Slow Down, Sip Your Drink, and Listen
On a rare, rainy San Diego night where the asphalt glistens black and slick, people stand outside under an awning, waiting for admission to what looks like a liquor store.
That’s not what it is, behind the portal windows and metal door. A glowing scarlet glass sign emblazoned with the letters PTL next to the large sunshine-yellow LIQUOR tell you what it is, if you know how to interpret those letters. As a survivor of ’70s prayer channel culture, I thought at first of the Praise the Lord club, of Jim and Tammy Faye fame. (Yeah, I’m old.) But PTL stands, in this case, for Part Time Lover, as in the Stevie Wonder song. Right. That still doesn’t give you much of a clue, but if you’re adventurous, you wait in the queue till it’s your turn to open the door and step into…music-listener Narnia.
In contrast to the urban smell of wet pavement and cigarette smoke outside, the bar feels like a step back in time. Incense mingles with a faint whiff of someone’s perfume. Polished wood gleams in soft candlelight; glowing bottles of liquor framed in spherical cutouts behind the bar evoke a high-toned place where a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade might belly up for a double shot of scotch before following some dame to the cozy sofas in the back of the bar. Lining the walls are cushioned benches studded with tasteful, comfy pillows. Cabaret tables placed at intervals along the benches makes the seating flexible; if you’re lucky and get there early in the evening, you might score a cool velvet banquette at the front of the club, or maybe even a stool next to the turntable. Classy joint, right? Sure, but then you see an Awkward Family Photo in a gilded frame hung like high art on the wall. Tribal masks stare at you from above the wall benches. And in the hallway to the bathroom? The coolest pink elephant wallpaper, if there is such a thing.
“This is something evolving and there are adaptations on a daily basis. When it first opened, a lot of people were asking the question, ‘what is this?’ We didn’t entirely know,” says Brendan Boyle, curator and curiosity maven. “We had a lot of fun with that question. We are actually trying to encourage a culture of curiosity, for it to be a unique space where you don’t know what kind of experience you’re going to have.”
Boyle, who heads up the Folk Art Rare Records shop at the back of the bar, has a passion for interactive musical experiences. Melding the new incarnation of the legendary Lou Curtiss’ life’s work with a Japanese-style listening bar is just that.
“It’s very unique and different,” Boyle notes. “The space is based off the culture of Japanese listening bars, a culture that is referred to as kissa. This culture of listening bars has spread globally where there are many all over the world now. There are two others in San Diego – Convoy Music Bar and Longplay Hi-Fi. We are especially unique in that there is a record store inside our listening bar. I haven’t heard of another place with an actual store.”
Every night is different. One one occasion, Sue Palmer, the Boogie Woogie piano queen, was spinning old-style mainstream jazz à la Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith. “It’s an amazing experience to meet people that once again, want to sit and really listen to music,” she said. “I spent hours in the late ’60s and ’70s, sitting and listening to my vinyl. Now PTL management is seeking me out to spin those same records! It’s a beautiful art deco hifi bar with awesome cocktails, soft chairs, and a record store in the back!”
Crowds are variable, and capacity is limited inside, which explains the lineup in front of the club on some nights. You might hear international music, independent artists, singers and songwriters, old-time jazz, blues, drum-heavy funk and soul, and even modern sounds like the compositions of Laurie Anderson. Soundtracks can be heard sometimes, but the basic idea is that the music should encourage relaxation and a respite from the busy world of social media and constant movement. “We try to keep an open mind and have interesting titles through the lens in this space of things that can help people unwind,” Boyle notes. “And we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”
The bespoke sound system (more on that later) really serves music with lots of percussion, and the level of sound is attuned to the ambience. Club visitors range from young to not-so-young, and you’ll even find wandering souls parked on the plush settees reading books or just people watching as they sip high-ball cocktails. A visit to Part Time Lover is an investment in an experience rather than a specific destination. It’s a journey. You never know what you’re gonna get.
Brendan Boyle came on board with the listening room/record store idea when he was approached by Consortium Holdings Company, a local group currently renovating the Lafayette Hotel. The head designer is a woman named Taylor Leage, who was in charge of the design team for the space.
