Kaarin Von never set out to own a bar. Looking for a way to pay the bills so she could focus on her dream of professionally writing, Kaarin set out to open an all day cafe on Bleecker Street. Drawn to the blossoming creative scene in Lower Manhattan, and the historic shopfront she found on a storied block of Bleecker Street, it was then that VON was born. By the time the bar opened up on Valentine’s Day in 1996, she’d snagged an apartment on the very same block as the bar, and she’s been a fixture of the neighborhood ever since.
Today, over 25 years later, VON has grown into its own. It’s the kind of place that’s effortlessly cool and creative, without pretentiousness. Young creatives, models, and the glamorous rub elbows with decades-long regulars and low-key artists venturing outside their lofts. It’s the kind of special NYC bar that’s well-worn but still fresh, where folks from all walks of life mix and mingle over European beers, cocktails, and a small but mighty wine selection. You walk in on a Friday night, and feel like the night could truly go anywhere.
This kind of place doesn’t just happen overnight, it’s the constant work of Kaarin herself that’s cultivated VON into what it is today. Living on the block helps, but being a good neighbor was something deeply ingrained in Kaarin since childhood. That paired with her love for connection is key to VON’s success. It’s a space she strives to make “safe, fun, and beautiful, even if it’s messy at times.” There’s almost an effervescence to VON, and the design of the bar is set up to facilitate strangers getting to know each other just a little bit better.
“I love all the letters, emails, and posts from customers that they’ve met their special someone here. That feeling we enabled fosters true, meaningful, deep connections – and that’s what VON’s all about.” In the darkest days of COVID, when the bar hadn’t even reopened, a loyal regular who’d fallen in love over countless evenings at VON proposed right out front of the bar, with Kaarin there to watch the magic. She finds magic in the fact that the bar’s served as a background character for thousands and thousands of stories.
Moreover, as part of the NoHo Historic District Extension, the storefront has inherited more than 100 years of deeply fascinating history, something Kaarin greatly appreciates. A self-described history buff, she found an allure to the ramshackle, old tenement vibe found in the Bowery and NoHo at the time she opened. Seeing the old but well-preserved pressed tin ceiling sold her on the storefront that became VON. The history shines through everyday in the VON ghosts. “Pretty soon after opening, we started noticing strange occurrences on the first floor.” Tap handles would turn on by themselves, glasses spun around, and it came to her notice that there was a young, female ghost in the space. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve seen things, with other people present, that I can’t explain.” At a Halloween party, a psychic sensed another one.
This haunted history shines through at the Bowery Gothic horror and ghost story poetry readings she hosts at the bar with colleagues, though it’s also available online as a journal of sorts. It’s also one of the ways she’s able to bring her love of literature into the bar itself. The “spooky stories around the campfire” vibe is something she loves bringing into the space for the unique vibe that helps people open up and put their guard down.
Though she maintains that she “never wanted to become a bar owner, and still doesn’t,” she’s a natural at actually doing it. She truly cherishes the freedom of being a business owner, even though “I’m chained to the bar and have incredible responsibilities, I have them on my terms.” VON’s really allowed her to live out her dreams, whether that’s extended time to travel, writing a lot, or even building a coalition, like she did during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As New York City shut down in 2020, Kaarin had no choice but to close VON, and get to work. Driven by a deep care for the impact small businesses make, she almost immediately began working with other hospitality business owners, and eventually formed Save Our Storefronts (SOS). “I had to do something. I’m a proactive person, and I couldn’t just sit around. Individually, nobody could hear our struggles, but collectively, we had a strong voice.” They formulated an innovative approach to splitting the COVID burden among both tenants and property owners, and helped steer the conversation at the local, state and federal levels. While she’s since handed the reins of the organization over to somebody else, SOS is a true testament to her community spirit, tenacity, and care. “There’s so many people who slipped through the cracks in the early months of the pandemic, and I had to help.”
The community spirit didn’t begin or end with COVID. Kaarin’s seen lots of changes in NoHo, and while she “misses a lot, like the absolutely amazing Bianca that used to be next door, I’m happy with a lot about the neighborhood too.” She’s become personal friends with her neighbors like Overthrow Boxing, Think Coffee, and Bessou. She doesn’t miss the drugs and dangerous elements from when she first moved in. Kaarin jokes that her dogs track with the neighborhood, when she first moved in she had a tough pitbull with a heart of gold, now she’s got a little yappy-dog. There’s a real sense of stability in the neighborhood, and “many of the neighbors are the same now as when we opened.”
She feels strongly that NoHo’s history is alive, and is “grateful for the preservation of the neighborhood, and the people who’ve fought for it, like the Merchant’s House Museum.” While the history is great, without all the neighbors – other businesses, folks on the block, even the dogs that are friends (and sometimes enemies) with her own pup – NoHo simply wouldn’t be the same. They’re all pieces of the wonderful mosaic of the NoHo community Kaarin calls home. It’s the dedicated regulars who’ve come to VON for years, the supportive businesses, the artists aging in place, and the countless connections made over the years that make all the nights behind the bar worth it.