Some goddamned marketing genius tapped into something very real when he realized that the combination of an old dive, hazy red lights, edgy music, and cheap booze (well, relatively cheap) makes for attracting young hipsters: the kind of place where kids can smoke, drink, and parade their looks for each other. Red places like these have been kicking up a proverbial storm in LA, New York, and every city in between. But what is it about the dim red decor that attracts indie and punk kids like moths to a bare bulb?
The East Bay started off with the Ruby Room on 14th Street, which became an instant fad with its pool table, shadowy red lighting, and ’70s decor. Whereas some divey clubs can transport you back to that bat mitzvah of old — complete with song lineups that threaten a screaming chorus of “Mony Mony” — the music at the Ruby Room is refreshingly different, whether it’s punk rock or soul. The owners got so excited that they didn’t stop there, and went about four blocks away and tried it again with Radio on 13th. The place still has the dim lights, but has an added “Orient” theme, with ornate fixtures one might find in a Bangkok brothel, disco-mirrored mosaics, and wallpaper made out of Chinese prayer money.
The red bars continue to reappear on the scenester lineup. The hipster’s schedule is rigorous, not to mention monotonous, but it gets refreshed every few months as the cool places get recycled, and other places are “discovered.” Being a successful hipster demands that one walk a precarious line. You have to be up-to-the-minute and original in your choice of new alternative spots, yet not such an individual that you wind up somewhere the others aren’t. It’s that careful balance between everyone in the scene knowing about a bar — making it a good scoping ground — and very few mainstreamers catching on, which would make it déclassé.
Likewise, you have to go somewhere that’s trashy enough to pass as punk, yet not so down-and-out that it will scare your suburban ass. The biggest draw of bars like the red ones is that they offer the middle-class kids a way to cash in on the poor rocker image without having to actually interact with the lower echelons. Just as Disney World has set up fantasy excursions to foreign lands and bygone times, the red bars offer middle-class hipsters a chance to experience the dive world without the threat of encountering the lower class. They are the Starbucks of the dive world, a feigned Hot Topic mall version of a local joint. Going to these red bars is like shopping at a vintage clothing store instead of sorting through the bins at the Salvation Army. A dive is supposed to be a local neighborhood place where anyone can stop in for a drink; a bare-bones place where the drinks are the focus, not the decor. You can’t replicate a dive — it goes against the whole point.
The latest faux-dive cultivation to pop up is Acme, formerly Mike & Mary’s, on San Pablo in Berkeley. Owned and operated by new people (though one of them used to work at the Ruby Room), it follows the lead of the other red bars to an uncanny degree. Coming out of a drunken stupor, you may even head home in the wrong direction, thinking you were still at the Ruby Room. It’s got the punk rock scenesterific vibe, with dim red lighting, loud punk music, and a punk rocker working the door. Sure, it’s got its own slight twist, with the framed pictures of tattoos on the wall that scream out “rockabilly cachet.” The ’70s bar furniture is complemented by ’50s triangular ashtrays in a perfect mélange of retro confusion. There’s even a front window seat, guaranteeing you’ll be seen. Granted, any place that serves Olympia Beer in a can gets some serious points, and the jukebox wins for its combination of Bikini Kill, the New York Dolls, Television, and the Dead Boys. But that’s probably not what’s drawing this crowd to the red-bar trend. It’s the guarantee of having a displaced suburban middle-class rocker at the bar stool next to you, instead of someone from a lower class. That’s what is drawing the hordes to this locale which they used to ignore.
When Acme made its appearance on San Pablo, its presence was especially jarring, since it replaced the beloved Mike & Mary’s. You’ll be struck by how much the place has changed, and not just by the lamentable loss of the vinyl booths. The down-and-out neighborhood vibe is all but gone as well. Saying it lacked pretension is an understatement. Mike & Mary’s had been something like a local Cheers on a serious dose of crack — it was a neighborhood joint filled with a true oddball San Pablo mix. The bathroom doors had no locks, just in case someone passed out and needed to be saved. Marion, the bartender, put people at ease with her kick-ass attitude, her laugh, and her generous pouring hand. The whole bar would end up in conversation together, buying each other drinks — whether they were the old lady who lived down the block, the working stiffs just ending their shift, or younger kids in search of a strong cheap one. Everyone was accepted, regardless of dress code.
Now, that anything-goes attitude and camaraderie are gone. Recently, when Marion ventured into the Acme to check out how things had changed, she says she was met with a cold shoulder. “I never felt that weird in a bar in my whole damn life,” she says. “Nobody wanted to say anything to me.” In fact, most of the former regulars have experienced the same thing. “They don’t want anyone I know in that bar,” adds the ex-barkeep. “It’s a whole different crowd — the bartenders, the owners, everybody. … They try to drive any of the customers I used to have out. Anybody that ever mentioned my name got treated shittier than they needed to be.”
Jennifer Sideman, the manager at Acme, defends the new setup. “Some people just don’t like change,” she says. “It’s a different atmosphere — a younger atmosphere — than before. Some people feel cut off, but just because they don’t know the lyrics of the Supersuckers doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. There are about ten customers who were regulars at Mike & Mary’s and are now regulars at Acme. As a business, we try not to ostracize people. It’s a shame to hear that some people don’t feel welcome, but you can’t please everyone.”