Faculty Feature: How Melvin Bukiet's KGB bar became one of the most storied literary scenes in New York City

Community Centers: Saloon Salon

Suzanne Guillette MFA '05

It’s possible that the words ‘writer’ and ‘community’ do not belong in the same sentence,” ponders Melvin Bukiet, longtime writing faculty member at the College.

Yet as co-owner of KGB, a cozy second-floor bar in the East Village, Bukiet has fostered one of the most storied literary scenes in New York City, creating a place where writers can step away from their desks and share their work—or a cocktail—with an appreciative audience.

We’ve gone from cutting-edge to venerable in a blink. It’s absurd.

Bukiet fell into the unlikely role of literary saloon keeper in 1993, when his longtime friend, children’s author Dennis Woychuk, invited him to come look at the apartment building he had recently acquired. It housed a social club that had been the headquarters of the Ukrainian Labor Home.

Inspired by the space’s dark wood bar, faded red velvet banquettes, and stained glass windows, Bukiet and Woychuk decided to open a bar. From the start, their approach to the space was “improvisational,” as Bukiet puts it. They resuscitated Russian film posters, manifestos, and Communist flags from storage in the basement, creating an atmosphere of “Muscovite decrepitude,” and named the bar KGB.

KGB’s literary scene started mostly by happenstance, at least for Bukiet. It caught early buzz after a literary agent started organizing monthly meetings with editors there. Then, in 1994 Bukiet invited an acquaintance to read from his new novel. At the time, the only spaces for readings were at colleges and the 92nd Street Y, an august—and formal—venue. No one was serving up cocktails and live literature.

The New York Times happened to dispatch a photographer to the bar that night. The next day, a single photograph of the author hunched over the KGB lectern sparked a flood of phone calls, everyone asking the same question: When is the next reading?

Sixteen years later, KGB has hosted thousands of standing-room-only readings. The New York Observer pronounced the bar “a den of literary lion cubs,” and luminaries like Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Gordon Lish have graced the lectern. The bar hosts about 20 readings per month, including 10 ongoing series with themes ranging from science fiction to poetry to nonfiction. The Sunday night fiction series remains the flagship event.

“We’ve gone from cutting-edge to venerable in a blink,” Bukiet says. “It’s absurd.”

He takes pride in the “self-perpetuating” nature of the series, pointing out that KGB patrons stop by even when they don’t know who is reading. “We’ve earned a level of trust. It’s like subscribing to a magazine.”

While Woychuk has always been responsible for the day-to-day operation of the bar, Bukiet’s role has been more hands-off. The curatorial reins are held by a rotating roster of graduate writing students. But in the early days, which Bukiet deems “more exciting,” he was a regular fixture on the scene, contributing to the offbeat flavor of the events.

“Occasionally, I would give bad introductions to writers I’d had some issue with. I’d say, ‘He’s capable of terrible things.’ At first, people thought it was a joke,” he says with a grin.

A storyteller by trade, Bukiet has been thoroughly entertained by the literary tales the readings afford. He recalls how one night, when Colson Whitehead was slated to read, the bartender overslept his shift. (“Mind you, he had to be up by 7 p.m.,” Bukiet wryly notes.) The crowd of 50-plus people trekked to the bar across the street and convinced them to let Whitehead read there instead.

But the KGB scene has always been peripheral to Bukiet’s already full writing life, and these days, he only makes the trek from his home on the Upper West Side once or twice a season.

“As a writer, you literally create your own community with your characters. You don’t become a writer unless you have an active desire to sit by yourself for long periods of time,” he says.

But he’s willing to acknowledge that writers, himself included, “yearn for contact with other beings.” And KGB gives them both a convivial place and an entertaining reason to gather.