20 Years of Pete’s Candy Store
Pete’s Candy Store opened in Williamsburg on December 1st, 1999. It’s almost unbelievable that it would still be open, 20 years later, considering the trajectory of the neighborhood over the ensuing era. Pete’s stage has welcomed a laundry list of now-famous musicians and writers, while becoming home base for a rotating yet loyal pastiche of social cliques.
To celebrate, Pete’s kicks off a weeklong festival on Sunday, Dec. 1st, bringing back a who’s who of musicians, including residency legends the Reverend Vince Anderson (with the Love Choir’s 1999 lineup) and the Howard Fishman Quartet; co-founder and original music booker Juliana Nash; and a what’s what of Pete’s series events, from trivia to poetry to open mic — all of it hosted by an All Star’s list of former (and present) bartenders.
We sat down with business owner Andy McDowell, chatted on the phone with building owner Jerry Trotta and block “mayor” Sue Inzerelli, and emailed and Facebooked and texted with former and current bartenders, regulars, musicians, writers, and comedians who have spent money or drawn paychecks (or both) from an establishment that long ago earned its venerable bona fides. The resulting oral history is both overlong and decidedly incomplete. Pete’s Lives.
Jerry Trotta (building owner): I grew up in the building, my grandfather had it, my father had it. (My father’s name was Alfonso, they called him Funzi. My grandfather was the original owner.) My father had it as a luncheonette going back into say, when I was in school in the early ‘50s. When my father moved out to Long Island with me around 1989, Pete wanted that location, so he rented the store, kept it going, and he called it Pete’s Candy Store. In those days it was a place where people could go and drop numbers. My father turned his numbers in to Pete.
Pete lived around the corner, was one of the fellas that hung around the store. When lunch was over, it was like a hangout. In the afternoon, into the nighttime, there was always a crowd. They used to play the Italian game, with the fingers. You play for drinks. When you trew out your fingers, you called out a number. If your number added up with the other fella you were playing with, you called the right number, you win .
Sue Inzerelli (“The Mayor of Lorimer Street”): I was born across the street from Pete’s, and I’m 78 years old today. So, I’ve been here a long time. [Pete’s] was a regular candy store, little candy, nickel candy bars, and stuff like that. They used to make fountain sodas. The Trottas had it from when I was a little girl, it was always a little candy store. It was mostly families [in the area]. Everybody knew each other. Now we really don’t know anybody.
Andy McDowell (co-founder, designer, builder, owner): It was sometimes open and sometimes not, and it wasn’t really like an official business. And I remember even coming in here when it was open, and seeing a guy behind the counter who didn’t turn to look at me when I came in. And it didn’t really look like they were actively making food, it was like a greasy spoon diner kind of setup. I think long ago it had been more vibrant back in the days when Funzi ran it. I think it kind of fell off into being a numbers joint, something like that, I’m not really sure exactly what it was. I’ve heard different things from different people.
Mira Jacob (author, co-founder with Alison Hart of Pete’s Reading Series): I was living in an apartment next to the Candy Store before it became a bar, so my first memory of it was going in to order a grilled cheese sandwich from a bunch of panicked older gentlemen. Clearly, everyone in the neighborhood but me knew the place wasn’t what it seemed. Still, they were so sweet! They even tried to make me the sandwich, but they forgot to take the plastic wrapping off the single slice of cheese.
Andy McDowell: I was working in the film business. I was a set designer— set design, production design. I was getting pretty burned out. I kind of felt like my days were numbered, and that it was probably a good idea to plant some seeds somewhere else, especially if I could plant seeds into something where I could eventually earn money without having to be working those hours every day. A bar is the idea that comes to people’s minds, like they’ve been to enough bars, and it doesn’t really seem that complicated, so I think a lot of people are like, “I should open a bar.”
Jerry Trotta (building owner): Pete got sick or something, my father passed, I got the building. I put it out for rent, and Andy wanted to open up, I told him he could have it. At that time it was predominantly Italians. There were social clubs back then. Everybody went there to buy cigarettes, something like that.
Andy McDowell: When I first found this storefront, it was in a section in Williamsburg that nobody ever went to, it felt really kind of desolate. It wasn’t really on anybody’s way to anywhere. And I kind of liked that. I guess I didn’t have a really good business head. To me it was gonna be like a hideaway, a destination.
