Volume 76, Number 34 | January 17 - 23, 2007

Punk icon pair replace guitars with T-shirts and cheap booze

By Brooke Edwards

It has been three months since the East Village bore witness to the “death of punk” with the simultaneous closing of the legendary venue CBGB and the end of live music at its younger competitor, Continental, last October. Both names — live on — albeit without screeching guitars, through fashion in one case, and in the form of a dive bar in the other.

Thanks to a multimillion dollar-a-year wholesale and online business called CBGB Fashions the famed Bowery club’s iconic T-shirts continue to sell like punk hotcakes.

Bucking criticism of the commercialization of a name that once stood for “anti-establishment,” owner Hilly Kristal began mass-marketing CBGB merchandise in 2000 and has seen tremendous success ever since.

Though sales have since slowed, Kristal said in a telephone interview on Monday, “They were very, very high the last few weeks before we closed. I’d be a millionaire if only…” and his voice trailed off with a laugh.

Those who know Kristal could finish the sentence for him: “…if only he cared more about money.” Even at the height of his club’s success, Kristal never held on to much, as he consistently reinvested his profits into experimental art galleries, pizza parlors and record labels.

And, in spite of its large wholesale marketing to boutiques and high-end department stores, CBGB Fashions merchandise continues to sell for an average of $10 to $30.

Yet, sales appear slow at the new CBGB store that has been open since November on St. Mark’s Pl.

As shoppers approach the CBGB store, the canopies outside resemble in miniature those that welcomed music fans to the club for 33 years, until it lost its lease and was forced to close. However, the store’s resemblance to its notoriously grungy namesake ends there.

Once inside, posters for The Ramones and Blondie — both of whom can credit CBGB with giving them their start — are carefully positioned across shiny black walls. There are racks and bins overflowing with T-shirts and sweatshirts and kerchiefs. But on a recent Sunday afternoon when most stores on St. Mark’s were bustling with weekend crowds, there was not a single soul in the store. Partly affecting foot traffic may be the store’s location — set back from the sidewalk and below street level in the new building that replaced the old All-Craft Foundation several years ago.

One of the workers kept busy by refolding already perfectly folded shirts and stocking already full bins. The young woman behind the register flipped through a glossy magazine and admitted that it’s usually this slow.

Kristal insists that the store is doing “all right,” but hopes it will pick up after this post-holiday lull.

While Kristal does plan to open a CBGB rock venue in Las Vegas, the details remain vague.

“I have a few locations I am looking at out there,” he said, “but I’m still negotiating.” He hopes to begin the project within a few months.

One thing is certain: Kristal said the new club will still be all about the music.

“Music, music and more music,” he said in his characteristic low drawl. “Always lots of music.”

Around the corner at Continental, the sign over the entrance reads, “Continental is no longer having live music. Thanks for 15 amazing years!!!! We now have: a pool table, the best jukebox ever, and low, low drink prices!”

Continental’s stage played host to many of the same bands that were made famous at CBGB, including the Toilet Boys and the She Wolves. Joey Ramone, lead singer for the band that many claim single-handedly started the punk movement, played his final show at Continental on Dec. 11, 2000.

Since its opening in 1991, the club featured as many as 16 bands a night and saw consistent crowds.

Faced with soaring rent prices and a changing music scene, Continental closed for a week or two of remodeling and reopened last October.

In its current state, it is hard to distinguish Continental from the countless other dive bars that crowd the East Village. The stage has been ripped out to add more seating and a pool table now fills the still-intact greenroom, where performers such as Iggy Pop and Guns N’ Roses gathered before and after shows.

Trigger, who owns Continental and goes only by his nickname, was manning the door and checking I.D.’s, while wearing his trademark Vietnamese conical hat, on a recent Friday night into Saturday morning. He said he’s still having a hard time adjusting to not having live music, and to being just a bar, and can’t believe the massive amounts of alcohol he’s been ordering. Though his current business plan features drinks at rock-bottom prices, he’s considering inching up prices slightly in a few months, which he hopes will mean some profit for him, with the side effect that his patrons will also wind up “less hammered.”

He said other rock clubs may come and go, but none will have the history of Continental and CBGB — especially CBGB.

“I miss the bands,” he said.

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson

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