Black Bear Bar was always something of a mystery to me, even from the first time I set foot inside. It was better in the winter (or at least I thought so), when the front of the bar was converted into a working half-pipe and skaters from the neighborhood could come pull tricks in the caged-in mini skate park, while the drinkers at the bar would look on with trademark Williamsburg hipster boredom. The summers weren’t bad either, though, because then you could sip your whiskey sodas from porch swings where a lush indoor garden had sprung up in place of the winter half-pipe.
Past the entrance, regardless of the season, was the main bar. Dimly lit, the bar itself snaked along the right-hand wall, bumping out into the space in a slick, ’50s-esque U before retreating back to the wall. Taxidermied foxes and rabbits watched the nights’ proceedings from their perches on the intricate geometric shelves above the bar, flanked by old books, paintings of horses, and other antique-seeming oddities. The bartenders were pleasantly surly, tattooed, bearded. In atmosphere if not in amenities, Black Bear was very typical of the area when it was in operation (I’ll get to that in a minute).
It was always pretty busy, filled with young people bobbing politely along to the DJ and shouting their conversation to each other. There were always people playing pool at the low-lit table in the back, but there was never a line to sign up. Even on the slowest of nights, however, Black Bear tended to have a concert or a show in their massive back room—which is of course where my story, “Auto-Photo Studio Model 20A,” takes place.
It was actually a show that ended up sinking Black Bear Bar. They tended to be a place for hardcore stuff or hip-hop, punctuated somewhat oddly by the occasional comedy show. The back room was admittedly very cool, and well-suited to that kind of concert in particular—a high ceilinged and open red and black room, a wide stage along the back wall, a smallish but easily accessible bar tucked into the corner by the door, a few modest booths for seating, one or two well-placed highboy tables for patrons to lean on affectedly. People visiting the bar could access the back room one of two ways—through the main bar directly (the door was by the pool table), or from the street via a red-lit brick tunnel that bypassed the half-pipe and the DJ and the pool table altogether. It was a great place for shows, and a generally fun place to be, until the owners knowingly booked a skinhead Neo-Nazi punk festival (Oi! Fest) in the space. After backlash from protestors, the bar cancelled the show in progress and issued an apology, but the bar still closed later in 2016 due to lack of patronage thanks to the bad press.
Before that, though, when things were still good at Black Bear, my girlfriend Sarah and I dropped in on a whim, noting that there was a free concert in the back room (it was not a metal show, but it was pretty good). We had a few drinks and as we watched the band, we noticed that there was a super old-fashioned photobooth (specifically a Auto-Photo Studio Model 20A) in the corner. It was stained and beige and generally disgusting but we were enchanted. We popped in and took a strip of photos together.
When our photos slid into the metal tray with a dull plink, we pulled them from the machine only to find that the photos were all completely blank, with weird shaped burn marks emanating from the center of each photo. The burn marks also got progressively larger; the mark in the last photo filled most of the frame.
We looked in the machine, inspected the camera and the booth itself. There was a crack running down the middle of the glass that separated the camera from the booth, but the flaring in the photos didn’t seem to make sense with the patterning of the crack. And anyway, why would that cause us to completely disappear from the photos altogether? After about ten minutes of sleuthing, we were stumped, and we both started getting pretty freaked out. Maybe it was a joke? Maybe it was some kind of weird ironic or art-related thing designed to provide inscrutable social commentary on photobooth picture-takers like us? It was Williamsburg, after all. It wouldn’t be out of the question, though Bushwick would really be more the place for that kind of thing. I downed the rest of my drink, getting ready to leave—I wasn’t entirely convinced that this this wasn’t actually haunted.
And then—plink—another strip of photos popped out of the machine. I approached the photobooth carefully, yanked the photos out. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the pictures were just of me and Sarah, being cute, nothing weird about any of them, except a little fading at the top of the first one, which tracked with the crack in the camera’s glass.
Needless to say we both felt pretty stupid and went home laughing at ourselves. But the idea stuck with me—a haunted photobooth—and I started writing the next morning.