I came and met Jerry, he showed me around, and I was like, “I like it, I’d like to rent the storefront,” and he’s like, “Well, let me see, the guys who were renting here before they were paying 600, think I gotta charge you more than that, so how about 800?” And I was like, “800 a month?” He’s like, “Yeah, 800 a month.” I was like, “hmmm,” you know, I was pretending to play hard to get there. I was like, “Okay, I think that sounds fair.” And so I signed a long-term lease with him. And he’s been great ever since; I’ve been trying to be a good tenant with Jerry just to make things as easy as possible.
Jerry Trotta (building owner): Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a good time. [My granddad] had a vineyard [in the back], used to make wine in the basement. Back then a lot of the old-timers did that. He had the press downstairs, in the cellar.
Andy McDowell: The garden is L shaped, so in the little skinny part of the L, alongside the music room there, there was still some grapevine. I had this high-minded concept that I was gonna continue bottling the house red that Jerry’s family had been making. But after like two years of not getting around to that and being completely swamped with running this place, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get around to making the red wine.
[The wine press] was this big concrete construction taking up a whole section of the basement. We ended up jackhammering out the concrete base of this thing. And I think in its place went steel soda canisters for the soda system. Nothing too romantic there.
OPENING THE BAR
Andy McDowell: There wasn’t many places in Williamsburg. There weren’t really any music venues. And it was in this little out-of-the way spot, so [it served] the people living in the Italian section of Williamsburg, and off the Lorimer stop or Graham Avenue, who didn’t really have a place to go to. And there really wasn’t many places near Bedford, either. People made the trek and walked over here.
Half of the carpenters that worked on this place were musicians, also. There was a whole crew of Irish guys that played a lot of music here. One of the Irish guys, Phil, was going out with Beth Orton at the time and she ended up being the first performer on the stage before we even finished the music room.
Juliana Nash (co-founder, GM 1999-2004, music booker, musician): We met through a mutual friend. It was Andy’s idea to open Pete’s and to have it be a music venue. I had the right experience to book and manage Pete’s. I had experience bartending, managing restaurants. Plus I am a musician, and had played a lot of venues and knew a lot of musicians. My band, Talking to Animals, had been together for 10 years. We were popular in NYC and Boston.
Andy McDowell: I had a partner when we opened, Juliana, and that was key. I had a lot of crazy design ideas that were really kind of over the top. And, she– who’s a very creative person also, but is not a designer– was like, “What? No, listen, we don’t have any money anyway, so forget that, this is done. We’re going to get open, right?” And she also had worked in bars and restaurants and knew what we should have, what the feeling should be in terms of what we’re offering and serving, and how the service would happen.
In addition to running this place, she was the original music booker. So that’s quite a legacy that got started there. She booked Howard [Fishman] and Rev [Vincent] and everybody who came through.
Matty Charles (musician, residency with the Valentines, longtime bartender): When Pete’s first opened it really felt like the neighborhood was lacking in places to play. I had just moved back to Williamsburg after a few years in San Francisco and a lot of the places that used to have music were gone or on the way out. The Left Bank, the Charleston, Ships Mast, the L cafe had changed owners and I didn’t see much music there anymore.
Andy McDowell: My buddy Chris Rock had Phoebe’s Café with his girlfriend, so some of the people from there ended up here painting the walls, doing whatever had to be done. I remember, before we opened, becoming really scared that it was going to be a total flop. And I think everybody who opens a new place, maybe even a second or third place, has that fear.
Luckily, lots of people came. The music worked out so well, the residencies we had were mobbed— on Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night— there was a scene going for every night that was like its own scene. And it was magic, it was really good. I even remember coming in, thinking, I would never go to a bar like this, because I would walk in and have to like jostle through people just to get 15, 20 feet, to the back of the room.
Dave Thrasher (spiritual advisor, tribal elder, longtime bartender, GM 2016-2019): I remember opening night. I still remember the lighting— something special about it. There was an energy that night. The timing was perfect. There were tons of musicians and artists around and not a lot of places to go. Williamsburg needed a venue. The first few years, it was the place to be. For local music, and to socialize with like-minded people.
Andy McDowell: I remember when we finally opened that I was kind of crazed. I had been working night and day at that point and I just remember feeling like my hair was sticking straight out, and my eyes were kind of bug-eyed, and it was a kind of a bizarre experience, trying to greet people and say hello and be the maitre D when we opened. When I felt like I hadn’t slept like a week.
