By James Maher
Name: Mike Stuto
Occupation: Co-Owner, HiFi
Location: HiFi, Avenue A between 10th and 11th.
Time: 3 pm on Monday, Feb 10.
I was born in Whitestone in 1966, but we moved to Bergen County, N.J. in ’77, shortly after the blackout and Elvis’ death. My folks were both native New Yorkers; Dad was Italian and grew up on 111th and Lex; my mother is Syrian and lived in Cobble Hill. But their ethnicity centered mostly around food.
I moved into this neighborhood in March of 1989, a little less than a year after college. Back then I didn’t really know the neighborhood east of 2nd Avenue. I knew CBGBs and St. Mark’s Place and would go to record stores and book stores. I got an apartment on 9th and A, right by Tompkins Square Park. I didn’t choose the area as much as I just needed a place — but I quickly fell in love. We were on the top floor and had roof parties all the time. Then I lived in a storefront at 40 Clinton St., where the Con Ed guy would have to go through my room to read the meters. It didn’t seem that odd to me. I’ve been on Orchard Street near Houston since 1996. Twenty-five years in the neighborhood and 20 years in the bar I now own at 169 Avenue A.
What I loved about this neighborhood was how it felt like a pretty tight community even though there were all kinds of different people living here with all kinds of different life stories. I think what tied them together was a need or desire to exist outside the normal nine-to-five life. It doesn’t mean they were all artists or socialists or off-the-grid radicals, but they all had a respect for the notion that you could live your life the way you wanted to live your life and it didn’t have to subscribe to what the mainstream part of the world expected of you.
That bred an overall respect for people and their life choices. While I was technically a grown-up when I moved here, this neighborhood made me an adult — and for better or worse made me the person I am today. As a 22-year-old kid who could easily have been considered a suburban outsider, I was embraced for who I was and welcomed into this place that has an enormously rich history of defiance of the “normal.”
I was in the record business. I did some college radio promo and marketing, A&R, artist management, and other various functions. When I was out of work in the fall of ’93, I spent most of my time inside 7B where I met many of the people who are my closest friends today.
In early '94 when my unemployment ran out I was hired to book a few shows a month at Brownies. They had just added the “big” stage. Brownies opened in 1989 and they used to have a little stage in the corner up until then. Laura McCarthy opened the bar and was my boss; now she’s my partner. It was an Irish bar with a stage and it slowly became a place that out-of-town bands played at, mostly through Laura’s friends and some independent promoters.
There were always several different music scenes swirling around the place, and when I got there a lot of out-of-town indie-rock bands had been doing shows. The people at Brownies returned calls quicker than the people at CBGBs, which was really all it took. I was a part of that scene and I knew a lot of folks in the business, so in a way it was a right-place, right-time kind of thing. Combine that with an era when anyone with two guitars, a ripped t-shirt and a Sonic Youth record in their bag could get a six-figure record deal, and the place just took off.
In '96, I scored a corporate A&R gig at Columbia Records, which was a pretty miserable experience for me. For the second time it was clear to me that I had zero ability to function in a corporate environment, but it did afford me the opportunity to return to Brownies as a 50 percent partner less than 18 months after I had left.
Brownies’ crowd was pretty much dictated by who was playing. It was mostly white-kids with guitars, but our booking policy was pretty inclusive; we tried to put together interesting bills — and having more than one thriving New York scene to feed off made it an ideal time to do that what we were doing. I had the opportunity to book many bands who went on to huge successes, some of whom I am still quite good friends with.
But the real contribution that place made was to support a somewhat under-the-radar world of rock musicians who did not have that many places to play. It was a pretty insular world and many of the best moments in my life happened inside that room during those years.
Brownies had a great run, but in 2002 we turned the space into a neighborhood bar called HiFi, which is what it is today. Upon opening, the centerpiece of HiFi was EL-DJ — the homemade digital jukebox that I created with a software developer based on my record collection.
When EL DJ first appeared, iTunes was still a Mac-Only program and I did not really know what an MP3 was. To this day, there’s only one of them on the planet — about 4,000 full albums that sound good in a bar. It’s certainly indie-rock centric, but there is a lot of stuff on there for anyone with discerning tastes. I’m a music snob I guess, but I’m not a snob to any particular genre. Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones would be where it all began for me.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.