Socialist owner, Living Theatre vet, bar rewrite book


By Kathryn Adisman

Carlo Altomare leaned out of the building’s top-floor window, counting, “One — two — three — four” empty storefronts. “How many more DVD stores can they open?” he asked.

The city may be sagging under a post-boom depression, yet at 137 W. 14th St. change is underway. The three-story, 100-year-old building — where Altomare, artistic co-director of Theaterlab, a nonprofit arts organization, rents space — is blooming into a neighborhood success story that he believes will be a model for small-scale arts centers of the future. 

Altomare’s landlord, Kenny Gutierrez, the son of Argentine parents who created Libreria Lectorum from scratch selling used books, is the antithesis of the landowner stereotype. The self-deprecating, Bard College-educated English major stumbled into the role when he and his brother, Daniel — an environmentalist living in Seattle — inherited the building. Libreria Lectorum, New York’s oldest Spanish-language bookstore, closed September 2007, and Gutierrez — or “Goode” as he’s known to friends — ironically got cast as the “bad guy.”  

“The closing of Lectorum was a huge loss of public assembly for the Spanish community,” said Altomare, adding, however, that Gutierrez was not the villain. Scholastic Books — publisher of the Harry Potter books in the U.S. — which owned the formerly independent bookstore, “kept stringing him along on a month-to-month lease,” Altomare explained. “They pulled out because of greed, and a small landlord like Kenny lost his [first and only] tenant.”  

“We were making a fair offer to Lectorum,” said Gutierrez, who was offering a new lease a third below market value. “The bookstore wasn’t profitable anymore. It’s not a Spanish street anymore; there was no Spanish traffic.”

Formerly home to Libreria Lectorum, a well-known Spanish bookstore, the new ground-floor tenant of 137 W. 14th St. is a bar, Bunga’s Den.

Describing himself as “a financial illiterate who can barely balance a checkbook,” Gutierrez credits his childhood friend Robert Zimmerman (not Bob Dylan), who happens to be a real estate attorney, with helping him and Daniel hold on to the building. 

“It’s only incredibly good luck that I’m alive and in the position I am now,” he said.

Raised Marxist by a Jewish mother in the West Village, where he attended P.S. 41, Gutierrez grew up feeling like an outsider, without a sense of cultural identity. 

“Do you know how embarrassing it is to be the son of the owner and not speak Spanish in a Spanish-language bookstore?” he asked.

He went from a sheltered, idealistic childhood to drug abuse as a self-described nihilist. Luckily, through a relationship with a woman he calls “my soul mate,” he found the faith to recover. These days, aside from writing a memoir, his only real interest is dumpster diving and “making stuff” out of garbage.

“I’m still an anti-capitalist!” he declared.

Of how he and Altomare met, Gutierrez said, “It was total serendipity! I hired him as a Mac tutor.” Gutierrez was volunteering at Bellevue Hospital, teaching Internet skills to recovering addicts. One day, after a MacIntosh computer lesson, Gutierrez turned to Altomare and asked, “Do you happen to know any nonprofits?” Altomare yelled, “Me!” The next day, Gutierrez showed Altomare the second-floor space, telling him he could have it for $500 a month, if he helped with the building.

“That started our relationship,” recalled Altomare.

Altomare went from one space to renting five out of the building’s eight offices — three are theater studios.

“It completely changed his life,” Gutierrez said.

Before they moved to the building and founded Theaterlab in 2006, Altomare, a veteran of The Living Theatre collective, and his wife, artistic co-director Orietta Crispino — who was born in Italy and trained at Piccolo Teatro School in Milan — had “no way to fulfill their artistic ambitions,” Gutierrez said. “And suddenly — boom! the explosion of stuff, projects in the works… .” 

Among the projects being explored is a collaboration with Pratt Institute, whose director of galleries, Nick Battis, saw Theaterlab’s yellow banner across the street and initiated a dialogue. Battis suggested that a class of architecture students from the school’s Sustainability Program do a study of the building, which, for starters, led to an idea for a green roof.

“Our goal,” said Altomare, “is to do a full green conversion — green roof, green sustainable energy… .” He said that there are some preliminary steps needed for installing the green roof, such as moving back a parapet, but that the roof will probably be done by spring.

