I’m a relatively tough broad who picks up bugs and snakes with my hands, shoots guns, and curses like a sailor. (I’d put “Sorry, Mom” here, but guess where I learned it…) But I’m also a smart cookie. So when I was tasked with meeting two strange men for an interview at an abandoned warehouse on the south side, I decided to bring backup. My bodyguard for the evening/the love of my life is a blue-collar strong man, built in a way that I wouldn’t hedge my bet were he set to arm wrestle a black bear. So I felt snug as a bug parking in an empty gravel lot in a seemingly desolate south side industrial complex. We approached the building in time for my evening interview and were greeted with literal open arms by two mustachioed men in vintage ball caps, one wearing a smoking jacket. They welcome’d and come-on-in’d us and proceeded into the ancient building. As we entered into a dark maze of doorways, I glanced back at my fiance/strong man. In his Virginia accent, shoulders sprinkled with sawdust from work, he beamed. “This place is awesome!”
Matthew Barnes and Jared Gibbons are Ohio kids all grown up. Raised in cousins’ basements with grandpa’s bar signs and Transformers cartoons, their aesthetic/background lies somewhere between the bourgeois creative scene of the capital city, and a wood-paneled sunken living room from 1990. Somehow, they’ve found a way to bring that pedigree into the present, with a curated collection of estate sale finds, and a keen eye for pop culture and design.
Now, they want you to join them in their space for a beer and conversation.
But this isn’t just any bar.
This is Leisure Club, a private club concept more Moose than Grey Goose.
Here’s how it works: Members pay $25 a month, and for this, they get an array of perks. You can come by Leisure Club’s meticulously decorated space and chill on a leather couch while their top-shelf VHS collection plays on an old school TV/VCR combo. You can bring your own beer or other beverages, or choose from the well-stocked ’50s vintage ice box that stands in the corner, unlikely to be moved again, as it weighs around 600 pounds.
A full sized basketball hoop is hung above a doorway. Huge windows run from knee-height to the ceiling, and the walls are covered with swag from decades past. Each of the three main rooms has its own curated vibe. The first is “The Classroom.” Tiny chairs circle around a desk, and an old goose necked projector perches on the windowsill. This is the room where Leisure Club will hold private musical performances, and possible gatherings like yoga classes and the like. The center room is hued in sepia, black and brown. They call this one “Eagle’s Landing.” It sports a portrait of Elvis clad in full cowboy gear, and is an ode to early Americana. The innermost room is called “Half Dome,” due to the double presence of painted landscapes feature the geologic occurrence. This room is clad in a more recent decade of throwbacks. An honest-to-goodness Farrah Fawcett latch hook rug is hung from the wall (who would ever put her beautiful face on the floor is beyond me.) Antique shelves sport everything from toy dinosaurs to old baseballs and other tchotchkes. Everything is old, everything is sturdy, and everything reminds you of a flashbulb memory from your childhood if you grew up in the midwest in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
But the privileges of membership don’t end there.
The entire idea behind Leisure Club is one of curation. In a world where going out with friends is always a compromise, Gibbons and Barnes want their members to know they are coming to a place where they can experience a worry-free chill sesh. The clientele will be friends of friends, and the crowd size will be controlled, as the owners will cap membership to avoid crowding. Members and their guests can rest easy knowing they are in a familiar space, the door has an attendant, and that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. This means you can count on the coolness of the crowd, unlike a public bar where anything can happen. The guests of the evening can play their own music, bring their own food, and have a space where they can develop relationship with the other patrons, knowing they may cross paths again. How many bars let you pick the playlist and the VHS of the evening? None. That’s how many.
The only modern outcropping in the space will be a 70-inch TV where the LC crew hope to play games that clients can gather around. With a private space at their disposal, the sky’s the limit on the types of gatherings that can be held in there. They envision concerts with beers, birthdays with cakes, and football parties with a full spread of game day food. Bring your own decorations and cocktail ingredients, if you want. In a private club, guests make the rules and set the stage for whatever they can dream up. Just outside the windows, there is plenty of space for food trucks and vendors, where they hope to host low-pressure retail-chill events, so local makers can get in on the relaxed atmosphere. Hell, there’s already a closet full of vintage tees from Clothing Underground for sale that I perused greedily. Don’t touch that Star Trek one, though. I got dibs on it.
And what a stage it is, located inside an old industrial building being repurposed for commercial use, Leisure Club shares space with a few cool neighbors, and a lot of possibility. A huge brick building with a compound and complex running along railroad tracks, this space is destined to become to the south side what 400 West Rich became for East Franklinton. A hub of creative growth, and the site of gathering and celebrations. Leisure Club is intended to be a communal space, with no dress code, and a maximalist look designed to spark nostalgia and comfort. This is the opposite of white subway tiled bedecked, steel piped, twee houseplant dotted cafe and bar decor of the last several years. Those look sterile compared to this, which is fitting, as Barnes and Gibbons are bringing life to a place where manufacturing is dying. They are reappropriating the spirit of the place by re-creating the collective past within it. Bringing a leisure-focused pastime place into what was a labor focused atmosphere.
Leisure Club has gotten into this building at the ground floor, so to speak. Time will tell what the rest of the area will host. For now, Barnes and Gibbons can provide one thing for sure: A customizable gathering space with no shortage of personality, looking out onto the city skyline. A spot where everybody knows your name.