Gravity's rainmaker: Baldwin 'books' eclectic events
"In December 2002, I saw the space for the first time– and started obsessing over it," says Bill Baldwin of his downtown creation called Gravity Lounge.
"It's a challenging space," he continues in what may be the understatement of the week about the building Oliver Kuttner began renovating in 2000. Case in point: four massive columns in the middle of the seating area.
"They support the whole building, so they kind of had to stay," he laughs. The solution? Coat them with books and let the covers serve as the decor.
That same eccentricity infuses Gravity's marketing niche as much as it does the aesthetics. It's part bar, part restaurant, part bookstore, part concert hall, and, most importantly, entirely unprecedented.
"There's a kind of Gravity vibe that's hard to put your finger on– it's like chic, but friendly," offers employee Phillip Honenberger.
"As it evolved and became more real, it took on a life of its own," says Baldwin, as he glances around the room, his statement framed by the Hershey Kisses on the wall behind him and bathed in the euphoric blues of the neon light fixtures out front.
"It seems to enchant some people and terrify others," he continues. "The first couple of months, people would open the door, peek inside, and then veer around and take off."
Those curious and skittish potential customers were eventually lured back thanks to a change of direction.
"In the beginning, we were only doing shows three nights a week. I thought it would be something we'd do as an indulgence– I expected our books to do 10 times the volume that they have," says Baldwin, who also owns The Book Cellar in the Hardware Store complex.
But lo and behold, the concerts were a smash. Even before January's standing-room-only performances by Grammy nominee Odetta and that one-man theater-of-understanding, Stevie Jay, Gravity had been garnering a reputation for eclectic booking.
"We have to believe in it," is Baldwin's only explanation for his choices. "We have to believe it's worth listening to."
That's high praise for many local artists, including high school prodigies Red Beet, potty-mouthed stringsters B.C., and especially the Jan Smith Band.
"Jan Smith is one of the reasons that Gravity Lounge exists," says Baldwin. "I just wanted to have a great place for her to play.
"We're being encouraged to do things with it that are more profitable– to make it more of a nightclub/meat market, to not let the high school bands play here anymore, to allow smoking," says Baldwin, "but I hope we don't have to change it too much."
The perplexing artwork, the seductive light fixtures, and every last one of the books are almost screaming in agreement.
Gravity manager Rob McMurray shares a table with owner William Baldwin
Baldwin (left) lauds manager Rob McMurray as the "spirit of the Gravity Lounge."
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO