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Saturday, June 08, 2019

Learning to Listen, in a Los Angeles Cafe Built for Vinyl | Music - The New York Times

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Welcome to the Bar. Now Be Quiet.. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Japanese-style listening bars, where D.J.’s spin carefully selected records for a hushed audience, are arriving in America. But truly appreciating them can take a little practice, explains Ben Ratliff, journalist and author.

Zach Cowie, the bar’s creative director, pays attention to the quality of pressings, and allows in the bar’s collection only reissues transferred from original analog-tape masters.
Photo: Nathaniel Wood for The New York Times

At 9:30 on a recent Monday morning, I parked on East Fourth Place in the downtown arts district, between Skid Row and the Los Angeles River. I walked into a kind of glass vestibule, then opened a door into the half-light of In Sheep’s Clothing, a listening bar. I was returning for a second visit, at an unpopular hour, because I hadn’t grasped its purpose at a popular one.

Listening bars — cafes with high-end audio equipment, where patrons listen to vinyl records, carefully selected by a bartender, from a record library behind the bar — have been an institution in Japan since the 1950s. They are a subset of the kissaten, the small and idiosyncratic coffeehouses dotting side-streets in Tokyo. Only recently have several emerged in New York City, Los Angeles and a few other places. Shakily, a culture and a lore are growing, of connoisseurship and grace and obsession.

At this early stage, the American listening bar (sometimes called a hi-fi bar) remains a social experiment, because a bar is still generally understood as a place to talk, not listen; recorded music is a compulsory extra, but generally ignored or appreciated in flickers. Even those who know something about the purpose and origin of the listening bar may not be ready for it.

At best, the listening bar raises good questions about whether there might be an unrealized public-listening or group-listening ideal in a ritual as familiar as going out for a drink. At worst, it’s pretty much like a regular bar, but with a troweling of extra noise provided by an obscure record you’re not hip enough to know, played on equipment you’re not rich enough to own, in a room that does not accommodate dancing. It can be hard to talk, much less to listen.

I’ve been dropping in to several places to see what I thought — particularly In Sheep’s Clothing, where I had the best experiences overall, but also Public Records in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Tokyo Record Bar in the West Village of Manhattan and Gold Line in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Other well-known listening bars outside Japan include Bar Shiru in Oakland, Calif., and two in London: Brilliant Corners and Spiritland.)...

Most proprietors of the American listening bars are candidly inspired by the kissaten, with their individually defining special interests — jazz, classical, noise and drone music, and so forth. (To a lesser extent, they draw inspiration about the ethics and philosophy of listening, and about specific audio gear, from the New York D.J. David Mancuso’s loft parties in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s.)...

There are about 600 records behind the bar — 200 for day, 400 for night. Zach Cowie, the bar’s creative director, told me a bartender can pretty much put anything on at the appropriate time of day and it’ll work; you’re always hearing Mr. Cowie’s ideas about music, which tilt toward introspection. The range is pretty capacious, but will likely catch you with something you didn’t know.