By Shawn Perry
In just a few months, Geek Bar Chicago is going to open its doors and begin one of the most ambitious geek-themed hospitality endeavors in history. There is no guarantee of success, but seeing this passionate group of people come together to create the change they wish to see in this culture is something that anyone can appreciate.
[Chicago's Geek Bar visionaries, David Zoltan and Ryan Bond. Photo Credit to Sebastian Orr Photography]
Last month I wrote a story about The Geek Easy, a bar that evolved out of A Comic Shop and provides its point-dexterous patrons a place to wax eloquent about all things nerd in Winter Park, Florida. Due to the overwhelming demand of its cape-and-cowl clad clientele and some help from crowd funding The Geek Easy is in the midst of expansion after less than five years in business. The owner, Aaron Haaland, who produces a web series covering new comics weekly here on Bleeding Cool, explained that he started the Geek Easy because he wanted to fill a need that he had felt all his life as a self-described comic book geek.
I just saw that there was an opportunity to make comics into a social thing for fans in a ways that conventions were doing but shops weren't necessarily doing. We have creator signings here and there but in terms of having something social as part of the store's DNA that encourages customers to bring their friends to engage it was all just under the surface and needed very little prodding. It was more just being responsive to what people wanted and what I always wanted as a comic book fan. It was a natural outgrowth of what our store was already doing with social events and the feedback we got from our customers was that they wanted more. –Aaron Haaland
Ben Franklin once famously said, presumably during a night of drinking, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." It goes without saying that a number of the people who enjoy this site regularly would say the same thing about comics, gaming, film or possibly all of them. But how would you like to have a place where you can indulge in all those passions with like-minded folk over a cold beer? I don't know about you but that sounds like the dawning of a glorious new age to me, which is fitting as many experts theorize that civilization itself is due in part to the timeless tradition of like-minded souls congregating and bonding over cold ones.
Although solitary drinking has done little for anyone besides Hunter S. Thompson and our own esteemed Booze Geek Dylan Gonzalez, ever since our ancestors kicked the first keg of Busch B.C. people have found value in the construct of socialized drinking in an inclusive environment. I'm not saying that alcohol is the solution to – or cause of – all of life's problems or anything so hyperbolic, just that we all need a place to cut loose once in a while and throughout history bars have helped many people break free from the rigid codes of conduct that bind that bind them while making meaningful connections with like-minded folk, as Jeffrey Kahn of the New York Times explained in his fascinating piece "How Beer Gave Us Civilization".
Five core social instincts gave structure and strength to our primeval herds. But then, these same lifesaving social instincts didn't readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization. To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative or at least let us suppress our angst when we did. We needed beer.
Luckily, from time to time, our ancestors, like other animals, would run across fermented fruit or grain and sample it. With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds. But the alcohol would have had more far-ranging effects, too, reducing the strong herd instincts to maintain a rigid social structure. In time, humans became more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative.
Now, having worked in and visited more than a few watering holes in my lifetime and seen just how, for lack of better words, uninspiring they can be it was amazing to learn about a bar that was about something I could really get behind. Immediately I thought 'why aren't these everywhere?' instead of all the dull bars out there that offer customers little more in the way of engagement than a few rusty old stools and a broken-down ATM machine yet somehow manage to stay in business because everyone needs a place to be social and many of us don't know of a better place to go.
But the times they are a-changing and we live in an age where good ideas can become reality faster than it takes to update to the latest version of iTunes. One flame can ignite the world and a great fire is about to be lit in Chicago that I believe will become a beacon for change in geek culture around the world.
Geek Bar Chicago is, in my opinion, the most ambitious geek-themed hospitality endeavor ever attempted and an example of what I hope will become a worldwide trend that brightens the world for geek-kind. Earlier this week, Geek Bar held a Game of Thrones-themed event and allowed 1266 Studios to produce a taste of what all you Bleeders out there in the Windy City have to look forward to this fall. Yeah, I am totally not jealous or anything.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with the team behind Geek Bar Chicago, including the President, CEO and Fleet Admiral David Zoltan as well as Experience Agent 001337 Ryan Bond. The two exude such a palpable passion for their project that I find it impossible not to root for them.