Matty Charles (musician, residency with the Valentines, long time bartender): Andy and Juliana really created a unique little place that was a landing pad for artists and colorful characters of all stripes. And because the place was the size of a postage stamp a performer could bring out 15 or 20 people and it was close and intimate. It was a happening. Very inclusive.
Andrew Tarlow (opened Diner just before Pete’s opened): Andy used to hang out at the Diner and we did yoga with his partner. [When it opened] I remember being impressed with all the surfaces and details of the place. It was like a functioning sculpture.
Bradley Spinelli (author, Killing Williamsburg): In 1999 I was “collecting material” and writing the first draft of the novel Killing Williamsburg, using the places I frequented as locations: Black Betty, the Dog Bar (aka Brooklyn Ale House), Kokie’s, the Stinger, Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern; the restaurants Oznot’s Dish, PlanEat Thai, Neil’s Luncheonette; Joe’s Busy Corner, the L Cafe. Pete’s opened while I was working on the book, so I set a scene there. The narrator called it “the new bar,” and said it looked “like a seedy old metal shop transformed into a bar.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Andy McDowell: Designing and building a bar is a fun and unique project because you want to keep a story there. So it’s still the old wainscoting and pretty beat up stuff and old exposed electrical conduit. But it did feel very different. We moved some of the furniture around, and we refinished some of the shelving that had been on one side of the room and put it behind the bar, and punched some new doorway holes through some walls, and then added the outdoor corridor into the indoors.
Dave Thrasher (longtime bartender, GM 2016-2019): Andy used to come into a coffee shop [Phoebe’s] that I worked at. He asked if I wanted a shift after he opened. I heard he asked a friend of ours if she thought I was “good looking.” He wanted to make sure he was hiring someone that would bring women in. 🙂 I actually declined his offer at first. I hated bars and didn’t drink. A few months later, and after friends told me I was nuts to not take a bar shift, I accepted.
Howard Fishman (musician, long-running residency, New Yorker contributor): [Andy says that Juliana Nash met him playing on the Bedford subway platform.] Juliana approached me about having my band perform for Pete’s opening night party, the first night that the back room would have live music in it. Pretty sure that was December of 1999. I remember her showing me the room as it was being finished, and talking about their vision for what it could be as a place dedicated to listening and connecting in an intimate way, eschewing the trappings of bigger, more impersonal venues, where the focus tends to be on ticket sales and hustling and business.
Mira Jacob (author, co-founder with Alison Hart of Pete’s Reading Series): When the bar moved in, my friends would come and yell up to me to come down and I would, usually in my pajamas, and no one batted an eye.
Reverend Vince Anderson (musician, residency 2001-2003ish, married Andy and his wife Courtney) I think [we first performed in] 1999 or 2000. We did two different residencies there over about a three-year period. I liked that the backroom had a tiny feel to it. It felt like the chapel car on the Siberian Express. The intimacy of the room was unlike any venue I’d played. It didn’t feel like a living room though, it very much felt like a tiny theater. The whole evening had a party feel to it. I use to barbeque ribs before the shows in the backyard.
Juliana Nash (co-founder, GM 1999-2004, music booker, musician): I loved booking the music at Pete’s. It was an exciting time in New York with the rise of the alt-folk scene. Devandra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Langhorne Slim are among some of the early acts I booked at Pete’s. For some of them, Pete’s was where they played their first gigs. I loved having music residencies with Reverend Vince, Cynthia Hopkins and many more. I loved when Will Oldham played, Beth Orton dropped by and played. I thought Andy was crazy to think that sleepy Lorimer Street could have a successful bar on it. I was wrong!
Mira Jacob (author, co-founder with Alison Hart of Pete’s Reading Series): Andy asked me— maybe because I was the neighbor most likely to complain about noise? But yes, he came up to me and said, “I hear you are into writing— want to do a reading series?” And I said yes because that thought terrified me and I was in my 20s, when most things terrified me and I did them anyway. Alison was my roommate and was (and is) the most organized person I know, and her taste in literature is stellar. Two seconds after Andy asked me, I ran upstairs and asked Alison, and thank god she said yes.
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): I will now admit [during the job interview] I told an “untruth” about my experience bartending; I had merely catered at parties. On my first day of the job, Andy shook my hand, gave me the keys and walked out the door with full trust. I had no idea why the pints were half head on my first night there; I didn’t even know how to hold the pint glass.
Mindy Tucker (photographer): I moved to Williamsburg when Pete’s had been open for under a year, I think. So it was still a newish place that people were excited to tell you about. I don’t even remember how I heard about it. It was just kinda in the air.
