Ten years ago, Coleman Brice was working as a financial statement auditor, which is a perfectly respectable job. But Brice prefers what he does now. Last night, for example, he was mopping spilled drinks.
He liked his old work just fine and would’ve stayed there a while longer if he could do it over, save enough to buy a building with an apartment upstairs to subsidize his business below. But ten years ago, he was ten years younger.
He signed a lease for an empty pool hall in Logan Square, applied for a Chicago liquor license, and quit the accounting gig the day it got approved. That’s when Cole’s Bar was born. He’s been doing his own mopping ever since.
This month, the beloved dive bar celebrates ten years in the neighborhood. To kick off all the talent that has come through, the bar is putting on a summer-long event showcase featuring artists that got their start in the dark, small but cozy stage in the back. Comics like Rebecca O’Neal, former host of the famous comedy night, and Odinaka Ezeokoli, who was in a season two episode of “Easy,” will come back to Cole’s. The events start this week and run through August; you can get a full lineup on Cole’s calendar.
The place where Cole’s sits now (2338 N. Milwaukee Ave.) used to be Renee’s Shooting Gallery until one night Renee moved out, took the toilets, the light fixtures, left a stack of bills and such a bad taste in the landlord’s mouth that an inexperienced local with a master’s degree in accounting from DePaul didn’t seem like such a bad idea for a tenant. Brice flipped the awning inside out and named the bar after himself.
“You know, it wasn’t always this cool when it opened,” Brice said on a recent Wednesday, his open mic cracking up audiences in the back—the Chicago Tribune just called it the best comedy open mic in the city while the Chicago Reader and LoganSquarist have called it the city’s best dive. Cole’s has consistently won our Best Of Logan Square awards for best music and best comedy.
“It was pretty bare-bones. I didn’t have a walk-in cooler. I didn’t have any equipment,” he said. “I had raggedy old bar stools that I got from, you know, maybe somebody who stole it from a liquor store that closed down. Stuff like that.”
We were sitting beside each other on a pew-style bench, graffiti lining the walls and tables (at least two calls to free Palestine, a green alien coming in peace), a rotating gallery of local art on display, a permanent collection of Lincoln portraits behind the bar, tons of people, mostly young, many not, flooding into the back room for free laughs and occasionally free shots, comics, baristas, tattoos, bike shop employees, musicians and probably maybe accountants, too.
Brice is tallish, 30ish, bespectacled, and often wears a black t-shirt. He’s friendly, people like him, he’s got a nice laugh and a subtle smile; wouldn’t you be happy? Most people call him Cole.
The Music Start
Before topping lists, before Netflix, and before the degree in accounting, Brice was a musician performing local spots like The Mutiny in Bucktown.
“I was just like any other 22-year-old who has a band you might find in Logan Square these days,” he said. “I had been wanting to be in the music industry, but it was kind of a horrible time. I mean, it’s still a horrible time for that; there is no music industry, per se—unless you own a bar, or you’re just really scrappy and doing it yourself.”
Which is Brice’s mode of operation. In a week or so of visits to Cole’s, I saw the proprietor-in-chief mop, fill shots to the brim, weigh the authenticity of an ID, erase an empty keg from the chalkboard menu, monitor the sobriety of a jubilant dancer, talk with customers, run the soundboard and laugh with his employees.
“That bar has just maintained a chill and unpretentious vibe the entire time it’s been open,” said Negative Scanner drummer/Shake Shop Repair owner Tom Cassling. “And I think a lot of it has to do with Cole himself. He’s just such a nice and welcoming guy and the environment that he’s created there… It’s just a more comfortable place.”
Cassling’s band released its first LP at Cole’s in 2015, and this weekend they’re opening for Superchunk at Thalia Hall. That kind of progression is exactly the trajectory Brice had been aiming to facilitate when he opened in 2009—a mid-level venue for bands trying to find an audience beyond their friends, a stage between your neighbor’s basement and Subterranean.
At Cole’s, there’s never a cover, which means it’s a great place to discover new music. I’ve stopped in on the way home from work many times to find myself bobbing along to bands I’d never heard of, bands from Cincinnati, Toronto, Finland and down the street.
“I’m really trying now just to book things that I actually like,” Brice said. “Because I feel like it’s a better bet long term, to be more of a curator, to put my stamp of approval on the entertainment, to be like, ‘No guys, come on down, this is good, Cole guarantees.’”