Shawn Perry: What I think is so cool about Geek Bar Chicago is that, while there are a few geek themed bars out there, when it comes to major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles…there just is no one grabbing the bull by the horns and saying 'Hey – we are this scene.' You guys are opening up in a huge building in one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in the world.
This sort of 'social experiment' you are concocting is probably the most interesting topic in the world to me, both as a geek and someone jaded by their local bar scene, so the first question I have to ask is how did you guys develop such big balls to take on this massive undertaking in the heartland of America – Chicago?
David Zoltan: It's fitting that Daniel Burnham, the man who really planned out Chicago, said: "make no small plans." We had certainly taken that heart and I don't think we could have done this small – not in Chicago. We're the city of big shoulders. We have so much amazing geek culture here in Chicago that it's absolutely essential that everything we do is amazing because otherwise we're just a gimmick. We don't want to be a gimmick. We want to be authentic.
It's almost as if we are building a community center that happens to offer great food and drink which is how we fund it. But everything that we're doing is about bringing the community together, doing cool stuff, having speakers and workshops and movie nights and everything else that makes it a constant center of activity that people are just going to be drawn to whether they are a comic book fan or a sci-fi nerd or a technology geek…whatever it is we're going to have stuff going on all the time and people are going to be able to jump on-board!
SP: Geek-to-Geek, if you weren't the ones putting it all together would you be first in line?
DZ: Absolutely! There are a couple other geek bars out there and I want to visit each and every one of them. There's AFK Tavern up in Seattle and they're doing some really cool stuff, there's Mana Bar in Australia that I really want to visit and just north of us is the 42 Lounge in Milwaukee. There are places that are being deemed as that hub of geek culture and we think it's fantastic that the community is finally getting to the point where we can be a sub-culture that deserves its own bar, deserves to have its own place that can sustain itself and that's what we're out to prove here… and our aim is to go big or go home.
Ryan Bond: And the small ones have already been done, ya know? Atlanta has Battle and Brew, which is a bar-slash-gaming spot where you can play League of Legends while some other people are playing Mario Kart and they do specialty nights but their place isn't very big whereas ours is enormous. There you can have two different sets of events whereas at ours twelve different events can be happening in a particular evening and throughout the course of the day. Plus there's that whole other end of geek that they cater to at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland with Nerd Night where they have university experts in a theater talk about the flooding of the Willamette Valley and break down the genome project. We'll have stuff for them too.
SP: How has the response been from the community so far?
DZ: Incredible. It's clear that this is something that Chicago has needed for a very long time and it will only grow once we actually open our doors. We have a huge burgeoning tech community here in Chicago and we are already talking to folks at the Illinois Science Council, the Museum of Science and Industry and people from the neighborhood that want to bring in more of these great tech and engineering jobs. With us as an anchor for that there's going to be some really cool stuff happening not just around Chicago but around the Geek Bar itself. We also have a great gaming community in Chicago and something that really helps us is that we are part of one of the largest meet-ups in Chicago called Chicago Game Lovers which has over fifty events throughout the month and over 2200 active members.
SP: How does it feel to know that you're giving the geek community at-large something they have needed for a long time?
DZ: It's gratifying for us to hear from all these people who are reaching out to us asking 'please – when are you open?' because it's this urgent need to have that ability to say I have someplace I can go where people understand me. So yeah, I think that what we're doing is really important to the community, it's really important to Chicago and I think it's really important to nerds across the world because we're proving that this is a market that is totally untapped and needs this and we're here to meet that need.
RB: And not only are we going to be creating a community center with great events and programming internally, but we will also be helping to promote and sponsor panels for LGBTQ, Equal Rights and Anti-Harassment issues which are important components. We have co-sponsored and kicked off panels at Wizard World and C2E2 with the Chicago Nerd Social Club so we are advocating too and having our establishment will put that advocacy even more to work to put a bigger stamp on issues and concerns across the Chicago area.
