Raise the Bar

Photo by Jack GouldI don't want Jack Flynn to be too rich and happy. I want him to be moderately successful, but maybe not so successful that he can afford to put a shower into the bitchen Costa Mesa warehouse where he lives. (He does shower, but at the Y.)

You see, if Jack Flynn were showering in his own shower, that might mean that Kitsch Bar—his small, ebony jewel in a Costa Mesa strip mall—had been overrun with grunting fools packed together in their finest Structure ensembles, leering at the pretty, slim blondes before slipping in their own puke in the parking lot. And we don't want that, or at least, not often.

No, we like Kitsch Bar just the way it is—with just enough low, comfortable chairs for everyone. It's not a pickup joint or a place for knuckleheads. It's the kind of bar to which one goes to catch up with a friend one hasn't seen in some time or to ramp up to or wind down from an evening out. It's upscale without being Newport Beach oppressive, nor is it a particularly Mercedes kind of place. Mellow. Good. Nice.

Of course, the other way Flynn could get disgustingly rich off his new venture would be to jack up the martini prices, and since I don't pay for drinks when Flynn is in the bar—and he usually is—well, that would be just fine. Jack away, Jack.

Jack Flynn is six-foot-one and handsome. His light-brown hair is skillfully tousled, and there's gray in his sideburns; his eyes slide from gray to green. He seems immune to flirting. I've watched women try to insinuate themselves into his notice; he either truly doesn't notice or just doesn't care. He tells a story that suggests an answer: young, attractive women floating on Ecstasy try to take him home one night, natch, and double-team him. He drives them home, and despite their machinations—the eternal conundrum of who will get dropped off first—he makes them actually go home, where (it should be added) their mothers are waiting. I am howling; Jack is matter-of-fact and doesn't seem to realize how funny the story is.

Flynn was born and raised in Hawaii. Back then, his name was Don, and his last name was something Hawaiian; he changes it with each new venture. He moved to OC in '84 at 17 and attended OCC. He had lined up a job at a TV station back home, but he got sponsored by Victory Wetsuits instead. In '88, he was recruited to work in Billabong's design department, when they were starting to do some real numbers. He was the second designer there, behind the legendary Bob Hurley. Inevitable creative differences with the sales manager led to his departure, and he went down to San Diego's Gaslight District to open a coffeehouse. It was supposed to happen up here, but while he was having lunch, someone else signed a lease for the space that would become Rock 'n' Java.

Flynn recounts this tragic tale often. He was sad.

He was about to take off into the ether with his motorcycle and a tent when he got a call to do interiors in LA, which he did for two years before getting completely over it. "I didn't want to deal with the drama queen designers who're freaking out because the powder room chair for their billionaire client didn't get there from Italy," he says with distaste. Well, who would?

He wanted to do something here—the kind of thing one could get in LA but not here at home. A late-night coffeehouse was the first option—but has he told you the story of how he lost out on that lease? A boutique hotel would be a blast, but he was a couple of million short. He did a short-lived clothing line but was insufficiently funded—it's nine months from the time one begins until one sees Dollar One, and at the same time, you're pouring cash into fabrics and, oh, I don't know, sewing machines and a sweatshop to put it all together.

But a bar? A bar is a cash business. Within minutes of opening, the till is filling. And there are no Accounts Receivable. "The only way to lose a bar," Flynn says, "is if you lose your lease because the landlord wants to build a skyscraper." (This is true only for bars with "48" licenses, which means you can serve all the hard liquor you want. As Linda Jemison of Linda's Doll Hut will tell you, a beer-and-wine license is virtually useless when it comes to printing money.)

Flynn, who's the kind of guy who keeps a journal filled with pressed leaves from his 12-week motorcycle trips, made a list of concepts for his LA-style concept bar. One idea was "Vodka," with floor-to ceiling Russian Industrial vodka posters. But Voda in LA is already a vodka bar. Another viable theme was "Shao Lin," which would have had candles, pebbles and Bruce Lee movies. A third was "Ole," a Spanish—but not Mexican—bullfighting-themed lounge.

But none of them made the cut.

There is a Costa Mesa mafia of upwardly mobile 30-year-olds who are not Yuppies; they're too genial, too bohemian, too clever for that. They include Andy and Dan from Memphis and the Lam brothers who begat Wahoo's, and they're buying up Costa Mesa like it's Park Place and Marvin Gardens, the better to populate it with chic and insouciant watering holes for the suburban sophisticate. They are literally taking the city over from the bleached-blond punks with the spider-web tattoos on their necks who used to run the place. Dan and Andy pulled the vomit-stinking rug out from under the legendary punk bar Club Mesa and turned it into the comfortably retro Detroit. The Lam brothers once bankrolled Our House, but they found the punk club too much of a hassle—fights, barf and more fights—to stick with it. Now the Lam brothers are silent partners in Kitsch, where no one brawls or pukes.

"Not to be elitist, but it's for people like us," Flynn says, by which he means "people who are into art and fashion but who didn't have any place to go before. Where would we go for a drink to catch up," he asks rhetorically, "where you could tell me about your new man?"

He answers it neatly. "The Fling is cool, but it wasn't designed for us." And we should let the old codgers keep it instead of running them out of their red-velvet womb. It's only right.

Flynn began scouting locations—sleeping and working in Burbank, driving to Costa Mesa every weekend. Since the ABC no longer issues 48 licenses, he would have to buy a bar that already had one. The guy at the Tin Lizzie, a small, divey gay bar across Bristol Street from Memphis, absolutely refuses to sell on the grounds that he will maintain a gay bar for his clients until the day he dies. Tony's Place and the Huddle weren't interested in selling, either.

