The Glass Menagerie

How many times have you been to a house party and been served a straight-up martini in a wine glass? Or champagne in a flimsy red plastic cup? We’ve even seen a Cosmo in a rocks tumbler. I’m as guilty as anyone else. At a New Year’s Eve party I threw last year, I saw the mood level diminish before my eyes when I handed guests their bubbly in coffee mugs. “It’s not about the glass,” one friend said gamely as she grabbed the mug’s handle and attempted a swig.

Cocktails may have made a comeback, but we’ve been decidedly lax on the barware. This is where Joe Keeper, owner of the Silver Lake shop Bar Keeper, can help.

“Do you know that people coming of age today missed out on the whole vintage cocktail thing?” he asks. “Even the whole Swingersrevival?”

Keeper opened his place last April after growing tired of his work as a reality TV producer (Big Brother, Celebrity Mole, Monster Garage). To figure out what to do next, he made a list of his loves and hates. Among his loves was his Silver Lake neighborhood (he’s been a resident since 1987); high on his list of hates was commuting through traffic. Opening a shop near his home seemed perfect. But now he had to tell his wife. So early one morning he drove her out to a particularly expansive section of California desert — okay, it was Death Valley — gave her a shot of tequila and broke the news that he wanted to quit his job and become a shopkeeper. She gave him three choices: head shop, toys or barware. He loves the traditions of cocktail eras gone by, and had recently read a newspaper report that predicted a new rise of the old-fashioned cocktail. It had to be Bar Keeper.

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The shop is a crucial spot for serious collectors to satisfy their highball, sidecar, margarita and absinthe needs. But Keeper also tries to convert committed beer drinkers. To explain the allure of cocktails to casual shoppers who peek inside the store, he sometimes asks, “Have you ever smoked a joint?” Depending on how the customer responds, he follows with this explanation: “There is a communal spirit to smoking with a group — it’s the same thing with cocktails. Anybody can pour a beer, but it’s the tradition of mixing, serving and sharing that makes drinking a group experience.”

He also points out that it doesn’t have to be alcohol that is consumed — especially if you serve your drinks in really cool glasses. One idea: Instead of bringing a bottle when you’re invited to a party, bring your host some Bar Keeper martini glasses. Sure, anybody can buy some stemware at Crate & Barrel, but at Keeper’s shop, you’ll find one-of-a-kind pieces thanks to his army of pickers, a group of aggressive young men who travel outside of Los Angeles to retirement communities and score real finds.

One of his best sellers is a real holy grail of mine — the unbreakable wine glass. My friend Mark had piqued my feeble-fingered interest when he told me he had just purchased some of Keeper’s miracle stemware. “Unbreakable, huh?” I repeated skeptically. I’ve broken dozens of wine glasses in my time. But he told me how Keeper had knocked a wine goblet down before his eyes and the thing just bounced. But later that evening, while entertaining friends and family, Mark took his empty wine glass, announced to everyone that it was unbreakable, hit it squarely on the corner of a table — and it shattered into pieces. The next day he went back and asked Keeper, “What gives?” Was there some trickery? Some force field protecting glass at the little Sunset Junction corner? Keeper smiled and told him that you can’t hit the glasses on a sharp corner. They’re break resistant, meant to survive a spill, not an assault. You can’t drop a cinder block on them like one customer did. Now Keeper includes literature explaining the limits of “break resistant” with each purchase. And when I went in to the shop to see for myself, Keeper had no problem knocking a glass hard against the wooden shelf it sat on — repeatedly. The glass did break eventually, but it was quite a show. “I sell them even when I break them,” said Keeper, picking up the glass shards. “People like to see me demonstrate. I just remind them, everything has a threshold.”

Meanwhile, Keeper continues to do his part in nurturing the social tradition of cocktails by hosting parties in his shop the first Friday of every month. He invites a mixologist to come to the store and teach customers how to make one or two drinks. He’s had absinthe tastings (it’s illegal to buy it or sell it, but not to drink it), and on December 5, he celebrated the repeal of Prohibition by drinking beer and Jack Daniel’s. His next tasting will be January 12. His parties are free and draw a nice, diverse crowd, “lesbians, gays, transgenders, singles, breeders, you know, everyone,” he says. Keeper also screens drinking movies above one wall of the shop. Of course, The Thin Man is a favorite. “William Powell woke up and poured himself a martini every morning and no one ever called him an alcoholic,” says Keeper of the film’s leading man. “There was a dignity and a sort of ritual ceremony to making that martini.” He relates that sense of dignity to his business: “I find that people, when they have the right kind of glass, they stand a little taller, a little prouder.”

Bar Keeper, 3910 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 669-1675.

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