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The Nightcap: Building community at The Layover

on November 4, 2011

Christi Vaughn wasn’t sure what to think when her husband, Tim Martinez, came home one day and said he’d found the perfect place to open a bar—on Franklin Street at 15th Street in downtown Oakland.

“He had been talking to me about it for quite some time, and he gets a lot of ideas in his head. I usually let him go with it until he’s able to present some hard proof of the next step,” Vaughn said. “So I went down and checked it out and kind of picked his brain about his vision.”

Martinez had previously owned a café, and talked about opening a bar for some time. But he didn’t seriously bring the idea to his wife until he found an ideal location. After Vaughn checked it out, they both agreed they loved how the place, which had previously been a dive bar called Pat’s, was off the beaten track a little, which would keep it from being too trendy. More people would find out about via word of mouth, which they preferred. The location also gave them the opportunity to “bring some energy and life into an otherwise desolate area,” Vaughn said.

The couple soon quit their jobs working for an eco-friendly building company and got to work on opening The Layover, a bar and music lounge.  Its atmosphere is relaxed, almost like someone’s living room, with bright paintings hanging on olive green walls. There are a couple windows in the front, but the lighting is dim. The DJ booth is made from wooden recycled steamer trunks. The furniture—a multi-colored collection of wood chairs, tables of different sizes and couches covered in pillows—doesn’t necessarily all match, but does fit together.

Vaughn and Martinez collected the furniture over time at thrift stores and Craigslist, and Vaughn fixed up some of the seat cushions using a sewing machine upstairs from the bar. All the furniture is also for sale, Martinez said, and not because he wants to make a profit. “I like the novelty of it,” he said, “and it keeps the bar looking fresh.”

Keeping the place fresh and organic is important for Martinez, a 44-year-old artist. He said a goal when the place opened was for it to be more than just a place to grab a drink, but also a community-gathering place that is different every night. They have hosted fundraisers for non-profits, authors’ readings, and stand-up comedy. There are DJs and live music regularly, and dancing on the weekends. Martinez opened an art gallery next door called depARTure gallery, which showcases the work of a different Bay Area artist every month. “We want it to keep evolving,” Martinez said. “What works now might not work one year from now.”

“I like surprising people,” Vaughn added.

The drink menu includes beer on tap and cocktails with fresh fruit, like blackberries and plums, grown in the yard of Martinez and Vaughn’s West Oakland home . Vaughn makes a plum jam that goes in their “Whiskey Buck” cocktail, which Martinez said is the most popular drink served.

Owning more than just a bar is exactly what the couple wanted to do when they decided to switch careers and leave the green construction business. Vaughn, 36, had worked off-and-on as a bartender since turning 21, and Martinez had some experience owning a business, having opened the café and art gallery Papa Buzz (now Mama Buzz) on Telegraph Avenue 15 years ago. Martinez lived above the shop and brought in other artists to live in the building and area.

“He brought some life onto that block,” Vaughn said. “He met I don’t know how many hundreds of people that way. When we opened the bar here, one of his customers from the café came and fixed (the neon) sign with the martini glass out front.”

Martinez said he hopes The Layover has a similar impact on its block. When they first moved in, people would stop by just to say how happy they were the old place wasn’t there. “This used to be a bad seed,” Martinez said of the building. “People told me they used to walk on the other side of the street at night.”

Now the place is packed, with an after-work crowd of people who work downtown, and a night and weekend crowd of mostly 20 and 30-year-olds. On the weekends, the area in front of the DJ booth clears out, and the tables and chairs are replaced by a dance floor full of people moving to classic soul and hip-hop. This October, The Layover celebrated its two-year anniversary with a block party with music and food vendors that closed off the street.

Martinez said that as long as the place to keeps changing—the furniture, the art, the music—and remains an important part of the block, it will be successful. The Layover isn’t just a bar, he said, it’s its own little economy. “We employ everyone from a janitor to the guy who drops off the beer, all the DJs, bartenders, artists,” he said. “The artist that just walked up to me and shook my hand, last night he sold a painting here for a decent amount of money. That makes me happy, you know?”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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