"It was a bummer," he says.

The Bamboo Terrace went so far as to negotiate, but no deal.

Then, in January 2001, Flynn went into Club Shiki for the first time. The karaoke bar, a mainstay for Japanese businessmen, was situated sideways—as in, you can't see it from the street—in an unprepossessing strip mall down the street from the Shark Club. It's pitched among a couple of Japanese/Chinese restaurants, a liquor store, a donut shop and a nail salon. It is a terrible location.

(Flynn, of course, denies this. "Hey, customers don't have to run the 17th Street gauntlet [in Costa Mesa] to get on the 55," he says, which is certainly true, but also cuts down considerably on the foot and/or drive-by traffic.)

But a terrible location is one of the charms of a bar for the tragically hip: knowing where the damn thing is a coup on its own. When Kitsch Bar opened at the former Club Shiki Dec. 1, Flynn bowed to pressure from his silent partners and put up a sign. That sign is a manifestation of his unwillingness to market. It is a very, very small sign, about the size of a hubcap from a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado.

Flynn doesn't like to talk about money. "My mom didn't know how much I was making at Billabong," he tells me. And he's loathe to talk about how much he paid for his bar. I have promised not to reveal it, lest Andy and Dan from Memphis throw themselves off the nearest building when they find out the details of the steal. Still, it was more than the $25,000 he originally offered for the bar, license and its all-black, '80s interior. It's an interior that pains the design snob in Flynn, who shows me paint chips of, like, sienna and burnt umber—or is it umber and burnt sienna?—with which he wants to redo the bar. I try to convince Flynn that we do not need more beige in our fair county—but all black? Well, that's a design concept that may be '80s, but didn't it skip us right over? It may be 20 years old, but it's new for us! Let us relive LA during the Reagan Years. Please!

Back to the unpleasant money talk, I also manage to squeeze out of him that to break even, he needs to make just $200 per night—or 33 and one-third cosmopolitans. This is good, as I had been worried about Kitsch Bar's fate: I've been in there at 10:30 on a Friday night, with only three other people in the 73-capacity bar, including the barkeep.

But the DJs spin mellow, ambient, organic house (the better to schmooze over) for free—though they also occasionally play Lennie Kravitz, which sucks—and labor is, what? $6.75 per hour? So the biggest expense is rent.

Enter Kurht Gehrhardt, Jimmy O, and Wing and Ed Lam. The Lams were reluctant, having had nothing but a headache with Our House. But Flynn, who has been tight with them for 12 years, took them on a tour of LA bars like the Bigfoot and the Lava Lounge (the Hollywood version, not the Long Beach one). "By bar No. 3, they got it," Flynn says.

I mention my worries for the bar. "The Friday you were in there, we had two people," he demurs. "But that Tuesday, we did 47—on a Tuesday! There hasn't really been any rhyme or reason to it just yet."

I go back to the bar a few times to check on its population, and the crowd does seem to have grown, to about 40 people each time.

He continues. "I don't have nine months for this place to ramp up, but within six months, we should be going. I want it to be a staple for 10 or 15 years."

Flynn continues, "We haven't been getting the spider-web tattoos or the frat-boy jocks. They come in sporadically, see no [TV] monitors, and then head over to Garf's."

It's a difficult task getting the perfect clientele: spiderweb-tattooed punks, no. Bikers, yes. Upwardly mobile suburban sophisticates from 25-40 who are into art and fashion, yes. Dicks in Mercedes, who are rude to the waitresses? "Fucking split. Beat it. Go back to Newport," Flynn insists. Don't get him wrong; everyone's welcome, or at least so he claims. "Hopefully, though, you realize it's not a place where you could yell out or act like a knucklehead."

It's easy to like Jack Flynn. He can be a little too into style, making one (or at least me) feel hopelessly shabby. And he does tell that story about the Rock 'n' Java lease way too often. But there's something very appealing about a man who re-creates himself at a whim, from his profession to his name. He's the kind of guy who does things the rest of us jaw about doing—from hopping onto his bike to disappear for three months, to opening a cool, chic bar even though he doesn't drink, to living in a Costa Mesa industrial park. How many times have you talked about moving into an unfinished loft space? How many times have you actually done so?

We are sitting on the square, solid-oak stumps that serve as seats before a table suspended by chains from his loft ceiling. He is playing dreamy Hope Sandoval on the stereo. Large-scale paintings by Costa Mesa's own Tommy Dougherty are scattered about the space. Upstairs, where he sleeps, a utilitarian screen separates the mattresses on the floor from his closet, where each shirt faces the same direction, and each is perfectly spaced—two inches on either side—from the rest. It's the room of an ascetic and a wanderer (one encumbered by too many things) but also elevates mere clothes to gallery-worthy objets. We are taking a break from facts and figures to gossip about our love lives. I mention that I am back with my boyfriend for something like the seventh time. He lights up and confides that he has a muse who inspires everything he does.

The problem with muses, I say, is that you can't live with them or they become real people. You have to want them from, like, halfway around the world. Flynn acts as though this isn't so, but then he admits that his is halfway around the world, come to think of it—somewhere in Italy, or maybe he said Japan. But the thought of her, perfect in her absence, drives even his most mundane actions. He must have something perfect to show for himself. So the San Diego coffeehouse didn't pan out. So he went bankrupt in 2000. Here, in a Costa Mesa strip mall that's ugly as a wart, he will make something fine. Something for people like us. And if you can't be nice, go back to Newport.


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