The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts … They’re the people who link us up with the world … Having the ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.
– Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
When I first met Dan Landes he looked like an urban Marlboro man who just stepped out of a peyote sweat lodge.
It was 2008 and I was sitting down to interview Landes about consumer ethics. As the owner of a vegan bakery and two vegetarian restaurants that seemingly banned all corporate products, I was curious to pick his brain about Fair Trade products and factory farms. I was expecting a wildly idealistic, out-of-touch madman who would grill me with his black-belt veganism. Instead I found a practical businessman who’d simply figured out how to make his eccentricities work to his advantage.
“My business model is this: I have relationships with people,” he told me at the time. “I know Eric from Left Hand Ale; I know Brian from Great Divide. I know the people who I buy the coffee from, and they know the people who buy if from the farmers. I know they wont buy the cheapest coffee just because it’s the cheapest, because they have a relationship with the farmers. Some people just identify with a label and think their work is done. They say ‘oh it says organic, I’m making a good decision.’ That’s too much trust for me. I would rather develop a relationship.”
Our conversation lasted more than an hour, digressing into completely unrelated subjects like literature, animal rights, science fiction, fashion, whiskey, mythology and vinyl records. Landes was often self-deprecating, noting where his operation was falling short of his altruistic goals, soberly addressing the rift between ideals and practicality.
This has obviously not inhibited his growth as a businessman. In the years that followed, he would expand his operation to include a hostel in Mexico, a yoga studio, a Lakewood farm (which supplies his restaurants with organic produce), a series of art studios, and the DIY music and comedy venue, Deer Pile.
Four years on, Landes has become a Denver tycoon of the arts. City O’ City is now the golf-course of artists, a drunken network of dreamers, opportunists and social outcasts who recognized one another as fellow slaves to beauty. More interested in your worldview than your resume, Landes’s establishments employ some of the best musicians, painters, and wordsmiths in the city (or at least the ones who still have day-jobs). Like Andy Warhol or Malcolm McClaren before him, Landes is – whether actively or incidentally – crafting a social recipe for cultural revolution.
And for someone coming from a rural, Evangelical background such as myself, where confessions of sexual “abnormality,” or pursuit of creative transcendence over family and security were seen as crimes against nature, the free-thinking environment provided at a place like City O’ City was breathtakingly reassuring. The idea that the dreams bumping around in my head, the unwavering pursuit of aesthetics, were shared and appreciated by my contemporaries, cannot be overestimated.
Back in 2008, when I wasn’t bumping into him during my regular happy hour trips to City O’ City, I regularly came across Dan Landes at literature readings. A longtime fan of the written word, Landes was working on a strange novel about a mythical rabbit and the birth of human consciousness. The story was surreal and difficult, yet rewarding if you could rearrange your gears and get into his Joseph Campbell world of psychological allegories and universal folklore.
As an aspiring writer myself, hanging out at City O’ City was a veritable fitness center for the arts. Landes’s longtime friend, Jonny DeStefano, gave me a slot spinning records twice a week at City O’. This required me coming up with two four-hour sets of new vinyl records each week. And while this was a serious strain on my wallet, doing it each night for two years challenged me to grow my musical branches into new directions of esoteric wonders.
There’s really no accounting for how great an impact this had on me becoming a music journalist.
And I know my story is not unique. From chefs and farmers to painters and puppeteers, Landes has given a gentle but firm nudge to a plethora of young sprouts with ideas but no direction. (Though this would be a good time to mention he’s been blessed with an invaluable and committed staff, without which Dan Landes would be a rudderless sail-boat in the ocean of a down economy).
I’ve often wondered if Landes is bewitched with Denver to a fault. His romanticism for the arts compounded by his deep, human connections to those he surrounds himself with, in my opinion cloud his judgment as to the artistic worth of an individual (perhaps most evidenced by his association with a sycophantic, opportunistic conman such as myself).
I’m reminded of the words of Tony Wilson – the Factory Records mogul who gave us New Order and introduced UK punk rock to a television audience – spoken after his business collapsed due to excessive idealism and being taken advantage of by shady characters: “Most of all, I love Manchester. The crumbling warehouses, the railway arches, the cheap abundant drugs. That’s what did it in the end. Not the money, not the music, not even the guns. That is my heroic flaw: my excess of civic pride.”
For now, though, Dan Landes is showing no signs of repeating Wilson’s siren-like intoxication with his own city. City O’ City has expanded into the space next door, Deer Pile is playing host to impressive comedians, filmmakers and bands every night of the week, and that strange novel of his, Joonie and The Great Harbinger Stampede, was recently published and is available in bookstores all over town.
More than just the countless number of individuals who owe a debt of artistic gratitude to Landes, Denver itself is sincerely indebted to him. More than being a fiscal steroid to the local economy, his role as a social connector of one creative mind to another, his place as a socio-cultural shaman of the arts scene, will surely have a butterfly effect on the generations of punk artisans to come, who will be building atop the foundations laid down by a simple business man who just wanted to get to know people.
Find the book ‘Joonie and The Great Harbinger Stampede’ on Amazon here.