One of my first memories of Ames nightlife is World Beat Night at Boheme Bistro in the fall of 2005. I had just moved here as a freshman at Iowa State, and a group of students was gathered on a Friday evening for the two-and-a-half-block jaunt from my dormitory floor to 2900 West Street for an evening of dancing.
I was too young at the time to enter most university hangouts in the area, because they were primarily bars with no underage admittance, but from the moment I first set foot in the Boheme I could tell that it was a unique sort of place in town. Paintings of nudes covered brick walls dimly lit by chandelier and candles atop tables with comfortable booth seating. Albums of international and house music adorned a DJ booth in the back of the room that emitted refreshingly original sounds loud enough to dance to but usually quiet enough to hold a conversation over without yelling in someone’s ear.
The Boheme had a bar, but it was more than a bar. It had a dance floor for dancing and couches for chatting and a stage with a stained glass window backdrop for musicians and poets and philosophers and anyone else, but it was more than that, too. To its owner, Pete Sherman, it was fundamentally about fostering a more intimate Ames community.
“The whole idea of Boheme was to bring people together, ergo no televisions, no games, just kind of talk to somebody,” Sherman tells me on a comfortable November afternoon at Stomping Grounds café. “I felt that Ames could use something like that.”
Sherman is among the most atypical businessmen I’ve ever met. Although he ran a profitable and undeniably popular establishment for ten years, he objects to the notion that what he operated was a business at all. He relates this to me, interestingly, with a story about patrons who objected to a $3 entrance fee introduced in response to increasing weekend attendance.
“One of them came up to me and said, ‘Do you realize that I spend $100 here on a Friday night?’ And I said, ‘Do you realize I would rather you spend $15 here on a Friday night? I don’t want you getting drunk to the tune of $100. That isn’t what Boheme is about.’”
“And he got just furious with me,” Sherman recalls.
His convictions reached farther than this, I am reminded, when I ask him about why the Boheme closed in December 2007.
“The reason it ended is because I never wanted to start it,” he says. “I had no desire to run a club, ever.”
Sherman first attempted to open the Boheme in 1994. That was the year Dugan’s Deli, a hub for the Ames counterculture of the 1970s and ‘80s, closed on West Street. When that happened, Sherman sent out 200 solicitation cards to try raising funds to realize his vision but got little response. He made an offer to the building’s owners, but there was another, higher offer, and the place became the Long Shot bar.
When the Long Shot went under four years later, Sherman decided to forgo donations and rented the building on his own. Throughout the Boheme’s existence, he told employees and patrons that he would “bend over backwards” to help someone else take control. He was doing this for the community, for society, he would tell them, not for himself.
By day, Sherman works as an associate professor in Aerospace Engineering and Statistics at Iowa State. Before the Boheme closed, he would head directly from his day job to the bistro to ensure its continued existence. He says that he has never regretted the time he put into his establishment, but after ten years of commitment without finding a successor, he chose to let go for his own sake.
“I was sleeping there, had essentially zero family life,” he tells me. “And I figured I’d put my time in.”
The Boheme has a particular importance for many of us involved with the Ames Progressive. Some of our first meetings, when the publication was still just a newsletter, took place there, and the Ames Progressive Office opened the month after the Boheme closed to continue its tradition of Sunday open mic nights.
Before the new venue started, one of the Progressive’s founding members, Greg Bonett, was part of a serious effort to keep the Boheme open. But ultimately, Sherman says, the only people with the time and money to keep it open were businesspeople looking at their bottom lines, and Sherman wasn’t willing to turn his creation over to anyone who didn’t share his philosophy.
“We thought we could transition it from him to some sort of collective management,” Bonett explains to me over the phone from his current home in Los Angeles. “And there were a lot of interesting ideas . . . but it didn’t happen. We couldn’t really get it done.”
The Boheme shut its doors after a mid-December open mic night, and in February 2008 a new renter, Mike Brown, signed the building lease. In May 2008 he opened Mother’s Pub, which remains the latest incarnation of 2900 West Street.
Brown made a number of significant aesthetic changes to his new bar. The brick walls became wood paneling, the booths were replaced with high-top tables, the various wall decorations were replaced with four flat screen TVs, and a pool table was added. In short, what was once the Boheme has become a sports bar, or, in Brown’s words, what was once “very atmosphere-driven” is now “a little louder, a little harsher . . . probably a little more mainstream.”
