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Van Go’s Ear: The Place Has a Nice Ring to It

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<i> Michael Arkush is a Times staff writer</i>

The front of a 1956 Buick peers out from the counter. Women dance on a ledge next to the window. Somebody named Shredder spews commentary on the big city.

Welcome to Venice 1991. Welcome to Van Go’s Ear coffeehouse.

The name, like everything else here, just happened. Bob Balhatchet, co-owner, said his brother-in-law suggested the title, and it fit immediately.

“It’s perfect for a coffeehouse,” said Balhatchet, 47, a character actor-apartment manager who opened the place in February. “It reflects the insanity that appeals to me.”

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An artist drew Vincent van Gogh’s portrait on the bathroom door. Using an array of colors, the owners then tried to blend Van Gogh’s work into the environment.

“Yellow’s the color of indulgence and instant gratification,” said Philip Godwin, another co-owner.

OK.

Van Go’s, located a block from the ocean, isn’t substantially different from the stereotypical coffeehouse--modest furniture, mellow music, friendly strangers. Wear anything. Say anything. Do anything.

One recent night, Linda Richardson walked into the place and asked Balhatchet if she could audition someday to perform there. Audition now, Balhatchet said. In front of everyone. So she did, singing a bluesy Dinah Washington tune that stirred the crowd. She was back the next night. And she’ll be back again.

“Anyone can come here and just relax,” Richardson said. “There are no pretensions or cliques like there are at the other coffeehouses. You don’t need to wear a uniform and be like everyone else.”

Van Go’s has two floors. The artists perform upstairs, in a room overlooking the main floor. A performer can seem almost like the Pope, comforting the masses below. Downstairs, the audience lounges on chairs and couches. Others sit on the stairs in between.

This setup “presents more of a challenge to the artist,” said Louie Lista, a musician. “It makes the performer go some in order to reach all the people.”

Balhatchet said: “It forces people to interact with others. It’s like coming to our living room.”

Van Go’s opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 3 a.m. during the week, 4 a.m. weekends. Things usually start to pick up about 6 p.m.

Balhatchet and two other investors purchased the establishment earlier this year, undaunted by the inability of previous owners--it was a kaleidoscope shop--to find success at the location. Balhatchet, who has managed apartment buildings in Venice for five years, knew the neighborhood.

At first, though, Van Go’s had trouble. Transients hung around. Balhatchet had to ask them to leave.

“But I think we’ve finally won the corner,” he said.

Whether he will garner enough business to stay open remains uncertain, however. The cafe, which offers coffee, cappuccino and an assortment of desserts, charges no cover, except on the rare occasions when bands with sizable followings, such as Spirit House or Ascension, perform; he’ll usually charge $2 on those nights. He pays entertainers $20 for the evening. The place has no liquor license, and Balhatchet prefers it that way.

Every Wednesday night is devoted to spoken-word performances. So far, the music has primarily been acoustic. As for the musical agenda, Balhatchet will do what he always does--just see what happens.


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