Locals passing a 23,000-square-foot ironworks foundry building on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg years ago saw little more than an abandoned warehouse in a secluded location. Music gurus Peter Shapiro and Charley Ryan saw their future.
In September 2006, the duo behind the former Wetlands Preserve in Manhattan first stepped into the building that dates back to the 1880s and envisioned a one-of-a-kind club concept that combines live music, dining and family-friendly bowling in one venue.
"The building looked awful and yet we looked at each other and said, ‘this is it,’ " Ryan, 67, says, sitting in the lobby of Brooklyn Bowl, now a staple in the gentrified neighborhood. It’s nestled steps from The Williamsburg Hotel and neighbors the Brooklyn Brewery.
"Where we’re sitting now, the brick walls were covered. The roof was leaking and there wasn’t any wood floor underneath our feet."
Business partners Ryan and Shapiro spent nearly three years transforming the shuttered Hecla Iron Works building into the multipurpose events space it is today. In July 2009, they opened the doors to their unique, carnivalesque venue with 16 bowling lanes, one main performance stage, two bars and Blue Ribbon eats.
"The only way to do something really original is to do something difficult, it has to be difficult," says Ryan. He’s wearing a tie-dye tee, which he assures isn’t a regular occurrence, and appears at home in the venue he still frequents several times a week.
"I’m like a homing pigeon. I don’t need to be here, and if I don’t show up nobody complains, in fact, they might celebrate, but I just tend to show up almost every day," he jokes as rock band Drive-By Truckers warms up on the stage behind him.
A decade after its opening, Brooklyn has hosted countless memorable performances, including that of Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Costello and The Roots. To date, it’s sold 1.8 million tickets to exactly 4,845 total shows.
An outlandish idea
It all started with a not-so-simple idea. Working together at Wetlands in TriBeCa, Shapiro and Ryan used to take their staff out "three or four times a year" to build camaraderie. One of those trips happened to be to a bowling alley.
"We got together the next day and agreed on everything, and by that, I mean we agreed the place was filthy dirty; the sound was terrible; the food was terrible and the service was indifferent at best."
Yet, everyone had a great time.
"We thought a bowling alley could be the secret ingredient to add onto the things we already knew how to do," he recalls. With an "unorthodox" idea, Ryan says it took them years after Wetlands closed in 2001 to find the right location: Williamsburg.
In 2006, Williamsburg wasn’t yet what it is today. But the area was on the rise.
"It wasn’t dangerous any more as it had been in the ’80s," but it wasn’t yet gentrified as we know it. He recalls seeing maybe 30 people walk by per day. And as the neighborhood evolved, Brooklyn Bowl’s success began to climb.
Easy to say, not to do
The first booked show welcomed about 600 people. It was reggae group Toots & the Maytals. "They came onstage and I was watching the crowd just surging with energy. I thought, this really is a dream come true." Today, the venue can accommodate about 1,000 people per show.
Ryan says the Bowl’s booking techniques didn’t have to change to keep up with a gentrifying area. From the start, the goal was to create a venue that booked artists and bands of a variety of genres, from indie to rock to reggae. No matter how the clientele may have changed with time, the Bowl had a booking that could please all tastes.
He admits the early come-up struggle came more in the form of booking a variety of bands in the first place, rather than keeping up with a booming nabe.
"When we came in, the idea was what was in question because it was a different idea — you’d have bowling lanes right there. How would the agents, managers and bands themselves respond? There was some resistance to it, but we were able to get over that quickly."
Six months into their operation, Shapiro and Ryan had an "aha" moment. They’d completed their first successful Bowlive — a residency with Soulive that’s become synonymous with the venue. The first Bowlive locked in Soulive musicians for 10 nights over two weeks with guest stand-in performers, something Ryan says was rarely done. Bowlive VIII is set for July 18-20.
"We took a chance with this and what happened was all kinds of great people wanted to sit in with them. It showed what we wanted to do, which is just show that we have a place that can do such different things.
"At that point, we were like OK, we’ve really arrived here."
Now, Brooklyn Bowl is one of the city’s busiest local club venues, hosting private conventions, conferences, parties, weddings and booking up to 45 ticketed performances per month. "That’s easy to say, but really hard to do."
To the future
A few years after setting down roots in Williamsburg, Shapiro and Ryan went international with their club concept. A now-shuttered Brooklyn Bowl opened in London in January 2014. Two months later, they opened Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas location, more than three times the size of the flagship, celebrates its fifth anniversary this year as the business partners plan further Brooklyn Bowl expansions.
A third joint, in the early stages of development, is set for Nashville at First Tennessee Park.
"It’s amazing. We’re building on the grounds of the minor league baseball stadium. We’ll have a deck that looks right out and you can watch the game from it."
Brooklyn Bowl is also eyeing potential future expansions in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
"We want to continue to do what we do: create the potential that people can have experiences here they remember for the rest of their lives."