NEW YORK — From the outside, 315 Bowery — the former address of New York's CBGB — looks nothing like its former self.
There's no Sharpie-inflicted graffiti praising the likes of the Dictators or Black Flag adorning the entrance. Instead, a security guard wearing a black tailored suit is manning the space's humongous glass door, across which the words "John Varvatos" are stenciled in black. Through the glass, one notices an array of church candles flickering wildly and a 6-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Inside, the smell of fine Italian leather and $190 blue jeans has replaced the tang of a million stale cigarettes, rat poop, spilled beer and all manner of bodily fluids. Instead of aged gutter punks with protruding gray nose hairs, there are rail-thin models — including Daisy Lowe, daughter of Bush's Gavin Rossdale — and other types of beautiful people here, splayed across antique chaise lounges, all as the final preparations for the store's impending opening are being made.
This isn't CBGB — the once-great punk club that helped launch the careers of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Bad Brains and Sonic Youth. It's now a John Varvatos boutique. Since the club's sole owner, the late Hilly Kristal, had a moving company pack up all of CBGB's contents — including the pee-stained, vomit-lined urinals — before the venue shut its doors for the last time, there isn't much in the way of "artifacts" here. But there are a few relics left.
According to Varvatos, who took MTV News on a tour of his latest store, the club's original walls — punched-in holes, cracked paint and all — went untouched, as did the antiquated ventilation system that runs throughout the space. It remains, along with the graffiti and band stickers, some of them hanging by a strand of glue. The staircase leading to what once were the club's restrooms, which have now been converted into storage space, is still covered in marker and stickers.
"I really wanted this space to be a very cultural space, and by that I mean I want anybody to be able to walk in off the street and really sense the history that was here," said Varvatos, who added that the entire basement was flooded with raw sewage when he moved in. "I wanted you to walk into the space and think it's not a commercial space and feel like it's about music, that it's about art, that it's about rock and roll. We wanted to marry history, rock and roll and fashion. What we've created is a unique environment and a unique cultural space."
At the front of the store, there's one of the first posters to be glued to the club's walls — one familiar to anyone who'd ever been to CBGB during its heyday — dating back to 1979 and encased in glass. On the other side of the club, there's a portion of one of CBGB's original walls, completely drenched in fliers and promotional stickers.
The remainder of the dimly lit space is pretty much brand-spankin' new. The floors and ceiling and the electrical wiring of the space had to be replaced, having been deemed structurally unsound. And now, CBGB has something it never had before: central air.
There's a large, sweeping chandelier that swathes the ceiling above and a stage, where Varvatos plans to put on small-scale concerts. Gone is the storied CBGB "green room" — which, essentially, was the size of a phone booth and constructed of shoddy plywood. In its place is a tailor booth, where customers can have alterations done.
And covering the walls on either side are concert posters for bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan, the Ramones, Guns N' Roses, Iron Maiden, Kiss and Social Distortion. There are rare and imported vinyl records and autographed Stratocasters, all from Varvatos' personal collection. There's also Ramones memorabilia on loan from Arturo Vega, who created the band's logo.
CBGB's dubious bar is gone too, packed up and lying in wait somewhere inside a storage truck in Connecticut. But as part of his vision to restore the space as much to its original design and layout, Varvatos had an old wooden bar shipped in from Pennsylvania that looks very similar to the original and is just as long. The bar serves as the store's checkout area. Flanking the wall behind the bar is a set of four stained-glass windows, which were extracted from an old church.
The designer, who considers himself a rocker at heart and actually caught a Ramones gig here back in '79, said he tried to do what he could to keep the CBGB aesthetic and ambiance intact.
"I came here one evening, not looking to rent a space at all. I was just in the neighborhood, and the landlord was here, so I asked to look at the space out of curiosity," Varvatos explained. "Within 30 seconds of being here, I thought, 'It's going to be a bank or something else. I can't let that happen.' I knew I had to do something with it. It was in bad shape. The place was gutted, the floors were rotted, and everything was pretty much gone. They took any of the history with them, so the history that we had was in the soul of the space and the walls, and that's what we tried to keep intact."
The biggest challenge, Varvatos said, is "respecting what was here and being true to what was here and still try to do business." As part of his takeover of CBGB, Varvatos said he'd like to put together an artist-development fund and host monthly concerts.
"I love the aura of this space," he said. "I wanted to save elements of the walls and this space. It was less about, 'What do we have to do about painting and millwork?' We didn't do any of that stuff, because if we did, it would feel like we weren't true to what was here. We wanted to save it, so it wouldn't become a Starbucks. I'm not sure Hilly would be happy with it, but a lot of the people who'd played here are already happy. They just kind of walked in and felt like it was cool, like it was right, and to me that meant everything. It means much more to me than the ringing of the registers that we did the right thing in here."