DZ: We have such incredible artists, geek feminists, game developers, artist, authors and techies in the area that are speaking out and just getting louder and more involved in everything that's going along. We've got people like Three Floyds Brewery who are just over the Indiana border who are not only putting out some of the greatest beer in the region and, some would argue, possibly the world but they're so geeky that they based all their beers on D&D campaigns and characters that they had developed and now they are going to be creating a comic book that they are going release worldwide that features these characters. That's the kind of energy that we have here in Chicago and we're looking at how we can take that and capitalize here in Chicago and also boost the signal worldwide as we build our media empire as well.
SP: Okay, now I have to ask the question that's on every impatient geek in Chicago's mind: why are you guys waiting? You have tons of fans, your Kickstarter campaign was extremely successful and people are literally banging on the doors to get inside.
DZ: It's not by choice, believe me, if I could open today I would absolutely open my doors today. We are putting all the pieces together behind the scenes so that we can get to the exciting part where geeks get to be amongst their people. The geek tribe is huge and not everybody loves everything but we are working to create an environment where you want come in even if you're not necessarily involved in whatever guest speaker or gaming tournament we're having that night but you still feel like you're around people who are like yourself. I think that's the most important thing. The most successful bars in the world really have been based off of that tribal aspect.
RB: I think one of the benefits of the pure size of the space is that we can have a tournament in one area and then if you want to come in and just have a couple beers and talk shop in another area you can do that too. Nobody will have to feel pressure to be super-geeky about everything because there are so many different areas – the downstairs and upstairs will have different offerings.
DZ: I can't tell you how many people I have talked to that have told me 'I am not in the least bit geeky but I still want to come in just because this sounds so different, so perpendicular to any other bar I've ever been to sounds like' and let's be honest – everyone has something that they're geeky about, that they're passionate about, that they want to share with the world…and maybe you don't think of yourself culturally as a geek but you still have that thing. It might be accounting. It might be 50's cars. Whatever it is you can probably recite stats and go to town telling stories about stuff you've done that relates to it.
We're not going to force anybody to say they're a geek when they come in because I think that's counterintuitive to what we want to do. We want to create an inclusive environment and we're not going to tell people 'oh you're so geeky' we're going to let them decide that for themselves. If you do call yourself a geek we are creating a place for you and whatever your geek division is you will probably find at least a few other people who will relate because they have something that they love too and want to share that with you.
SP: What happens when every geek in Chicago descends upon your establishment with an insatiable appetite and thirst – are you afraid of maybe having too much success?
DZ: That would be terrible problem to have…[laughs] but the place is ten thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight square feet total so we are planning for success here and if things go that well we'll just have to look at what other concepts that fit under geek hospitality so we can make sure we're serving the community as much as they need to be.
SP: The mark of a genius is striving for something that has never been done before with true passion and relentless faith. The Neolithic legend that first chose to invite a few of his cave-dwelling neighbors over to taste his new favorite beverage ended up helping humanity develop its tribal roots, grow as a community and ultimately lead to the world we live in today…you know, after the hangover wore off.
In just a few months, Geek Bar Chicago is going to open its doors and start one of the most ambitious and impressive geek-themed hospitality endeavors in history. While there is no guarantee of success, historically, whenever a new business begins with the mindset of creating something that fills a need that its creators believe in it is a very good sign.
For example, Steve Jobs wanted to build a more useful computer and ended up giving civilization a plethora of new ways to view and engage the world that fits right in the palm of our hands. Similarly, Geek Bar Chicago is giving like-minded people a new way of sharing their passions so that they can be better utilized, understood and developed. It just so happens that these passionate people by-and-large tend to be skilled in diverse art forms, tech-savvy and well read in contemporary literature. There is no telling what the creation of such an enormous space for this tribe to congregate and learn from each other will lead, but one thing is for sure: the Geek Bar Chicago will be beacon for a social revolution that anyone with a passion in their life can appreciate.
In close – I've said it once and I'll say it again: this culture is evolving, a revolution is coming and those who open those doors are on the right side. There is not a doubt in my mind that the team behind Geek Bar Chicago will go down as visionaries for providing the world with an example of how brightly this culture can shine with the right encouragement and some space to call their own.
Video credit to Nathan Hromanik
All other photos provided by Jenna Braunstein photography
Shawn Perry is a proud geek striving to be here now. He currently resides in East Hartford, Connecticut. Tweet him @thesperry and email him at Shawn.Perry88@gmail.com.