Andy McDowell: I would see people walk in the door and I could tell that they had gotten lost and they were wandering around, and then also I was fielding phone calls all night: “How do you get there?” Just funny back in the day when you would get directions by phone. Some people would show up and I loved that because I could tell they were on a mission… they found it like they found an oasis.
Mira Jacob (author, co-founder with Alison Hart of Pete’s Reading Series): Pete’s was always striving to be a neighborhood spot. There was bingo for the older ladies and readings for the nerds like me and music for everyone else.
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): Pete’s was an anomaly. Andy walked around the neighborhood introducing himself to everyone and he charmed some really reticent longtime residents. He figured out that a Tuesday night bingo game would appeal to the older neighbors who would retreat from the stoop during winter. I had lived across the street for two years before the bar opened and did not know all the stoop ladies’ names until I started serving Tuesday night bingo games. Soon enough, I knew everyone’s name and everyone’s drink. I’m still close with the women who hang on the stoop, 20 years later.
Sue Inzerelli (“The Mayor of Lorimer Street”): Yes, he had a bingo game going, and the ladies used to go in and play. We used to go every Tuesday night. Most of these women that played the bingo, they all died. This year was very, very bad. I think I’m about the only one that’s left.
Mira Jacob (author, co-founder with Alison Hart of Pete’s Reading Series): Our favorite reading happened right after 9/11. We didn’t even know if we were going to go through with it, but that night, Abigail Thomas came and read excerpts from Safekeeping, all these little scenes from New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, which reminded us that the city had lived through a lot, and that it would keep living through a lot.
Howard Fishman (musician, long-running residency, New Yorker contributor): From that very first night performing there, we could feel that the room had a special magic to it. There was a sense of synergy between the kind of experiences both the venue and my group were trying to facilitate. It just felt right, and Juliana immediately asked us if we would consider playing there every week, which we did for the next three years straight, every Thursday night, playing two sets beginning at 10pm. That residency was our spiritual home. It’s where we honed our sound, where we debuted new material, where we felt comfortable to experiment and take risks and make mistakes, because we knew that the audience and the venue had our backs. And we didn’t miss a single week. Even two days after 9/11 happened, we felt like it was important for us to show up and do our gig just like always— probably one of the most intense, emotional shows I’ve ever played.
Reverend Vince Anderson (musician, residency 2001-2003ish): We did a show on September 16, 2001 after 9/11. I remember it vividly. We opened with Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” with the lyrics:
And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying
People came up to me after the show and told me of people that were missing. We prayed and cried together. It really felt like church. Sunday nights at Pete’s became a place to come and lament together, cry together, sing together, drink together, and dance together. It was a genuine community.
Mindy Tucker (photographer): One of the best shows I’ve heard in person is the original lineup of the Howard Fishman Quartet. It’s like that room was made for them, or they were made for that room, or something magical like that. They had a residency for a long time and you’d see regulars attending often because it was just indescribable what they were doing and you just sort of knew it wasn’t gonna last in that small room.
The Reverend Vince residency was similar; the crowds got bigger and bigger and more and more regulars came in and the sound got more and more refined and both of those guys really honed their work in that room. And it was lovely to be around to see that.
A GROWING COMMUNITY
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): I used to close the bar at 2am or 3am with Michael as barback. One night, we had some misunderstanding about the tips and argued. It was the end of an 11-hour shift and we were both tired. We resolved it quickly. We took the money we were arguing over, burned it in the sink and hugged. It was incredibly cathartic and I think about this often.
Both Michael and Mirek (who also barbacked) taught me how to swear in Czech and I would scream these phrases “pussy” (picho) or “your mother’s a whore”— I didn’t choose these phrases, they did!— across the bar if I couldn’t get their attention. We ended the evening saying dobre notz.
Ori Cosentino (Bartender at Pete’s 2004-2007, at Union Pool 2006-2016; native New Yorker): [My earliest memory of Pete’s was] selling cigarettes out of those cute little cubbies behind the bar! There is something that is very important to the culture and the longevity of both Union Pool and Pete’s Candy Store that continues to amaze me. It is the way that both of these businesses’ owners created a family of their staff and close community. I have not worked at Pete’s in 15 years, yet am still included in holiday parties and special events. I appreciate that immensely.