The stage is low and close to the audience, the sound system is plug-and-play, and the room-tilting luminescence ordering a drink beside you may very well be the singer of the next set. Bands sell t-shirts, buttons, tapes, LPs, and stickers. Sometimes people dance.
Comedy Joins the Ranks
And so the music came first. When Brice contacted Cameron Esposito about doing a weekly showcase, the comedy followed. Esposito started an open mic that has maintained intersectional inclusivity, a night when the Lincoln Park douche and Rogers Park hippie can come together and laugh through cringe-worthy newbies, left field first-timers, big dream waiters, and stadium headliners trying out jokes for their next special. Everybody gets four minutes.
Today, the show’s hosted by Alex Kumin and Chicago Reader covergirl Sarah Squirm, both brilliant, powerful, and able to make reading a clipboard hilarious.
“Cole’s was essential for me in finding my comedic voice,” Squirm wrote in a press release. “When I was just starting out, I needed a room that I felt comfortable enough with experimenting with outlandish performance, I needed a room where I wasn’t afraid to try big and fail huge.”
I got a taste of both one night a year or so ago when Kumin, transitioning from a previous comic’s rift on psychedelics, asked if anyone in the audience had a good story about mushrooms. I raised my hand. I’d just that day bought some shiitakes from Tony’s Fresh Market on Fullerton and had no idea how to cook them. The room laughed, and I’d never had a drug experience like it.
But then Kumin asked if I wanted to add my name to the lineup, and, not knowing how to quit while ahead, I said yes. I spent the next two hours sweating, drinking, and sweating some more. Finally, later, when I was up next, the comic ahead of me was having some sort of heckler-crowd-interaction that compelled me to take the stage before it was my turn and tell him to get off. This was the wrong move. I got booed from the stage, and Kumin said I was way out of line. My stomach hurts thinking about it.
I wasn’t shamed away, though. I live nearby, and I’m by no means a regular, but I go often enough to recognize the ones that are. There is the down on his luck rapper, and the bearded pool shark. There is the other bearded pool shark. Fashion ranges from muted Ramones-black to Squirm’s menagerie of leopard patterns and Fruit Looped leotards. At one point on a Saturday, my field of vision included six Canadian Tuxedos.
When I ask a 24-year-old painter with fake eyelashes, bleached-blonde hair, and a blue hat if she could define what it means to be a hipster, she answered, “It’s a group of people that pride themselves on being different, but when you look at a room of them it’s the same kind of different.”
There’s some of that. The self conscious smoker is alive and coughing at Cole’s, along with Friday night book readers (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), and a Wednesday night crowd too young to get an Adriana La Cerva reference. But the cool is cool, too. The chessboard floor holds it all. Comics that really are going somewhere. Locals that plan to stay.
A Neighborhood Shift
Back when Renee’s was still a thing, Milwaukee Avenue was home to a small scale printing industry. With the advent of the internet, the whole strip went out of business. Socio-economic shifts are swift in this town. One moment a neighborhood’s home to a vibrant Latino community; the next has a line at Taco Bell.
A couple hundred yards from my conversation with Brice is a soon-to-be-open Target, and then a who-knows-what after that. When I ask him about it, his first response is as a business owner. Shop local, vote with your dollar. But then the lifelong Chicagoan in him acknowledges that it’s not always so simple, that decisions get made top down, that zoning meetings are intentionally inconvenient, that anything could happen.
I do have a great opportunity to have visibility for the whole city and now be in a high traffic area where I can command some foot traffic and try and flex that muscle, and that’s what I’m trying to do. From year ten to twenty, that’s what my goal is.”
“I don’t have the opportunity to make money off the regular shot and a beer crowd anymore, or the young art students trying to make it work with two dollars,” Brice said. “But I do have a great opportunity to have visibility for the whole city and now be in a high traffic area where I can command some foot traffic and try and flex that muscle, and that’s what I’m trying to do. From year ten to twenty, that’s what my goal is.”
Cole’s is throwing itself a decade anniversary party all summer, but it’s hard to say how exactly the Wednesdays or the Thursdays, the Fridays or Mondays will be any different from the year-round cool it already offers. It’ll be sweaty for sure. But the beer, even the cheap stuff, is reliably cold.