Thinking and Drinking in Cleveland

Our town offers ample opportunities to satisfy thirst and curiosity

Author David Giffels is in the basement of the Market Garden Brewery reading aloud from his book, The Hard Way on Purpose, an essay about LeBron James’ decision to leave Ohio four years ago, on the very day James has again officially become a free agent. It’s also four years to the day since James first became one, which set into motion the infamous series of events that led to The Decision. “Give us something to root for,” Giffels reads. “We’ll take anything.” The second reader of the night is Scott Raab, whose book, in case it isn’t clear from the title—The Whore of Akron–is also about James.

Giffels pauses between paragraphs to draw sips of the Ohio City beer garden’s Lakeside Lager. Husky half-gallon growlers emblazoned with the brewery’s name flank the podium like totems on an altar. Bartenders check stock silently and the audience sits in rapt attention, between bursts of laughter and sighs of recognition.

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In this subterranean chapel, it’s hard to know to what saint these 100 or so patrons pray—literature or beer. Truth is, most come out for a little bit of both.

That is all as it should be, according to those at Market Garden, who have put together a steady roster of programs designed to expand your mind along with your beer belly. It is one of a growing a number of Northeast Ohio nightspots that offer a somewhat sloppier version of a salon, presenting lectures, readings, panel discussions, film screenings, chamber music concerts, and drawing classes. These events—mostly free or at least very cheap—travel far from the traditional programming of most clubs—sometimes as far out as the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

“We’ve always done our best creative work in that happy place between the first and fifth beer, be it creating new restaurant concepts, names, recipes, etcetera,” says Sam McNulty, who, with partners, has created a bevy of beer-centric businesses along West 25th Street. “So it dawned on us that, much like our founding fathers—and many before and after them—wrote, philosophized, debated, discussed, plotted, and planned in pubs, the same could be done today at Market Garden.”

McNulty believes beverage alcohol in all its forms—particularly craft beer—“has a way of opening up the brains pathways and getting the proverbial creative juices going.”

If you think that just sounds like a beer-seller selling beer, you shouldn’t—he’s got science on his side of the bar.

“Research has shown that alcohol tends to reduce people’s ability to focus in on some things and ignore others, which also happens to benefit creative problem solving,” writes Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, in an article straightforwardly entitled “Alcohol Benefits the Creative Process.”

Giffels’ appearance was on the second anniversary of a series created by Matthew Stipe, Michael Croley, Jeff Draeger, and Dave Lucas called Brews + Prose, which organizes about a dozen talks a year. The events average about 100 attendees, some of whom are, Lucas believes, bar patrons who simply wander into readings and stay. The motto for Brews + Prose—“literature is better with beer”—he says, “is a compact way of saying that we want to build community among readers and writers, authors and audiences.” Another goal is to show off Cleveland’s best writers, and show off the city to writers outside of Cleveland.

Building community is also the goal of Lakewood’s Mahall’s 20 Lanes, a two-level bowling alley with a separate concert club and a bar with a small but innovative menu. Mahall’s started hosting lectures, discussions, and readings about two and a half years ago, the same time it ramped up its band booking, and the topics covered hew closely to the interests of the owners. Offerings have included monthly poetry and prose readings, the “Lecture in a Bar” series organized by WCSB 89.3FM’s Lisa Miralia, urban farming seminars, housing workshops, roundtable discussions with Lakewood’s mayor, a tech conference, documentary screenings, and 2012 presidential debate viewings on the bowling lanes, among other examples of offbeat booking (eg.,the Manly Mart, a craft fair for men by men).

“These sort of events don’t always bring in the cash that, say, a heavy metal band might, but these are the sort of things we believe in—supporting our community, giving people a voice, and exchanging ideas,” says owner of Mahall’s, Kelly Flamos. “Mahall’s has always been more than just bowling. It’s more than live entertainment, being a restaurant, or simply a watering hole. It’s a place where the community comes together.”

Community also comes together at Happy Dog, the hot dog-centric tavern on Detroit Avenue in Cleveland, and not just for the oddball condiments (Froot Loops and mac & cheese, anyone?). Owner Sean Watterson started booking beyond bar bands when he brought in Joshua Smith, principal flutist with the Cleveland Orchestra, and a few of Smith’s classical musician friends to play a concert there. They made two decisions Watterson thinks were pivotal: it would feature real classical music and not classical versions of pop songs, and the event would have a cheeky title that would telegraph its fun and informal nature: Orchestral Manouevres at the Dog (note to those who didn’t live in the ‘80s: it’s a reference to the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark). A line formed around the block to get in. Now Happy Dog hosts Classical Revolution Cleveland, the local chapter of a San Francisco-spawned organization, for a once-a-month gig.

One Saturday morning Watterson, whose interests include science, emailed Glenn Starkman, the director of the Institute for the Science of Origins—a partnership between Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and ideastream—to ask about giving a talk. Watterson received a reply by day’s end. Starkman’s talk, “The Origin of the Universe,” was booked for the Happy Dog’s 45-person basement venue, the Underdog. When the club gathered more than 100 RSVPs on Facebook, they moved the event to the big room. Life, the Universe & Hot Dogs is now a monthly lecture series. The tavern also added Happy Dog Takes on the World, a collaboration with the City Club and Cleveland Council on World Affairs that addresses international affairs. A liberal arts analog to the science series, called Happy Dog University, was created with Belt Magazine and its founder, author Anne Trubek. The idea, she says, is “to bring the liberal arts into the public—and in Cleveland, that often means a bar.”

Trubek says Belt launched the series “as part of our mission to produce complicated, in-depth stories about the Rust Belt.” Though she says it’s hard to tell who is at the bar already and who came for the talk, the talks have been standing-room-only events, with events specifically about Cleveland—one about Works Progress Administration artworks in Cleveland, and one about the history of promoting Cleveland—particularly well-attended.

Knowing that Cleveland’s thirst for beer is paired with a thirst for knowledge—especially among a younger generation, gives some hope. It’s not a slam dunk but, like LeBron’s return, it’s something to build on. And something—not just anything—to root for.