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): I loved talking about music with some of our regulars, especially Tom Leach and Colin (who also bartended). Both made me great mix tapes that I still have. I received plenty of strange invitations, like most bartenders. One night, a woman stunned me with such an explicitly lewd invitation that I said, “I’ll have to think about that,” and never went back to that side of the bar to serve anyone for the rest of the evening. I loved Reverend Vince’s shows. Watching Juliana perform was so inspiring.
Ori Cosentino (Bartender at Pete’s 2004-2007, at Union Pool 2006-2016): Because of no social media and the blessed times when Williamsburg was largely ignored by the masses, Pete’s was like a secret little reward when you came upon it. It’s not weird so much as totally endearing, but the local little old Italian ladies used to come and sit at the bar. So did the firemen, the upstairs neighbor and a whole cast of characters who made my New York accent pale in comparison to theirs. I also loved the post-McCarren Pool concert parties at Pete’s (a few years later). At that point the neighborhood was (seemingly) in the fast lane.
Annie Rudden (Williamsburg resident 1995-2009): Yes, I played at Pete’s…trivia, that is [c.2004]. There were regular teams with great names (we were T&A, our initials). The two teams that stand out, that I recall, C Town Town and Touched by an Uncle (I think Touched by an Angel was the inspiration there). What did the winning team receive? “A Tasty Sandwich.” And, the one time we won, I can vouch for it…it was very tasty!
Jacob Silver (musician, current music booker at Pete’s): My first job when I moved to NYC was at Mikey’s Hook-Up, which at that time was in the Bedford Mini-Mall on North 5th and Bedford. Andy came in looking for computer help and I went over there and fixed the issue. I also dropped off a CD of one of the bands I played with at the time, The Wild Band of Snee (led by Rushad Eggleston). We set up a show with the booker and had a great show a few months later. About a year [later, Andy] sent me an email asking me if I was interested in being the music booker there, as the previous booker was leaving. I was totally floored by the request, because at the time I didn’t have tons of experience with music booking, and I had no idea why he even considered me in the first place.
Jamie Hook (artist, host of OCD Lecture Series, hosted Kentucky Derby Party for the last 12 years): Pete’s was part of the early W-burg obsession with contributing to and building the neighborhood, rather than extracting value from it— which is what the new crop of bullshitty places seem to be about. It was just the sort of place folks talked about. “You gotta go to Pete’s” was a common refrain. It helped that there was not much competition: Union Pool, Galapagos, the Surf Bar, it was slim pickins.
Jacob Silver (musician, current music booker at Pete’s): At that time, there were lots of smaller venues in Williamsburg doing similar style programming: two to five bands per night of varying styles, usually from 9pm to 1am or 2am. I used to go regularly to North 6, Galapagos, Luxx (later becoming Trash bar)…
Sasha Dobson (jazz musician, co-founder Puss n Boots): Pete’s is just this great space with a great vibe and for some reason, regardless of the uncountable amount of hipsters, it’s a place that has always served as a space where you can be yourself. Socially, musically, all of it. It’s like a young-adult kids’ house. And the back room is very special. And back when playing guitar live was something I never thought I’d figure out, not only was it a place where I worked through a number of tangles creatively but also a place where I actually figured some shit out about my sound and my role as a budding songwriter. I’m really grateful for that.
Matty Charles (musician, residency with the Valentines, long time bartender): My trio the Valentines started a residency on Wednesday nights in 2003, I think. At some point we moved to Sunday nights. I think it lasted about four years, all told. There were a lot of good performers that I saw there over the years. Big Lazy, Gerard Smith from TV on the Radio, Hospitality, Vic Thrill, Vince Anderson, Gloria Deluxe, Paul Curreri, Andy Friedman, Howard Fishman.
Dave Thrasher (longtime bartender, GM 2016-2019): BJ Snowden is hands down my favorite performer to ever grace the stage at Pete’s. Rushad Eggleston in tights dancing around the bar with his cello, Reverend Vince Anderson getting naked every Sunday, Howard Fishman and John Flaugher improvising late into the night, after hours spontaneous dance parties, it’s all a blur.
Reverend Vince Anderson (musician, residency 2001-2003ish): There was a time when members of the band Coldplay came to the gig. They bought a bunch of my CD’s and then got really drunk and forgot that they had bought CD’s and bought a bunch more.
Jamie Hook (artist, host of OCD Lecture Series, hosted Kentucky Derby Party for the last 12 years): I was fond of a lady from Kentucky, who first got me into derby. I have never been to Churchill Downs, but Pete’s in the spring was such a great venue, it just begged for it. Once a cop car parked across the street right at post time, and Andy was freaking out that we were in trouble. Rumor has it the cops came in and placed a bet. That was the year after OTB closed….
