From Abe Lincoln art theft to inclusivity: Cole’s Bar turns 10

By Miranda Manier, Managing Editor


Outside of Cole’s Bar, denim jacket-clad 20-somethings lean against a brick wall passing around lighters for their cigarettes. The bouncer, a woman with an afro and a fashionable floral shirt, checks IDs as people enter the crowded dive bar. Live music blares from the back, while two middle-aged men stand out among the younger crowd as they clamor over their game of pool, the dimly lit pool table sitting underneath a PBR-branded lamp.

Cole’s Bar, 2338 N. Milwaukee Ave.—more commonly known as Cole’s—has been occupying its unassuming spot in Logan Square for 10 years. This summer, the bar will be celebrating its decade anniversary with a weekly showcase of music and comedy from June 5 through August 9.

When eponymous owner and founder Coleman Brice was in college, he was a musician trying to make it in a music scene that did not have room for bands who could not draw large crowds, said publicist Jessica Gillespie. So, Brice decided to create a space that would let artists get their foot in the door somewhere between a DIY house show and a larger national stage.

The atmosphere in Cole’s is eclectic, with decor such as local art, neon beer signs, a chalk drawing of Brice himself and at least five pieces of Abraham Lincoln artwork.

The Lincoln art is a mysterious part of Cole’s lore. According to Brice, the collection started with just one piece—a poorly rendered velvet painting of Lincoln, given to him when the bar first opened by a customer who works at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, Inc., 824 W. Superior St. The painting was hung behind the stage in the performance space in the back of the bar where it was not uncommon for comedians and musicians to make commentary about it.

One night in December 2011, someone cut the painting out of its frame, rolled it up, stuck it into their sleeve and disappeared with it, taking advantage of a security camera’s blindspot to avoid getting caught.

“We never found the painting, what did happen is I have a lady who coordinates my art, and she got together with the arts community and was like, ‘Let’s all paint Cole a new Lincoln because he lost his old one,’” Brice said. “So all of a sudden I had like 30 Lincolns. I hung them up, and people have been bringing them since. I’ve been like, ‘No, please don’t bring me any more Lincolns, I have enough,’ but they keep coming in. I try and find a spot to hang them but I still have like four in the basement.”

Brice has also gradually learned how to make the space more comfortable and welcoming by ensuring Cole’s has a diverse staff and introducing gender neutral bathrooms.

“It’s been a growing process for me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to evolve throughout the years, to think about what [it means to be inclusive]. I love dive bars, I’m a dive bar kind of guy, but what I don’t love about dive bars is that they’re often dangerous for women, dangerous for people of [color], dangerous for the queer and trans community. So when I started, I started trying to have a dive bar vibe, pricing [and] aesthetic, but to be safe. And inclusiveness is an outgrowth from that.”

Aside from its unique decorations and its inclusive energy, Cole’s offers something different to each patron that visits.

For Sean McNulty, one of the middle-aged men hunkered over the pool table, it’s an affordable pool option. At 50 cents a game, McNulty said it’s as cheap as it can be expected in the city.

For Renee Briglio, Cole’s is a place where people can “come as you are, whoever you want to be.”

“The bartender—who’s a total dude, a big guy with long hair—he was crocheting here,” Briglio said. “You do what you want, you are who you are and everybody loves everybody.”

As for Brice, he sees Cole’s as a place for people to get in on a scene at the ground level, and participate in Chicago’s current artistic and musical community that people might talk about decades from now.

“I really want people to know and recognize and realize that this is the opportunity to see culture being generated,” he said. “People wonder, when you see a band or a comedian that you really like … it seems like it operates in some kind of a black box and then it just pops up. Some critic writes about [a band] and then everybody knows about it all of a sudden, but it’s really spaces like this where [those bands] makes the jump from somebody’s bedroom to the stage.”