“People that had been faithful patrons of the Boheme had a very negative reaction toward this place being here, and upon seeing how much the interior had changed from what it was, I think immediately fell into dislike with this place,” Brown says. “I don’t think they felt terribly interested or compelled to find out what this place might have to offer.”
Kody Barton is one of those people. He started frequenting the Boheme at the age of 16, and when he turned 18 was offered a doorman job there. He fits the description to a T of what he refers to as the Boheme’s “subculture” of artsy design school students who frequented the Thursday house music nights, although he started attending those long before he enrolled in Iowa State’s College of Design.
“I went in [Mother’s] once, and I’ll tell you what, it’s nothing like the spirit of the Boheme or Dugan’s Deli or anything like that. Completely gutted on the inside,” he says.
James Finch, who used to bartend at the Boheme with his girlfriend, gives me a similarly less-than-flattering review of Mother’s when I ask him about it, as have many other Boheme enthusiasts in the months since the new bar opened there.
For all its differences, though, Mother’s has tapped into its own legitimate part of Ames community. Brown understands the Ames bar scene: when he first moved to town in 2000, he worked at Thumbs – a bar just up the street from his present business – before moving on to Peoples on Lincoln Way until it closed. During that time, he also familiarized himself with the local music scene.
“I just fell in love with Ames,” Brown says. “It was the right size. I like the vibe and feel of it, the energy. It was a great music scene that was already here at that time and I’d love to see it expand.”
Today, he displays signs that read “Best Live Music In Ames” on the windows at Mother’s, and he tells me, “If there’s a niche right now that separates us from most of the other places, it is the music that we’re doing and the consistency in which we’re bringing it here.”
Mother’s hosts bands from across the country whose music spans a range of genres. Brown keeps an eye on the scenes in Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin, and he likes to regularly feature singer-songwriters. But some of the bar’s most successful nights come when what he calls the “classic bands” play: longtime Ames groups that originally played the venue when they were in college and it was still Dugan’s Deli.
“I’d like this to be everybody’s bar,” Brown tells me, “and I think that even though we may not look like the Boheme did back then, our attitude toward the bar, life, the night out, is not so vastly different.”
A large part of why Mother’s does look so different, according to Brown, is a matter of practicality. The Boheme’s bricks were replaced by paneling in the process of installing insulation that has saved the bar hundreds of dollars a month during the winter. Other changes were made in an effort to cater to the live music: for example, he wanted taller tables so that people sitting in the back could have clearer views of the stage.
Sherman has no bone to pick with Brown’s business specifically – “I wish Mother’s Pub well,” he says – but he has a unmistakable distaste for the Ames bar scene, which he sees as indistinct from those of too many other communities in the country, “just ordinary.”
“The bars around here, they’re all the same,” he explains. “They all have a major goal, which is to get people fucking drunk. Period.”
The more I talk with Sherman, the more I begin to recognize the international bent to his philosophical musings. He is well-traveled, and we chat briefly about our experiences in Krakow. He tells me that he would like to leave the United States someday, perhaps for Eastern Europe, “not too far east, not too far west.”
“I believe Americans are socially dysfunctional and it’s getting worse,” he tells me. “There are a variety of reasons for it, but the options that people have to go out are a major contributor. . . . I see it with my students, I saw it at Boheme. Why? Well, because there’s no opportunity for people to interact with each other.”
Not surprisingly, since it originated as a spin-off of sorts of his bistro, Sherman says that he thinks the Ames Progressive Office is the closest public place in town to offering the kind of community he strived to cultivate inside the Boheme.
“I see the opportunity in places like the Ames Progressive and the Bali [Satay House] for that kind of place to return,” Barton says, when I ask him a similar question. “But at the same time, I don’t think there will ever be another Boheme to happen unless you were to get Pete and some of the other people together and try to start it up again.”
When I ask Sherman about this, he replies, “I have no aversion to putting a lot of energy into another Boheme, and I’ve already told this to a lot of people.
“But under one condition: I own the building. I’m not going to dump into a landlord’s hands all of that time, money, and energy again.”
A Short Interview with Pete Sherman, Owner of the Boheme