My favorite OCD lecture would have to be the Hassids vs. Bike messengers public debate on the closing of the bike lane on Bedford south of Broadway. At one point during the debate, one of the messengers flashed her tits in anger to Rabbi Abraham. I remember that lecture fondly. Oh, and the lecture about Miley Cyrus during which I took salvia live onstage: ’nuff said.
Matty Charles (musician, residency with the Valentines, longtime bartender): I loved the people I worked with [as a bartender]. One night it was packed and I was working with Dave Thrasher. We were both tending bar and I got stiffed twice by the same guy after serving him a round of drinks. Paid cash. No tip. The customers are three deep all the way around the bar and we’re hustling to keep up. So the third time the guy comes up for a round I ignore him for a while, then when he’s waving his arms I tell Dave he’s a flake and Dave takes over. Walks up to him and gives him a winning smile, “What can I get you, buddy?” The guy orders another round with Dave’s acknowledgment. Dave proceeds to serve like four or five other patrons then he walks over to the same guy like he’s never seen him before, “What can I get you, buddy?” The guy orders again and Dave does the same thing again. By the third time the guy ordered he handed Dave the money with a fat tip. It was very impressive.
Dave Thrasher (longtime bartender, GM 2016-2019): I honestly never wanted to be the GM. I like bartending. I like my free time and free brain space. Being a GM took both. I had an injury that didn’t allow me to bartend, and an office job opened up at Pete’s, so I took it.
Reverend Vince Anderson (musician, residency 2001-2003ish): Around 2010 I started co-pastoring a church at Pete’s called Revolution NYC with Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. That lasted till 2016 or so.
Jon Gernhart (Sound engineer, barback, bartender 2013-now; drummer for Bethlehem Steel): In 2010 I ended up moving to Brooklyn after graduating and Pete’s was essentially the only bar I had heard of in the area so I just started going there whenever I found myself in Williamsburg. I started working Tuesday night sound shifts in February 2011 and never looked back. My first shift I ended up running sound for Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and would be fortunate to see a lot more great performances as the years went on. I started working behind the bar a few years later in 2013, but from day one Pete’s has really been a second home.
Lexi Rasmussen (Actor, Bartender 2013-2017): My first night working, Dave tried to trick me into wearing a “health code hat”… hazing. Also, on my first night we played this game where you smack the back of someone’s hand with the communal tips and if they guess exactly the amount they get to keep it. I guessed right. I believe they call that revenge.
Somers Barto (bartender since 2015, manager): I learned about Pete’s Candy Store soon after I moved to NYC From Nashville. I had a quick run on Tinder as a means to get out of the house and meet people in a new city. I asked one girl who I was talking to where she liked to see live music in Brooklyn, and she wrote Pete’s Candy Store. We never did meet, but I should thank her— she gave me my life. I wrote to Pete’s interested in a sound position, and after two months of doing sound, I was offered a bar back position. I started in 2015 and am still behind the bar at Pete’s.
Lexi Rasmussen (Actor, Bartender 2013-2017): Pete’s was always a controlled chaos that fostered a war–like camaraderie: Playing dice with Ian at the end of the night and losing significant portions of my tip money. The time a guy with a full broken arm in a plaster cast started a fight and Sam Rio laughing uncontrollably while he tried to stop it. Also, on two separate occasions I was able to convince both Greg and Miro to dress as priests when I wore a nun habit on Halloween. I swear, no customer was ever nicer to me than when I wore that costume.
Somers Barto (bartender since 2015, manager): Dave and Andy have created the identity of Pete’s. Do you know how many years some of our staff has worked at Pete’s? Why would anyone work anywhere for 20 years? Well, because Pete’s is a special place. We love being here. I drink at Pete’s. I love being at Pete’s. It’s part Stockholm syndrome, part recharging at a place I spend a lot of time in, and part cheap drinks.
Bradley Spinelli (author, Killing Williamsburg): Weirdly, I met Andy in Guatemala, in about 2009. When Killing Williamsburg finally came out in 2013, I got in touch with Andy and put together a reading with Mike DeCapite, a legendary writer who’d lived in Williamsburg in the late ‘80s, and Jacob Tomsky, whose Heads in Beds was a NYT bestseller (before Cigarettes After Sex). We’re all like ten years apart, so it was fun to take three different decades of neighborhood experience and throw it up on stage in the caboose at Pete’s. Mike had this amazing old-school Billburg story about an all-night bakery with a ceiling full of heroin.
