From the upcoming book Tales From the Nanobrewery:
It’s the Fall of 2013 and I’m trying to find friends. It’s not easy.
I’m a University of Michigan alumnus in Indianapolis so I go to a U of M alumni viewing party at The Fox & Hound in Castleton, just down the block from where I live.
I knew a couple of the people that were running the event, but my anxiety was still running pretty high. I came a few minutes late on purpose because it’s a little bit easier to be discrete. The bar was loud, the game was in motion, everyone was entranced by the action. It was the perfect way for me to slip in and find where I could settle in for the game.
I remember seeing Brad straight away. He had a mohawk and a cut-off jean jacket. I loved it. I’m the type of person that is attracted to those that wear their outcast-style expression openly for the world to see. Me? I’m hidden and obscure. I think many people would laugh to hear me describe myself as such, but that’s truly how I feel.
I only wish I was able to open myself up like the guy showing up to a University of Michigan Alumni Association Football Viewing Party in a cut-off jean jacket, on-display tattoos, and a mohawk!
Welp, I thought, that’s definitely the dude I want to talk to.
I met Brad and Lauren and the rest, as they say, is history. Except it’s not. It’s seven years ago but it’s not history to me at all, it’s present day.
Tonight – a September in 2020 – I met Brad, Lauren, as well as our friends John and Laurie Thommen, at the Books & Brews Mothership, where it all began, for a couple drinks and food.
Flash back to 2013. As I settle in and say what’s up to Brad and Lauren, I remember very vividly trying to work in Books & Brews into the conversation. There was – literally – no one I knew that really saw my vision. That’s not criticism of my friends and family, it’s criticism of myself for not being able to paint my vision with my words. Nonetheless, Brad got it right away. And I mean by right away, I mean right-fucking-away.
I will never forget the look in his eye when I pitched him the idea. If he was a judge on Shark Tank he would have hit invest button immediately and the deal would have been done. Lauren, for her part, was equally as excited.
“Are you going to have open stage?” Brad asked.
“Will you host it?” I asked back.
“Hell yeah, I will,” Brad said. Lauren watched on smiling with her almost I-can-tell-the-future smile.
“Then you’re damn right we’re having Open Stage,” I said.
I have no fucking clue what game we were even watching. Did Michigan win? I can’t even tell you.
It’s early winter 2014. It’s really fucking cold. It’s Indiana cold.
One of the only ways I was able to go into business on my own is because I’m a stubborn prick. I didn’t have the money to buy furniture for the store so, as is so typically and predictably me, I taught myself how to build furniture just good enough to, as I would say, “all the tables have to do is hold up beer and the chairs have to hold up people.”
Funny side note about my terrible foreshadowing: the early chairs didn’t hold up people very well. At least a dozen people leaned back and burst through my early chairs before I realized how and where to reinforce them for the level of commercial use and abuse our guests would put on them.
The rest of the story with the early furniture and bookcases: we got high as shit off the fumes of the polyurethane. And not the good kind of high, the kind of high you wish you couldn’t remember. But the memory of which will, ironically, always trigger gratefulness.
I was so stupid. I was never going to finish. Here I was, starting a nanobrewery, and I was building all the furniture myself. The tables, the chairs, the bookcases, everything. For the people that know me, you won’t be surprised: this didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the start.
I want to start a business. I can’t afford to buy furniture. I will build the furniture. How hard can it be?
Turns out, it’s not so hard to build the furniture. It’s hard to build furniture for an entire restaurant. It’s extremely hard when you’re doing it all by yourself.
The next thing I knew Brad, Lauren, and John were volunteering (hundreds of) hours to get B&B started. They would come each and every day after work – sometimes I remember even picking Brad up after work to take him to B&B – where we would stain and finish the furniture.
We had to close the doors because it was so cold. Then we got uncomfortably high from the fumes so we had to open them up again. Then we would freeze and close them. And then we’d repeat this process for 2+ months before we could open.
When we were finally able to open, Brad was our Open Mic host for over two years. Some people don’t believe me when I say this but our Open Mic when we first opened…barely survived. Brad would play for a while, read a poem, tell a joke, and if we were lucky Tyler Joseph would show up and give us an hour shredding on his ukulele while Brad yelled for him to keep playing from the back of an almost empty room. Tyler would shrug and lay into an 8-minute version of My Guitar Gently Weeps. By 8:30pm the staff was giving me the, “I know our hours are until 10 but everyone is gone so can we please start mopping now” look. I would oblige.
One lonely, empty night with no sound on in our weird little warehouse nanobrewery – as the staff mopped up for the night – I asked Brad, “Yo Brad, I have a ukulele with a pick up in it and I’ve never played on a PA before… could you plug me in?”
“Ah, nice,” Brad said, “you play ukulele?”
“Not really,” I said. “But I know Stray Cat Strut.” What I meant was, I know my version Stray Cat Strut playing alone in my house.
“Sweet,” the professional musician who clearly knows the real version of the song said, “you play and I’ll sing.”
Never one to let in on the fact I have no clue what I’m doing, I agreed.
What happened next was an unintentionally hilarious Laurel-and-Hardy-style routine that didn’t need to be scripted or rehearsed because I didn’t know what I was doing and Brad clearly did.
“That’s not how the song goes.”
“Those aren’t the words!”
I didn’t give a shit about any of those things. And I definitely didn’t know or care about keeping time. But the next thing I knew was, a few songs into my at-home set list of abstract 80s and 90s tunes I chose mostly cause I could figure out the chords, I looked up and the remaining staff had stopped cleaning and were watching us, recording on their cell phones, and laughing their asses off.
So, like a small child egged on by the laughing adults in the room, I wanted to do more of that. I roped Brad into performing at open mic with me in front of non-staff and our impromptu act-that-was-no-act continued to elicit Andy Kauffman-like awkward laughter and stares. Brad, ever the professional, tried his best to coach me on the fly and I, ever not giving a shit, ignored him.
“Let’s do What I Got,” I said.
“What are the chords again?” I asked, not joking.
“There’s only two of them.”
“That’s not what I asked you, jerk, what are they?”
Such a deep and heavy sigh. Oh man, I love these memories so much.
If you go back and look at one of the first ever videos recorded and posted on the Books & Brews Mothership Instagram page, you’ll find Brad and I, stuck in time, strumming and playing along to Stray Cat Strut.
In the seven years that have passed we’ve grown to be family. He is my brother. Lauren is my sister. John and Laurie are my…cousins?
Just joking, guys – love you as brother and sister, too. 🙂
You can look at Books & Brews in the eyes of products or music or trivia or bingo or whatever else you like it or define it to be. I’m extremely happy that the people that have experienced Books & Brews have experienced it like any good piece of art, taking it, shaping it, and defining it to be their own – to fit their own story.
But like an aging rockstar with a hit song that nobody has heard the story behind let me tell you what Books & Brews truly is:
It’s a person without a place. He’s too nerdy to relate to the jocks. He’s too jocky to relate to the nerds. He doesn’t feel like he will find someone who will understand him. He doesn’t feel like he will find a place where he belongs.
Then he meets Brad. Then he meets Lauren. And so many amazing people in between.
And now he has a place.
And now he feels appreciated.
And now he feels accepted.
And now he feels encouraged to be himself. ♥️