Consortium Holding’s website states that the company has been “promoting intelligent consumption since 2007.” A quick look at their web presence makes it obvious that this development company has a mission that seems very different from that of other developers: “We set out to create not restaurants and bars, but public gathering spaces that help cultivate our neighborhoods through the fostering of creativity, dialogue, questions, and conversations. More than houses for innovative menus and handcrafted drinks, our projects are meant to be incubators for meaningful interaction.”
All of the CH sites are dazzling—from the classy vibe of Polite Provisions on 30th Street to the old-school Chinese restaurant updated at the Fortunate Son on Adams Ave. The company’s first endeavor, Neighborhood on G Street in downtown San Diego, set the tone for the other developments, including Part Time Lover, and it even has a secret speakeasy in back (or so the reviews say.)
Aside from the gorgeous interior, PTL also has a kick-ass sound system created specifically for the space. “A sound company designed the sound system, Uncanned Music—they’re based out of Chicago and LA. They create unique sound systems for spaces,” Boyle says. Uncanned Music has designed the sound systems in most of the CH properties, but since Part Time Lover is a listening room, that was a feature that needed special attention.
The record store aspect of the place is unique and has a direct tie-in to the experience and the ambience. Guest record spinners are invited to play what they like, and no two nights are alike. “They [Consortium Holdings] set up the concept of a business within a business,” Boyle says. “Part of it is that we have this agreement where the businesses collaborate with each other. We get free rent for our record store, and in turn we are in charge of creating the culture of the bar. We handle the curation of music, of guests who helm the turntable, and with the goal from our end is creating a unique cultural experience for people.”
Brendan Boyle was a big fan of Lou Curtiss’ original Folk Arts Rare Records. “I grew up in San Diego. I went away to college and ended up being away for 14 years. Whenever I came back to visit, Folk Arts was my priority, visiting there and asking questions of Lou.”
Local music fans of all stripes remember Curtiss and his Folk Arts spot on Adams Avenue. When he passed in 2018, George Varga wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune that Curtiss was “a man who wore many hats, all of them music-related…he was a longtime researcher and archivist for the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. He and his wife were the driving force behind the San Diego Friends of Old Time Music and he was the founder of Folk Arts Rare Records, which Curtiss opened in 1967 and operated with his wife until 2014, when they both retired.”
“It was a place that I loved,” Boyle says of the original record store. “Lou was someone I admired greatly and a great source of information for my young inquiring mind. I heard it was for sale, and I started scratching my head…could this be a possibility for me? I was living in Iowa at the time—and my wife got a job offer in San Diego, and I connected with Lou. It was a little complicated because I never wanted to move from the Adams Ave. location, but I felt like it was my only decision.”
CH approached Boyle in 2020 with the opportunity and concept of housing Folk Arts Rare Records inside the space that used to be Bar Pink. “I told them I was interested,” Boyle says. “We were sort of casually in touch, and they were working on this project for a couple of years. Things started unfolding around a year ago. We had to think about whether or not this was something we wanted to do. It’s a lot of work. My goal was to have my own record store identity while honoring Lou’s legacy.”
Jason Guilliani works as a liaison between Folk Arts and the club itself and has the position of Folk Arts Event Coordinator. “This is a team effort by me and my staff,” Boyle says, giving Guilliani credit for scheduling many of the guests who choose and spin records.
Another interesting aspect of PTL is that the schedule isn’t posted on its website. In fact, if you go to the website, you’ll see nothing but an address, phone number and hours, the words PURITY and ACCURACY, and a link to the club’s Instagram account. Paper flyers of the month’s schedule of genres and guest spinners can be found outside the club, taped to the wall, and some of the coolest places in San Diego may display the paper schedule, but you won’t find it online unless someone snaps a photo and slaps in on social media. This is by design.
“We wanted it to be a unique place where you don’t totally know what the experience will be when you walk in. That’s rewarding. It’s a space where you don’t know what kind of experience you’re going to have.” Folks Arts Rare Records embraces eclecticism so any genre of music is fair game. Part of the appeal, Boyle says, is that people coming to the club have to just take it on faith that whatever they hear will be interesting.