As Eater reported at the time, one member of the public said their plan was "scary"—"I can't see how 74 people could fit in a space so tiny and not spill out and make a ruckus." Another disapproved of a joke about Chuck Norris in the bar's information packet. And a third, a mother who was worried about her kids being able to sleep, announced that she really preferred local businesses that close at 6pm.
Turns out that no soundproofing technology is good enough to keep the noise from vibrating up the brick wall into the apartments above the space, and the family living on the second floor was not about to let a DJ play until 4am seven nights a week. Although the English Road guys were questioned for what seemed to be a very long time, it quickly became evident that they were not going to get a liquor license.
It was at the CB meeting that we realized that 264 Bowery was no ordinary space, and the group of people who organized to shape their neighborhood were no ordinary citizens. We both agree that it's been crucial to our success to understand that. Buildings such as the infamous 295 Bowery, which housed McGurk's Suicide Hall, were never landmarked, and the neighborhood is rapidly losing important historical sites. (Side note: For a brief moment, Meredith thought she might be related to John McGurk of the Suicide Hall, a dubious distinction at best. Her mother's family name is McGuirk, but the two turned out to be unrelated, which is probably best for everyone involved). Our store may represent the new Bowery, but we want to make sure we do our part in protecting the neighborhood's vibrant history.
In addition to finding out the fate of 264 Bowery, we were also fortunate enough to to meet some truly amazing neighborhood activists who are deeply committed to preserving the history of lower Manhattan, particularly Nolita and the Bowery. They have been on our side since the meeting and are now quite enthusiastic about our store. They've even gotten us involved in the Bowery Alliance, the historical committee for the neighborhood. We've come up with some fun ideas about different ways to incorporate the history of our space into our store, but let's save that for next time.
As for the English Road guys, we truly hope they found a more lenient neighborhood for their bar, because we're still thinking about that bourbon and BBQ.—Emily Titelman and Meredith Blank
· CB2 Weighs in on Nolita Tavern, English Road, and More [Eater NY]
· How Launching a Boutique Is Like Ten Things I Hate About You [Racked NY]
· Ten Gross Things About Turning Lenny Kravitz's Bar into a Boutique [Racked NY]