A Sober Lounge in Bed-Stuy

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Picture a squad of European tourists, roller bags in tow, searching Bed-Stuy for a taste of real Brooklyn nightlife. And oh, what’s this? A cozy, softly lit tavern, anchored by a long, dark wood bar, live R&B jams floating out on the night air. The bar, Canticles, might be a perfect place to spend an evening in Brooklyn.

Except it’s not a bar at all.

Canticles is a singular space, a “sober lounge” created by local pastor Dr. Robert Waterman. Waterman’s vision, to create a bar-like atmosphere without the booze, has been quite effective. So effective that it regularly fools visiting tourists.

“We get a lot of Europeans staying in Airbnbs in the neighborhood,” says Waterman. “They peek in the windows, not knowing what we are at first, then end up sticking around.”

Waterman preaches at the nearby Antioch Baptist Church—you may have seen his giant smiling face on the billboard outside Canticles. In his wire-rimmed spectacles and fashionable street clothes, he seems less a man of the cloth than, say, a hip professor.

“People come in [to Canticles] and I’m not wearing my pastor get-up. They can be pretty surprised when they find out who I am later!” he laughs.

Canticles was the product of Waterman’s 2008 doctoral dissertation at Drew University. He thought his neighborhood—largely African-American with no shortage of watering holes—could use a different kind of meeting space. Somewhere lively, where people could come, hang out, maybe check out some comedy or live music, without the complications of alcohol. His dissertation asserted the lasting positive effects a space like this could have on its neighborhood.

Waterman was not looking to create an extension of his church; Canticles is not a preachy place, or even notably religious. Neither is it exclusively the domain of recovering alcoholics (though of course it may hold some appeal). Rather, it’s just a safe space to hang, drink a virgin cocktail or a cup of coffee, meet your neighbors, maybe catch a show.

Waterman owns the building Canticles is housed in, including the apartments upstairs. With the money he makes from rent, he can subsidize the low-cost sober lounge (there are no paid employees). He feels that owning the lounge space, and not depending on drinks income, allows his enterprise to be more sustainable than a bar.

On a given Friday night, Canticles may be hosting a DJ battle, a poetry slam or a sultry R&B performance. Waterman is always trying out new ideas for the space; he loves when community members pitch him. “You just wrote a book and want to do a signing? Talk to me,” he encourages.

In that spirit of new ventures, Canticles is about to broaden its appeal with the addition of a French baker. Waterman hadn’t previously instituted a food program, a potential complication for a straightforward enterprise. Then he met Sebastien Chaoui, a talented local baker who hails from France. Chaoui had been priced out of his own bakery space and was looking for a replacement. Starting very soon (likely by the time this article is published), Chaoui will create a baked goods and coffee program for Canticles. The lounge also will expand to daytime hours.

Will these additions shift the tone of Canticles into more of a typical coffee shop? Possibly, but Waterman remains committed to providing a unique nighttime gathering spot, a sober hub for his community.

“Bed-Stuy is changing a lot right now,” he says. “All the more reason for a space that brings all kinds of people together.”

Jesse Hirsch

Formerly the print editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Jesse Hirsch now works as the New York editor for GOOD magazine.

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