By Kelsey Osterman
Step out of the mid-February chill into the warmth of BloomBars on any given night and there is no telling what you might find. The darkened room might be filled with the smell of popcorn and the glow from the large screen, as 15 to 20 people in folding chairs watch a special showing of the movie “Kandahar.”
On a different night, it’s a Samba class, where dance instructor Zezeh Lusane teaches movement to spirited music. And if you drop by after that, you may find yourself laughing at comics trying out their jokes improv-style.
Located on 11th Street NW in Columbia Heights, just blocks away from the booming commercial hub centered around Target and Best Buy, BloomBars was conceived as a place for community, camaraderie and personal growth through the arts.
Painted above the door outside are the words, “You bloom. We bloom,” which captures the idea. When founder and “chief executive gardener” John Chambers left his career in marketing and communication and started BloomBars in 2008, he was seeking a more fulfilling use of his talents. He saw his passions spelled out in the word “bloom.”
“I looked up ‘bloom’ in the dictionary, and it means reaching your full potential,” he said. “Everything about it resonated. You can call it a metaphor, but it really is more. It’s real.”
But like many nonprofits, BloomBars has struggled with financial challenges in recent years. All events and classes at BloomBars are free, with the hope that guests will show appreciation for their experience by leaving donations. That business plan has obvious risks and the place nearly folded at the end of 2010, when it faced a $20,000 budget shortfall.
With the help of a wide network of supporters, the immediate crisis was averted. Chambers admits that BloomBars will face more challenges in the future, due to its donation-based structure. Yet the financial predicament of 2010 actually proved helpful, creating publicity for the organization.
“There is many an axiom that talks about the good things that come out of crisis and challenge,” Chambers said. “We certainly were witness to that.”
So in spite of the risks, BloomBars goes on. The lower level, an open room used for many of the events, is furnished with half of a rowboat, serving as a sound booth. The other half of the boat can be found on the second floor, hanging in what doubles as a gallery for art shows.
BloomBars, an alcohol- and profanity-free establishment, caught patron and volunteer Brenda Estrella by surprise when she first found the place three years ago. BloomBars turned out to be exactly what she was looking for.
“I was trying to find a connection in D.C. that’s not based solely on drinking,” Estrella said. “When I found this place, it was perfect.”
The unconventionally welcoming spirit quickly won Estrella over, and the wide variety of events and programs kept her coming back. Though she had been living in the area for five years, Estrella had not found a place that she felt reflected the cultural diversity of the Columbia Heights neighborhood until she found BloomBars. She especially likes the way the sliding doors at the front of the building are left open, welcoming passers-by in the summer.
“I think it kind of affects the way people interact with each other in a weird way,” Estrella said. “People just hang out on the stoop.”
Summer may be the peak season for BloomBars, but this winter, Chambers and his volunteers are staying busy figuring out how to avert future shortfalls, sustain the place and even expand, adding some paid staff positions.
Chambers envisions BloomBars becoming part of an international network of creative spaces. Artists and performers from all over the world have visited BloomBars, and many have expressed interest in opening venues like it in the places they call home. Such a network is possible, Chambers believes, because the community-oriented nature of his organization makes it easily adaptable to different locations.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Every community has its own unique needs, but the idea is that a space doesn’t have to be fancy. An empty space can be filled with the community.”
Though Chambers laughingly admits BloomBars has acquired a sort of hippie reputation, he welcomes it, believing the world is in need of places just like his organization. He witnesses people searching for ways to connect with others in their communities, and with his background in marketing, Chambers knows a good thing when he sees it.
“It sells itself,” he said. “You come in and what you see is what you get.”
Chambers hopes visitors enjoy what they find at BloomBars and are willing to give financial assistance. But a monetary gift is more than just a donation in his eyes.
“It’s an investment,” he said. “It’s an investment in love, in compassion and in our growth.”
For more information on BloomBars visit their website at http://www.bloombars.com/.