Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

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.


DrGecko said...

This sums up a lot of what's wrong in the neighborhood (and not just the fate of Continental Divide):

"Brownies had a great run, but in 2002 we turned the space into a neighborhood bar called HiF...."

Anonymous said...

Good one. Always see this guy in the hood. Classic New Yawka.

Juicy Lucy said...

Great interview, great bar!

Alex in NYC said...

"Brownies had a great run, but in 2002 we turned the space into a neighborhood bar called HiFi"

Yeah, `cos we really needed another bar, as opposed to a venue for live bands to play. Your fab jukebox doesn't make up for that loss, sorry.

esquared™ said...

Discovered Brownies during the Intel Music Festival in '97. Frequented it 'til 2002. Cool bar and live bands. Never been to HiFi, much like I've never been back to Continental since they installed those plasma TVs in lieu of the bands.

"Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people/they're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made..."

sluggoslade said...

To the two jerks with crappy bands that no one wants to see? Go screw.

Alex in NYC said...

I'm not in a band, d-bag, I'm lamenting the loss of another venue wherein to see bands. Learn to read.

Gojira said...

Used to go to Brownie's regularly to see live music, it was a great venue. Have never set foot in HiFi, never will, it's now just another sellout bar. Won't support anyone who "had roof parties all the time", either, because I know how hellish that can make it for people NOT at the parties.

Sluggoslade, you are new to this blog, so please keep a civil tongue in your head.

Anonymous said...

Haha, "civil tongue".

Legitimate Golf said...

I miss Brownie's too. I miss the Lakeside Lounge, Luna Lounge, hell even the fucking Continental back when it was a live venue.

Alex in NYC said...

It's been pointed out to me by my conscience/copy-editor that I may have been too harsh in my comments. That said, I was basing it on Mr. Stuto's wording. That doesn't change the fact that I preferred Brownie's to HiFi, but my tart ire may have been meanly misdirected. Apologies.

Anonymous said...

Mike/HiFi is one of the few local neighborhood bars still remaining--and he is great guy. Let's appreciate--not hate all the time.

Anonymous said...

I miss Brownies too, but HiFi is a great bar. EL DJ is the best jukebox around. (How many other jukeboxes have every record by the Fall on them?)

Cheers to you Mike!

Anonymous said...

If everyone who ran a business in the hood was as decent and honest as Mike Stuto we wouldn't always be lamenting the state of the neighborhood now. My guess is everyone taking shots at Mike and Brownie's/HiFi have not met the man, talked to the man or lived on the block where he runs his business. He is always outside or inside and treats everyone with respect - residents, customers, new and old. Rock on, Mike - keep doing your thing and keep the Mets on that front TV.

Anonymous said...

Go easy, people. Nothing about this article points to him being anything but a decent guy who loved Brownies, loves music and loves the hood. If you want another live music venue so bad, you should go run one yourself rather than sit on the sidelines and criticize someone who actually did it for years. And Hifi is a cool, low-key bar worth a visit.

Anonymous said...

If running small music venues paid the bills, more spaces would be doing it. It's an extremely high overhead and a lot of work outside of the bar to make it happen. Plus the constant neighbor complaints about noise and high fines are a lot to absorb over time too. Lots of us love music..but to suggest that someone take the fall for everyone, both financially and personally in order to make it happen are selfish at worst and ignorant at best. Hi-fi is a fantastic bar with great music. Stuto has good taste and runs a comfortable bar. I'm not a fan of the t.v.'s, but one shot of tequila with Fowzy, Nadir, or Darlene, and I've forgotten all about 'em!

Shawn said...

I loved Brownie's but I love Hifi (I live upstairs from it). They redesigned and I'm still getting used to it (I loved the Christmas lights) but I think it will be good for them in the long run.

And they rescued the Lakeside Lounge photo booth!

Darlene is one of the best bartenders in the neighborhood.

Mike is always supportive of block events and happenings around the 'hood. Great guy.

Dave - everywhere said...

I never went to Brownies but I do frequent HiFi and find it a comfortable place to stop in on a Friday or Saturday night for a beverage or two. I've never met Mike but he sounds like a cool guy, the sort of guy I would want to have running a bar in the neighborhood I live in. I haven't been in since before Xmas and I understand the pool table is gone (say it ain't so!)but the photo booth is a nice touch (my wife had never been in one 'til the last time we stopped in)and it's a compforatble vibe.

KairosKim said...

Good to see cooler heads have prevailed - knee-jerk reactions to the words 'bar' or 'roof parties' seem ridiculous.
We met Mike - AKA the guy upstairs -(in his roof party days) because he and his roommates moved in during our rent strike and they joined us- and their renovated apartment rent really made a dent in the landlords pocket, maybe leading to repairs being done quicker. Also until the landlord alarmed the doors we all used the roof for parties and quiet hangouts (pre-whooo days) - including our iconic visiting neighbor, Santiago - with his feather boa and Donna Summers song at 4am in the middle of 9th St - he often slept on the top landing or on the roof after an evening out and about.
Mike, as I recall, (glad to be reminded of his name) is a very kind and all around good fellow. Although it's been over 20 years since he lived here, we still share a howdy-do when passing in the street.
Will wonders never cease... the HiFi? Never been before but now I will check it out.

Anonymous said...

Everyone thinks residents are against bars. Wrong. We're against the proliferation of douchebag bars and upscale restaurants and clubs that serve to clean out whatever rent stabilized tenants are left and to capitalize on the gentrification (demise of the neighborhood). We need to side with residents. I don't see him selling bone marrow truffle oil bar food. This is a great neighborhood bar and Mike really cares about the neighborhood.