It is almost impossible to describe what awaits you at San Jose’s Art Boutiki as anything other than “eclectic.” It is a serendipitously curated shop in downtown that combines a live music venue with a store that features graphic novels and comics, an art gallery and a large selection of Tiki items you never knew you needed, among other quirky offerings.
The Tiki items aren’t as random as one might readily think — they are a bit of an obsession with owner Dan Vado, dating back to summer vacations in Hawaii when he was a teenager. At the store, there are Tikis from his childhood collection scattered around the shelves and counters, and a giant Tiki head that serves as the welcoming party to the bathroom. There are even Star Wars-themed Tikis for sale.
“Sailors would bring them back from the South Pacific,” Vado told San José Spotlight. “They have that tropical feel and are really kind of cool. So when we opened up our art gallery, we just hit on the name ‘Art Boutiki,’ and I thought, ‘Well, there you go.’”
Art Boutiki began as an outgrowth of Slave Labor Graphics (SLG), an influential graphic novel publishing house that Vado founded in 1986. SLG scored early successes with authors such as Evan Dorkin (“Milk and Cheese”), Andi Watson (“Skeleton Key”), Sarah Dyer (“Action Girl”) and a four-book collaboration with the Walt Disney Company.
The press fully solidified its coolness credentials by publishing “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac,” the first work by San Jose native Jhonen Vasquez, who went on to create the popular Nickelodeon animated series, “Invader Zim.”
“I started publishing my own writing,” Vado said. “As I was doing that, people started coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, would you publish my stuff?’ And it turns out that maybe I was a better editor and publisher than I was a writer.”
At the time Vado was working out of a warehouse near the intersection of Market and First Streets. When the graphic novel business took a hit during the 2008 recession, he suddenly found himself stuck with empty space to fill.
“We were going to leave, but the landlord offered us a huge incentive to stay,” he said. “We started a small gallery and began hosting music during the First Fridays. And things sort of evolved into a whole different thing, which is what we have now.”
In 2012, the warehouse was torn for the construction of new apartments, and Art Boutiki relocated to its current home at 44 Race Street. The interior of the new location is divided into two large rooms — one for the books, collectibles, chachkies, house-printed T-shirts, artwork and, of course, a large selection of Tiki glasses and South Pacific ephemera.
The other half is a performance venue that can accommodate around 150 people. The stage is backed with a wall of album covers—and, you guessed it, flanked by Tikis. It is home to performers ranging from stand-up comedians to rock bands, but leans heavily towards jazz acts — a favorite of Vado’s.
“I just enjoy the improvisational part of it,” he said, “and I like that you don’t really know where a song is going sometimes. You see people come here, and they start playing a standard, and then they go off on it, on a tangent that just surprises everybody.”
According to Vado, the space is perfect for attracting jazz artists over other genres of musicians.
“It is very appealing to touring groups,” he said. “With a small room, if you were looking at it from a rock band perspective, they are not going to come here because we’re too small. But for a mid-level jazz group with some recognition, this is a good-sized venue.”
Vado has also booked bluegrass groups and hopes to institute an annual bluegrass event.
“It is a kind of music that really does not have a place to go in the South Bay,” he said. “We’re hoping that will be another genre that we can kind of build up here and then become a destination for touring tour bluegrass groups.”
The 7th Street Big Band, a 20-piece group out of East San Jose, just held its 10th Anniversary Show on Nov. 4, and drummer Gabby Horlick said Art Boutiki is now her favorite place to play.
“It is a fun space, and the quality is the best as far as any local venues,” Horlick told San José Spotlight. “From a performer standpoint, you could hear everything great on the stage, and the sound out in the house is excellent as well. And the vibe of the place is excellent.”
The shows at Art Boutiki are not age-restricted, Vado said, and children are welcome.
“I have a lot of kids in my family,” he said. “It is great to see live music and not have to worry about getting a babysitter. You can bring the kids along, and that’s always a good plus.”
Venues with live music experienced big revenue loss during the pandemic, with Art Boutiki being no exception. Vado said that his place has had a rough recovery, and it is not out of the woods yet.
“You know,” he said, “most people look at the Covid-era as something in the rearview. But that was a big hole in the donut for us, and we’re still making that up. Simply continuing to be here has been a struggle.”
According to Vado, the passion his regular customers have for his place is what makes him want to continue.
“People come here, enjoy the shows, and then next time they bring their friends,” he said. “Even if we don’t necessarily make a lot of money, this is a unique place for live music. There is nobody that just likes this place—they either love it or they have never been here.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].