It’s not uncommon to open the front door of Sarah’s Place and let a smooth jazz melody pour into the streets of an otherwise quiet block.
When purchasing the humble Brewerytown bar, Aaron Smith and his colleagues learned that this was a building serving the neighborhood since the 1930s. Baltz Street is named after a family-owned brewery that populated the small block and Young’s Candies had a 100 year run across four generations before closing down in 2006. Both were situated in walking distance from the bar.
Smith said he wants to reflect this prominent history at Sarah’s Place. Keeping the “mom and pop” feel was important to keeping the memories of yesteryear alive.
“This bar highlighting what Brewerytown has been like for a really long time is huge,” Smith said. “It’s very optimistic to think that any neighborhood can kind of retain that historic feel to it. Eventually people start thinking it’s a cool place to hang out and it’s a very localized feel.”
The bar is named after its previous owner, Sarah Barlow. When Smith approached her about curating the space, it was a matter of timing. Barlow was ready to move out of the bar, Smith said. It had run its course.
Her identity, however, is that of a permanent resident, both the bar and the neighborhood.
“Sarah was Sarah. This was her place,” Smith said. “She is an amazing human being who just had enough of owning a bar so we bought the place and we were excited to get it. We really didn’t know what direction we wanted to go with it.”
Smith and his partners were all born and raised in Center City. They said they stay active in the community, mentoring kids and coaching baseball – they feel connected to the heritage.
Wanting familiarity not only keeps the customers, but it also attracts the entertainment.
Philadelphia native and Saturday night DJ Philip Curtis Cofield, known as Blaak the 9th Man, personally connected with this familiarity when he approached the bar.
Spinning vinyl since he was 9 years old, Cofield said he takes his audience on a “vinyl excursion,” instead of playing the same rotation of songs that populate the radio everyday. He wants his music to reflect the vibe of the bar he describes as “soul vibrations and good libations.”
“I can’t think of a word for the scene here and that’s crazy to me. But I just can’t,” Cofield said. “Philly is fickle. They don’t want quality DJs anymore. They want cheap, and that’s exactly what they get.”
Prior to the renovation, the second floor used to be Barlow’s bedroom. Now, Smith wants to open up the space for talented musicians. He pulled up the purple shag carpet but left a lot of the vintage designs including clashing two-toned tiles and a mix-match of dated tables and fold-up chairs.
He wants to host artists that complement the organic vibe of the bar. This opened the door to all genres including punk, reggae and neo-soul jazz – as long as they were talented, they would have a spot, Smith said.
“On some level you can’t even describe what’s going on here,” Smith said. “Not just at Sarah’s Place, but in Brewerytown in general. There’s a really cool vibe of meeting other people and just being in the neighborhood. The undefinable might be better than trying to throw some sort of label on us.”
Resident Sunday DJ Skeme Richards, who preferred not to use his real name, said he fell in love with this nameless genre. Growing up in Philadelphia, his idea of going to the club means shaking the hands of everyone – from the bouncer to the manager.
DJ Skeme Richards said he believes going to hear live music in the neighborhood should feel like going home, not just blending into the crowd.
“It’s a neighborhood place,” he said. “It’s been a bar since it opened. It has history being here. The venue and the history of the neighborhood is reflected in the music. … It’s kind of like carrying on tradition.”
Smith said Barlow wanted to make sure the people felt comfortable; she knew they would be coming back for the next 30 to 40 years.
“There’s so many scenes going on here,” Smith said. “I think that was the dream of Sarah’s.”
“Development is a very funny thing,” he added. “You can try to impose what you want to do and see what happens. But this place has a lot of character and a lot of characters. It’s really what keeps it going.”
Patrick McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com.