“Carlo’s project is the building,” said Gutierrez. “He’s like a mother hen.”

To Altomare — who is also the building’s super — 137 W. 14th St. is the model of a financially sustainable arts center, even amid the current poor economy.

“This building,” proclaimed Altomare, surveying the block between Sixth and Seventh Aves., “is an example of the near future — not just to 14th St., but to the city. We don’t have high overhead,” he said, noting how another theater, The Zipper, which closed this year, did have that problem. 

“Everybody else is worried, and he’s growing!” marveled Gutierrez.

Growing up in Trenton, N.J., in an Italian immigrant family of musicians, Altomare dropped out of Rider University and formed his own theater group on campus. In the 1970s he joined The Living Theatre as an actor and composer. After returning from touring in the early 1980s, Altomare said, “I was in the East Village, I had no money, but I always had a public space — for making creative public assembly — because that’s what I think theater is.”

He envisions the building having a role in revitalizing the block, and hopes another theater will come in. He wants to make 14th St. an artistic “destination.” 

Across the street at Pratt, Battis echoed Altomare’s hopes for the block: With all the empty storefronts, he said he looked forward to more artists renting space and banding together. They’re doing that in Theaterlab’s building, where the other tenants include painter Carl Davis, architect David McAlpine and designer Dan Strum of New York Smarts, who noted that with the current economy, “Grassroots is coming back!”  

The other new element in the mix at the building isn’t arts related, but a bar, which opened Oct. 15.

Peter Gonzalez, technically the new kid on the block, had a track record as owner of a popular hole in the wall, Johnny’s Bar, on Greenwich Ave. An outsider when he arrived nearly 20 years ago, today he is a fixture in the neighborhood. It was Gonzalez’s concern for the community and deep neighborhood ties that overcame Gutierrez’s misgivings about a bar replacing the bookstore. 

“Peter assured me he didn’t have visions of some club, where a bunch of bridge-and-tunnelers would get bombed every weekend,” he said. “And then he showed me Johnny’s.” Gonzalez opened the Greenwich Ave. neighborhood bar in 1991, and it miraculously survived the West Village’s gentrification. A photo of Johnny’s Bar appears on the cover of “New York City’s Best Dive Bars.” The “dive” category stuck, thanks to the red neon “BAR” sign, which dates back to another era, when it was Jack Barry’s, and its theater-patron owner attracted the likes of Jason Robards.  

Gonzalez is not a writer, like Gutierrez, or a talker, like Altomare. His gift, probably honed from years tending bar, seems to be to get other people to express themselves, by being open and receptive. Growing up in Texas and Puerto Rico, to parents of Mexican heritage, he came to New York to be an actor and wound up bartending at JG Melon. 

After he was “fired for giving a soda to a [regular] customer,” he was riding his bike past a closed storefront — and, before long, an Irish bar with a heavy curtain turned into Johnny’s. 

Gonzalez thinks the primary reason people go to a bar is not to drink, but to find community.

“Bars and taverns are an essential way of American life,” he said. Historically, he noted, “A lot of things were finalized in a bar.” In more recent history, a regular at Johnny’s, Russ Sonosky, became Gonzalez’s partner. 

Sonosky, a former telecom industries manager, said, “It’s every guy’s dream to retire and open a bar.”  

 As for the new bar’s name — Bunga’s Den — it refers to a mythical character, though is based on a person Gonzalez once knew. Bunga’s, which has a kitchen and seating in booths, is about four times the size of Johnny’s Bar, so there is “space to congregate,” he said.  

From the old bookstore, Gonzalez salvaged a poster celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Spanish classic “Don Quixote.” He said Libreria Lectorum had been “a Don Quixote to the neighborhood.” 

Gutierrez, asked if he identified with the fictional hero, answered, “Yes!” 

The anti-capitalist landlord finds it amusing his laissez-faire approach is creating a successful commercial enterprise. Like the woeful idealist of Cervantes’s novel, he admits to “a tendency to have romantic, grandiose fantasies about saving the world.” 

Kenny “Goode” may not be saving the world, but at 137 W. 14th St., he may just be saving a piece of New York City.