When people mention the word “Zeppelin,” thoughts of the legendary British rock band might spring to mind, or maybe 1937’s fiery Hindenburg crash. Not so for Joe Keeper, who owns Bar Keeper, a one-of-a-kind barware shop in Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction. He dreams of a vintage 1928 silver-plated cocktail shaker shaped like a dirigible, one of barware collectors’ “holy grails.”
On the walls of the shop hang glossy photos of local bartenders and a periodic table of the elements. “Mixology is chemistry,” Keeper explains. Keeper -- who built the shop himself, laying down the vinyl flooring, crafting the oak shelving and the L-shaped bar where he dispenses barware knowledge -- recently purchased 70 vintage bar signs that belonged to local hot rod builder Boyd Coddington.
He stocks his shelves with more than 2,700 bar-related items, about 60% vintage, primarily midcentury. Keeper is especially proud of his Napier Co. stainless steel shaker set known as “The Foursome,” which has dials that allow you to set each individual shaker to " Manhattan,” “gin fizz” or 10 other options.
He also prizes an accordion-shaped barware case that doubles as a music box, playing “How Dry I Am.”
“Our customer base is mommies and daddies,” says Keeper, typically the “hip, metrosexual father and the alternative mom with tattoos and piercings.”
Bar Keeper has also proved popular with cocktail professionals such as Christine D’Abrosca, the beverage manager at Malo in Silver Lake.
“There’s a genuine love for what Joe does,” D’Abrosca says. “He’ll say, ‘I’m in Ohio and found these bitters jars,’ and he’ll bring them back for me. You don’t get that on EBay.”
For Malo, she buys bar tools, bitters jars and shaker tins. For herself, she purchases vintage martini glasses.
“Serious bartenders in L.A. stop in his shop,” says Marcos Tello of the downtown Edison (who’s serious enough to have tattoos of vintage barware on each arm, including a cocktail glass “coat of arms”). “It’s one thing to sell the stuff, but it’s another thing to immerse yourself in the actual world.”
When Tello recently revived Southern California’s long dormant bartenders’ guild, he held the first meeting at Bar Keeper. Tello serves vintage cocktails on Tuesday nights in the Edison’s Radio Room, sourcing vintage glassware from Keeper: items such as punch bowls, Collins glasses and Tiki ware.
Keeper grew up in Austin, Texas, the youngest of eight kids in a family that didn’t drink. The former television post-producer was convinced that opening a shop in his longtime neighborhood of Silver Lake was a good idea, but wasn’t sure what concept would work until he read a Wall Street Journal article about the cocktail renaissance.
On April 4, 2006, Keeper opened Bar Keeper in a former hip-hop record store. He initially acquired barware at the New York International Gift Fair, the Rose Bowl Flea Market and places such as Bakersfield and Pomona before traveling to the Midwest motherland.
“In my heart of hearts, I realize I’m a gift shop,” says Keeper, “but really, what I feel like I sell is ritual, the art of drinking.”
That art is not lost on “Mad Men” crew members, who have stopped by to purchase vintage glassware for use on the retro TV series that romanticizes midcentury life.
“The coming of the advertising age happened to be the resurgence of cocktails, since we’d gotten past World War II. Everybody was back from Europe and turned on to new flavors and senses and smells,” Keeper says. Customers “want that, or want the glasses, or want the era.”
Keeper primarily sources vintage barware at sprawling antique centers in small Midwestern towns such as Springfield, Ohio, and Centerville, Ind. He travels there four times a year, frequenting Indiana’s Antique Alley, a 42-mile stretch of U.S. 40 that runs between Richmond and Knightstown, featuring more than 900 antique dealers.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ohio offered free natural gas to lure glass manufacturers, so Keeper often finds treasures from glassmakers such as Libbey, Anchor Hocking, Tiffin and Fostoria. Recent finds include a set of “Indians of Ohio” glasses, originally given to gas station customers filling up their cars.
Keeper often refers to Stephen Visakay’s “Vintage Bar Ware: Identification Value Guide,” which showcases the classics.
“At Prohibition, it was verboten to have all your barware out because it was against the law to drink,” Keeper says. “The shaker became a piece of art,” crafted to resemble bullets, bowling pins, planes and penguins.
According to Keeper, American barware dates only to the late 1800s. To expand his scope, he plans to pursue treasure-troves abroad.
“I’ve been told that one place to go is India, when the British occupied and left,” says Keeper, who hopes to find pewter ice buckets, martini shakers and Pimm’s cups.
“Prior to and during World War II, Eastern Europeans and Nazis escaped and moved to Argentina and brought a lot of their cocktail ware with them,” he says. In Buenos Aires, Keeper hopes to find crystal glasses, shakers and Champagne buckets.
As for the silver-plated zeppelin, Keeper found one in Ohio just after opening Bar Keeper, but couldn’t justify the $7,000-plus price tag.
He regrets not buying his dream find, saying: “Whenever I’m out, that’s the thing that I look for.” Next spring, he’ll resume his zeppelin hunt in Ohio, after the snow clears.
Bar Keeper, 3910 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 669-1675, www.barkeepersilverlake.com
Lurie is a freelance writer.