Photos: See inside Public Records, Gowanus’ new hi-fi music space and café

March 18, 2019 Scott Enman
Public Records founders Francis Harris, Eric VanderWal, and Shane Davis. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.
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A new hi-fi record bar, sound room and vegan café is opening at 223 Butler St. this week in Gowanus, with the owners planning to shatter stereotypes about what defines a traditional music venue.

Public Records aims for a more holistic approach in contrast to the exclusivity and substance-infused nightlife ubiquitous in northern Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“It’s a music venue and a bar, but we’re trying to be a bit more mindful about things,” Erik VanderWal, one of three partners at the business, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We’re trying to be part of a change where it’s more of a healthy way of enjoying nightlife and being out. We’re going to have robust non-alcoholic offerings and low-alcohol cocktails. The days of the oversized martini are over.”

The renovated space is several years in the making, and is the brainchild of Brooklyn residents and partners Francis Harris, Shane Davis and VanderWal.

Harris, a musician and producer with two established record labels, will helm music programming. VanderWal, formerly of Keith McNally and Think Food Group, will oversee hospitality. And Davis, founder of Whitebox Creative, will direct design and creative.

The speaker system at Public Records in Gowanus. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.
“The speaker system is not meant for a hard beat. It’s meant for records that are built in a very dynamic way, a lot of which is vintage,” Harris said. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.

The concept of an all-day music venue is rooted in Europe, particularly in places like Berlin, London and Bucharest, where the unpretentious celebration of music is valued.

“There always seems to be a disconnect between the hospitality world and the music world,” Harris said of American nightlife trends. “Most restaurants have the same 30-song playlists. The inspiration was to create a concept that puts together serious music with a serious approach to hospitality.”

The venue features three unique rooms: a hi-fi record bar, an intimate performance space dubbed the “Sound Room,” and an all-day vegan café and magazine shop.

Natural light pours through a massive skylight and graces every corner of the listening space. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.
Natural light pours through a massive skylight and graces every corner of the listening space. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.

Walking into Public Records reveals the heart of the space. The massive bar area is complemented by tables, plants and high ceilings. Natural light pours into the room from long skylights and windows looking out onto a spacious garden. Vinyl records line shelves in the rafters.

In the back is the Sound Room, a wood-paneled space with a single bar and an intimate dance floor that will host both live acts and vinyl-leaning DJs.

The Sound Room at Public Record. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.
The Sound Room. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.

The café, located at the front of the building, pays tribute to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals through its strictly vegan offerings. The animal rights organization had its Brooklyn headquarters in the very same building for more than 60 years. While passing through the coat check and ticketing desk, patrons will be inside the ASPCA’s former cat sunroom.

“The café opens us up physically and symbolically to the community,” Davis said. “We wanted to have a street presence and a welcoming face. It gives us a 12-hour ecosystem.”

Some may think of clubs as intimidating, crowded spaces with thumping basslines geared toward a younger and rowdier crowd, but Harris, Davis and VanderWal hope their space is appealing and open to all — not just those within the experimental music community.

“It’s a blank canvas in a way,” Harris said of the music lineup. “It’s not oiled down to one genre where people would walk into here and feel alienated by ‘the scene.’ We want to create an environment that is the opposite of that. It’s very welcoming to the community.”

“It’s just good music,” he added. “Sometimes you’ll walk in and it will be neo-classical. Somebody might have a rare honkytonk collection from the ’50s. Maybe it’s ’60s or African psychedelic music.”

Vinyl records line shelves just below the rafters. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.
Vinyl records line shelves just below the rafters. Eagle photo by Via Wohl.

The Butler Street venue sits across from the Gowanus Canal and has music built into its core. It housed two pipe organ businesses — one that focused on restoration and the other on constructing new organs. It also was the former home of RetroFret Vintage Guitars.

While Williamsburg and the surrounding neighborhoods are known more for electronic music, Harris said Gowanus was the perfect location for the venue’s eclectic music offerings.

“South Brooklyn’s live music is pretty robust,” Harris said. “The heart of experimental music and experimental jazz is in South Brooklyn. We think for what we’re doing here, it fits into the neighborhood and into the history of Gowanus, Red Hook and Prospect Heights.”

When asked what success would look like a year from now, Davis said, “I would like us to be successful and sustainable and culturally impactful enough to where we can use this as a platform to do some good in this community and otherwise.

“Gowanus is still filthy and we see this as an opportunity to have a voice and have some impact on all the things that are happening.”

Harris quickly added, “And consecutive nights of good sleep.”

DJ duo Optimo will headline the first ticketed event in the Sound Room on Friday.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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