Back in the day, he might have been chiding an employee for some minor slip in the smooth safe-keeping of wool, leather and fur — a $5-per-garment, $3,000-per-night profit center for a savvy club owner.
But today, he was trying to crystallize hard-earned wisdom into a few practical points. Behind the glitz and glam, the bling and booty, he was trying to say, running a legendary nightclub is really all about the logistics.
“The worst coat check was for Busta Rhymes,” he said. “We had twenty-five hundred, three thousand inside. Then those people wanted to leave, and the late crowd was just arriving. It was a [expletive] disaster.”
On this Tuesday in December, a small group had arranged to meet at midday in Washington’s largest nightclub. Barnes led a tour of the empty, four-story hip-hop palace. Through the entryway paneled in marble and Honduran mahogany. Around the butterfly granite bar. Inside such richly appointed VIP nooks as the “apartment,” equipped with stove, oven and refrigerator.
Barnes had labored tyrannically over every detail. With his own sweat and reckless audacity — and other people’s money — he had built this club as if conjuring a neon mirage from a pigeon-poop-filled warehouse on industrial Okie Street NE. Talk about a Dream. It was instantly the city’s most influential club when it opened in 2001. An East Coast destination. In 2005, he remodeled Dream and made it Love.
Today, Barnes, at 47, was saying goodbye to his masterpiece, the signature achievement of a remarkable career. He had little choice. He was bankrupt.
At his elbow walked a slimmer, shorter man, bundled in a windbreaker and a knit cap. Dean Smothers, 45, a firefighter, real estate investor and owner of a smaller, less stylish club called the Scene, off Queens Chapel Road NE, had just agreed to buy Love for $7.8 million.
“We’re going to be the hottest club in the city,” Smothers said teasingly.
“I want you to be the hottest club,” Barnes said insincerely but not unreasonably.
Barnes still owns another club downtown, and he would rather cut off his right arm than be second to anyone. However, the only way Smothers would buy Love for $7.8 million was if Barnes agreed to take back $1.3 million as a loan.
“If you’re the hottest club, that means I’m going to get paid,” Barnes said.
A memento in a picture frame caught his attention. “2005 Readers Choice: Best Dance Club.” He smiled, shrugged, left it where it was.
“I’m out,” he called to Smothers and stepped into the wind blowing trash down Okie Street.
This is a strange and disorienting time for Barnes and for Barnes-watchers, who are legion in this town.