Inside the Bars Built from Obscure Collections

Bars can be made of many things: reclaimed wood, glossy marble—even just cinder block and a cash register. But cassette tapes? Vintage beer cans? Carey Jones on establishments that integrate their owners' collections into their design, and how they influence the experience of a place.

Descending the stairs into New York’s Nitecap, you’re greeted by a red backlit image of “Bernard the Owl”—visibly tipsy, always wearing a nightcap and, according to co-owner Natasha David, very fond of Old-Fashioneds. At Nitecap’s opening, other owl features were tucked into the space, noticeable only if you were looking for them. But Bernard soon endeared himself to patrons, who began to contribute more owls of their own—sparking a full-on collection. 

“As people caught on to it, guests and friends started bringing us owls: ceramic owls, owls on plates, owl clocks, you name it,” says David. “So now we have a lot of owls. A lot.” Though she jokes that “one day, I’ll die in a room full of owls,” she’s touched by her patrons’ investment. “The fact that guests think about Nitecap when they’re out and about shopping is pretty amazing.”

Many bars have collections as a primary element of their decor, ranging from the expected to the eccentric. Anyone who’s sipped a cocktail over the museum-style array of mounted insects at Boston’s Drink or noticed Damon Boelte’s numerous turkey figurines on the rafter at Brooklyn’s Grand Army—technically termed a “rafter of turkeys”—knows that they’re more than just an aesthetic flourish. These collections and design choices have superficial appeal, sure, but they also offer a glimpse into a bar’s character—the priorities, eccentricities and even obsessions of owners and staff. Collections presuppose a collector.

Bottles are on display at virtually every bar, and cocktail books are hardly unexpected. But Jamie Boudreau‘s collections of each at his lauded Seattle cocktail bar Canon are striking in their extent. With over 2,500 whiskies lining the walls—of 3,500 overall labels, not including backups—Canon’s collection of whiskey is one of the largest in North America. The library-style shelves also house Boudreau’s own library: 500-plus cocktail books, including first editions of revered classics like Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide and Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual.

Meanwhile, at NYC’s Boilermaker, walls of vintage beer cans—which owner Greg Boehm found mostly on eBay—date back to the ’50s and ’60s, many from breweries no longer in business. They appear alongside co-owner James Tune’s collection of old tools—from his father, from vintage junkyard stores, from neighborhood regulars. “Most were used by actual welders who were boilermakers back in the ’60s and ’70s—my father being one of them—reminding us of industrial blue-collar days: a time period we are trying to recreate at Boilermaker,” says Tune.

In exceptional cases, as with the owls that populate Nitecap, devoted regulars not only come to love and appreciate these design elements, but they become so invested that they take it upon themselves to contribute.

At The Drink in Brooklyn, the bar’s nautically inspired decor (a foot rail made from a ship’s mast, ship’s wheels and buoys mounted on the wall) began because the founders’ families all had a significant connection to the sailing world, and evolved once loyal regulars started contributing nautical bric-a-brac. They’ve since added model ships, ocean charts and signal flags to what’s become a gallery of maritime paraphernalia.

Down south, in Atlanta, Monday Night Brewing opened with a wall of neckties hung from pegs, as if they’d just been taken off. They now entreat guests to contribute: Bring a tie, get $1 off your beer. “The three founders, including myself, all had white-collar day jobs before starting a brewery,” says Jonathan Baker. “We’d come home from work on Mondays wearing neckties and loosen our ties before we brewed beer, so the loosened tie became our emblem over time.”

While any sort of design project is an undertaking, a wall of neckties is at least simple on the installation front. Not so with the wall of more than 1,000 cassette tapes at The Occidental in Denver, found online and at thrift stores then spray-painted silver by partner Sean Kenyon’s wife Bijou Angeli and mounted into a wall display. The cassettes harken back to an earlier era of music—a nod to the bar’s loose punk-rock theme, echoed in the wall’s artfully scrappy, repurposed look.

But in the world of ambitious design projects, few in the business approach Jonnie and Mark Houston, whose numerous LA-area bars are conceived with obsessive attention to detail. Some nearly cross into theme territory, but with too much character and cohesion to really be considered a theme bar. Rather than just checking the boxes of “the 1970s”—the shag rugs and disco balls, say—the Houston brothers delve deeply into period details and intentional quirks, so they feel fully inhabited rather than clichéd. “It’s as if we’re method actors,” says Mark. “If we’re collecting vinyl, we’re also playing the records, dressing and doing our hair in that era; it makes it that much more authentic.”

Their bar, Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, is inspired by the brothers’ late father, a tribute to their 1970s-styled childhood home. “We wanted to recreate our upbringing, with ‘70s music, ‘70s furniture,” says Jonnie.

That meant bringing in collections of family photos, “our dad’s record player, his 8-track we retrofitted,” along with amassing substantial collections of vinyl, visiting antique markets every Sunday, exploring vintage stores. The result is a bar that could be mistaken for a movie set of a suburban ‘70s home, with a continuous “garage sale” up front actually selling vintage goods, an Airstream trailer dishing out barbecue and a collection of throwback mugs (the “#1 Dad” mugs have particular sentimental value).

Another of the Houston brothers’ bars, Break Room 86, is a Koreatown karaoke bar reflecting their own experience of growing up in the 1980s—a nod to MTV and early-era hip-hop. There’s a wall made of boomboxes (“from back when you actually recorded cassette tapes and you’d give it to your girl”), one made of cassette tapes and another made of old TVs; cocktail menus are held within VHS tape covers; and private rooms house not only karaoke setups, but Atari games.

Rather than relying on a designer, the brothers spearhead each project themselves. “You deal with stupid stuff, like finding out that the boomboxes you just bought have cockroaches in them,” says Mark. “And there was a realization of how old I am when I’m at a thrift store buying a boombox and Polaroids and a 14-year-old says, ‘Those things are so cool, they’re so vintage!’”

The more opportunities there are for guests to dive into the bar’s inherent character, its quirks and mythology, the more they connect with the bar itself, and the men and women who run the place. Can I, as a visitor, get in the spirit of blue-collar beer-drinking or early MTV? And could I not only feel a part of that bar’s story, but in the case of a necktie wall, or collection of owl ephemera or a veritable maritime museum, even contribute? “It’s not just about bar design,” says Jonnie. “It’s about creating a vibe and an energy that touches every sense. That draws people in.”

Photo: The collection of old soda cans at LA’s Good Times at Davey Wayne’s