Gabriel Birnbaum—who just released his solo album ‘Not Alone’—discusses Brooklyn destinations for literary treasure hunting, good light and a seriously diverse set of drinking partners
La Loba Cantina
That’s my favorite neighborhood spot. I always go there when I have the chance. I had my last two birthdays there. It’s a really nice space, which is really important to me. It’s full of plants, [with] big windows. It’s a mezcal bar in addition to serving Oaxacan food, and the mezcals are really good and there’s a hundred of them.
I just love [that] place. I feel very comfortable there. I’ve worked in the service industry forever—I still feel like I do, even though I guess I don’t anymore—and I feel like I’m so tuned in to the small emotional charges in the air of a restaurant—how the people seem when they’re working and how they feel—and that place almost always feel great. People feel like they wanna be there. All that contributes to the feeling of a great neighborhood place. It just feels good to be there.
709 Church Ave, (347) 295-1141, lalobacantina.com
It’s owned by a guy named Joey, who used to be my boss when I worked at another coffee shop… which i will not name, because I might talk a little shit. He was awesome, and I got him to hire a bunch of musician friends of mine. It was all my friends working at this coffee shop, so it was really fun, but the owners were not the best…
Joey opened his own spot, and so it’s all of the good parts of that coffee shop—which I worked at, it was a big part of my life—but it’s without any of the bad parts. So he got everything right. He roasts his own coffee in Red Hook. It’s got a great menu. It’s simple food—it’s sandwiches and oatmeal, basic café stuff—but really well done.
This is really important to me: the street-facing windows are all floor-to- ceiling, so there’s tons of natural light, really beautiful, and there’s tons of huge plants.
[It’s] another place where everyone is happy to be there and it’s just a really comfortable spot. It feels like being in a living room for me. All the local people come through… Everyone’s already adopting it as their spot.
199 Windsor Pl, daytimebk.com
Unnameable is amazing. It’s everything I want in a bookstore. They have really good shit, it’s curated well, and it’s also kinda messy. Almost always, if a bookstore is not messy, I don’t like it. There’s like piles of stuff in front of the shelves that you can pick through. It’s my favorite feeling—if I go into a bookstore and everything is piled to the ceiling and it’s just a mess. I love a treasure hunt.
[What are you reading?]
I read pretty widely. I used to read a lot of fiction, still read plenty. There’s a poet named Frank Stanford that I really love. I’m very obsessed with him. He’s a big influence. I’ve been re-reading a lot of his stuff. I’ve been trying to read more poetry recently.
A friend of mine, I was talking to her about it, she was like, ‘Instead of poring over it, poring over every line, I just try to read it like a book… not even think too hard about it. If it doesn’t make sense, that’s fine. If something strikes me, I’ll go back and read it more. If it doesn’t strike me, I’ll just keep going.’ It really took lot of the weird [intimidating elements] out of poetry—that sometimes keeps me from doing it—away.
I really like the Karl Ove Knausgård books, My Struggle. This Norwegian guy wrote a six-volume novel about his life, which is very easy to make fun of, but it’s amazing. One of my favorite things. He talks in the last book about how he has a really hard time reading poetry and always feels like an idiot when he tries to read it and it never makes sense to him, and, I don’t know, it’s very relatable.
Everything i’m into reading they have there. Good literature, good poetry, good literary nonfiction.
600 Vanderbilt Ave, (718) 789-1534, unnameablebooks.blogspot.com
Sunny’s is like the best bar.
Earlier, when I was talking about not liking Bushwick because every single person was within like a seven-year age range—Sunny’s is exactly the opposite. Every time I go to that bar, there are people in their sixties getting drunk, there’s people that look like they might not even be 21 getting drunk. It’s everyone. All the weirdos. People of all stripes. There’s like crusty old locals… It’s just a pretty welcoming spot.’
It’s an iconic bar for me. It just represents everything a bar is supposed to be. And as someone who bartended, that’s important to me.
[What is a bar supposed to be?]
Definitely welcoming to all. Bars are public houses. They’re places for people to meet each other. New York is a really lonely place and bars are so important here because if you’re just totally alone and you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can always go to the bar… and you can always wind up talking to someone. That’s a rule of a good bar: you should be able to sit at the bar and have a conversation with someone else you don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen…
Every time you go to a bar, the unexpected is always possible, and that’s what keeps them so exciting, even though you’re just drinking and talking, you know?
253 Conover St, (718) 625-8211, sunnysredhook.com
Figure 8 Recording
I love that place. That’s where we recorded Zion.
It’s a great space. It’s really thoughtfully designed, great gear, really reasonably priced for how nice it is. Compared to other studios that cost about the same in New York, I’d say they have much better stuff. It’s also the community around it.
It’s also personally significant for me, making this record, which is the first record we put out on a label—a big forward step for the band—and also the last thing we did before our lineup kinda shifted. It sort of feels representative of that period of the band.
Listen to Gabriel’s solo album ‘Not Alone’ here.
Feature image: Ben Curry
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]