Willie Johnson (curator of the Play Date at Pete’s monthly play reading series): Pete’s is so welcoming to artists— it’s kind of shocking coming from a theater world in New York that can be really cutthroat. When a fellow playwright and I decided we wanted to start a play reading series that was geared towards giving playwrights a space to try out new work, Pete’s was the first venue we thought of because it’s such a cozy, beautiful space. And the back room kind of looks like some kind of magical old vaudeville theater, so we figured seeing actors reading under those lights would be special. Andy loved the idea and right away asked what he could do to help us make the reading series a reality. [Since October 2015], Play Date at Pete’s has been a space for playwrights and performers to test out new material every month, without fail.
Jeff Bance (Pete’s regular, local high school teacher): For the past nine years I’ve been teaching high school around the corner from the bar, and since our school’s inception 10 years ago a large group of our staff has called Pete’s home every Friday after work for happy hour. Even the kids have figured out we go there, although we refer to the bar in code as “the library,” and they’ve yet to make the connection. Nonetheless they often try to wave to us through the windows on their way to the L train as if they are catching us doing something naughty.
Bobby Hankinson (host of monthly all-LGBTQ comedy showcase Kweendom): The first thing I remember noticing about Pete’s is that it smelled like grilled cheese sandwiches, which we all know, scientifically, is one of the best smells on the planet. My friend Carly Ann Filbin was hosting a couple shows at Pete’s, so I would come out to see her. The thing about Pete’s is once you’re there, you don’t want to leave. So, after the show, we’d have a few more drinks, chat with the bartenders and make friends on the patio. When I knew a spot was opening on Friday nights, I begged the producer to put me in touch with the managers so I could take it. It’s not exactly protocol, but they took a chance, and I’m glad they did.
This was 2017… I didn’t think of Pete’s as a regular comedy spot. That’s crazy, because the room is so perfect. The stage is pretty, it always feels full and warm, you’re separate enough from the bar so other patrons can do whatever and it’s not disruptive.
Willie Johnson (curator of the Play Date at Pete’s monthly play reading series): A few years ago, one of my plays was going up at a theater in Long Island City and we were desperately looking for fundraising ideas. Pete’s let us use the space to host a fundraiser that included an ice cream sandwich eating contest— in which our producer went head to head with Somers Barto, one of Pete’s great bartenders. Somers lapped our producer, slamming twice as many ice cream sandwiches as her like some kind of ice cream Joey Chestnut.
Bobby Hankinson (host of monthly all-LGBTQ comedy showcase Kweendom): It was important for me to [host Kweendom] in a space that’s not traditionally queer. The great thing about Pete’s is, obviously, it’s an incredibly welcoming, affirming atmosphere, and that generous spirit is what attracts such diverse clientele. We always draw in some folks from the bar or patio, and maybe they’re old neighborhood folks or hipsters having happy hour, or tourists, but they step into that gorgeous performance room where we’ve created this queer, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse energy, and everyone has a great time together.
Over the years, we’ve been lucky to host so many incredible comedians that are blowing up: Bowen Yang, Lane Moore, Julio Torres, Joel Kim Booster, Jes Tom, Jay Jurden, the list goes on and on. Some of my favorite memories are comedian Sarah Kennedy (as drag king alter-ego Luka Guy) smearing banana and frosting all over while lip syncing to “Le Poissons” from The Little Mermaid. I was literally on the edge of my seat when storyteller and trained circus performer Dick Satori did a series of stunts using a bullwhip. Or the time comedian Tim Dunn told a story about fisting that was so riotously funny, I remember hearing the walls of the room actually rattle with laughter like a tornado just tore through.
Danny Bellini (writer, filmmaker, Greenpoint resident)
[At the Prosebowl, c.2017] It’s calm, cozy, and covered in nostalgia. You don’t immediately want to get your drink and hide away from the crowd in here because the crowd looks like you— earnest, with just the right amount of modesty. We read our respective short, short stories and then a literal crowd-o-meter hands me the win. My prize that night was a bottle of holiday pickles that taste like a craft store’s sale aisle. I loved them. I love them because they were a symbol. They were a trophy that I could ingest.
NOW AND FUTURE PETE’S
Howard Fishman (musician, long-running residency, New Yorker contributor): At some point, Williamsburg became known as the center of Brooklyn cool and, like the cliché goes, tourists, bankers, and corporate interests started flocking here, driving out the people, places and things that made it cool in the first place.
Andy McDowell: For 10 years, I’ve been navigating the changing landscape in different undulations. There’s a wide variety of factors that I keep an eye on, but in the end, I try to keep myself from strategizing too much. The demographic is different. All the people who used to go to Pete’s don’t live in this neighborhood anymore. Lots of them still come back to Pete’s, which is amazing, because that’s not normally the way people behave — you’re gonna go to a place that’s convenient to your home. But there are still plenty of people in Williamsburg who have the same sensibility, that don’t want something that’s too hip or too clubby And, it’s very easy to get comfortable here. So regardless of whether they earn more money than the people who used to come in the old days, they still fit in.
But it’s different. Fifteen years ago, anybody who had been living in Williamsburg— no matter how short of time— knew Pete’s. And had been to Pete’s. Now, if Pete’s were to come up in conversation, with a 25- or 35-year-old person, they might have heard of it. But there’s a good chance they have not been here. And then there’s enough of them that still haven’t even heard of it. There’s just so many places all over the place, and tons of venues.
Bradley Spinelli (author, Killing Williamsburg): It’s like a cosmic joke that almost none of the venues from Killing Williamsburg still exist 20 years later. Pete’s and Vera Cruz might be all that’s left. Last year seemed big, with Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern and The Abbey closing.
Andy McDowell: Dumont closing was sad— they opened soon after Pete’s. And that was a really hard one. I knew Colin [Devlin, who died by suicide in 2013], who opened DuMont in 2001. He used to walk his dogs by here all the time and we used to hang out, we played basketball together at the Mount Carmel gym.
The closing of Enid’s was really sad. I saw Jamie [Eldridge] on one of the days where they were selling off furniture and stuff like that. She’s had a great run, and that was always a super meaningful, real home-base kind of place, and so I feel like she had a positive experience. But I think it sucks when the rent is going to be set at some figure where you’re just kind of like, who’s gonna pay that?
Jacob Silver (musician, current music booker at Pete’s): Williamsburg has obviously become so much more commercialized, as has just about all of NYC. It’s so expensive now, I think young people can’t really come here anymore with just a dream of living in the city. They need to have a good job lined up, and need to be extremely professional just to be able to afford to live here. Back when I moved here in 2003, it seemed like everyone I knew just moved here because it was awesome. They figured out how to live here once they got here. That sort of attitude makes for killer art and a thriving music scene. Bands used to love playing the late slots. Now everyone wants the early slots, probably because they and all their fans have to get up so damn early now to go to their jobs.
Andy McDowell: I feel so lucky here. I’ve been through rent raises and they can be significant. But, it’s totally fair— it’s good for the landlord, good for me, good for Pete’s. But some of these landlords convince themselves that they’re going to get whatever it might be: $20-, $25,000 a month. And they end up screwing up a neighborhood, because some place comes in, goes bankrupt, sits empty, presumably they then claim a tax write off or something. While vital commercial space sits there being unused.
It’s sad. But it’s also so gradual. Even though it’s by many standards really fast and really obvious, but I’ve been here like every day. So it’s kind of like watching your kid grow. You’re not shocked that they are taller than you now.
Jerry Trotta (building owner): At the time [c. 1999], there was no building higher than three stories. They changed the code, you can see what they did to the pool, to the park. You know, I still go to Bamonte’s, I like going back. I go to Frost [Restaurant]. I still got some friends that live on the block, I’ll go to see them. But it’s got so hectic with the traffic, getting into that area. I don’t do it as much as I’d like to.
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): I’m surprised that anything remains in Williamsburg with so much turnover, but it makes sense that Pete’s would transcend trends. The bar had something for everyone. The carpenters always came in first, even before we opened at 5. Then the happy hour crowd; musicians later. The place is still magical. I can kind of still smell what it smelled like in the days of smoking indoors when I arrived at the beginning of your shift. That might be an olfactory hallucination.
Willie Johnson: I’m always surprised that Pete’s has managed to survive because it’s really a throwback to what Williamsburg used to be decades ago— a place for musicians, artists, and weirdos like me to wander in for a cheap drink, some great music, and just feel good.
Suzanne Snider (bartender 2000-3; Director, Oral History Summer School): I took my six-year-old daughter more recently to a very early show, to hear Andy’s daughter perform with her band. The next generation!