What's so great about Doobies? The Philly bar has rescued 200 cats and even more Bowie fans

Patti Brett glanced up at the television mounted near the ceiling in the corner of Doobies and let out a squeal.

“Oh! I love it when I look up and there he is,” she said.

He” is David Bowie, shambling across the screen as a goblin king in the 1986 film Labyrinth. Brett is acknowledged to be one of the world’s foremost Bowie fans, and her bar, Doobies, is the epicenter of Philly Loves Bowie Week, a volunteer-organized celebration now in its second year.

I admit I never really understood the appeal of Doobies — a dim, windowless room that’s retained its old-school grit and intensely loyal clientele in the face of the late-stage gentrification of the Southwest Center City neighborhood — until I visited on Wednesday evening. The occasion was the bar’s second annual Bowie memorial celebration. The faithful were gathering to sip beer, draw portraits of the Starman in chalk on a stucco exterior wall, and trade stories about the musician who is, at least at Doobies, still very much alive. As I watched 10-year-old Skylar Willenburg (there with his parents) solemnly tell Brett about a David Bowie dream he’d had recently, the draw of Doobies started to make sense.

It’s all about Brett.

Over the years, Brett has given solace to scores of bereaved Bowie fans, rescued about 200 cats, and taken in countless strays — loners who go to Doobies to find community.

The bar didn’t start out this way. It opened in 1976 as Slicker Sam’s. Before that, the building housed a jazz bar called Billy’s Bandbox.

Brett started hanging around there because her friend Kenn Kweder was a bartender. Her mother, Joan Brett, started working there after it was sold to new owners, who named the place Doobies.

“I’m sure they named it what they named it because they were in the basement smoking pot all the time — and I mean all the time,” she said.

In 1978, Joan Brett bought the place. She died in 2003, but her dedicated seat is still there — the one she’d kick people out of when taking a break from the kitchen — inscribed in nail polish on the worn wooden bar.

Since 1985, Patti’s been in charge of the place, which has seen its ups and downs. In some ways, it’s frozen in time, like the table in the corner that’s covered with junk that never quite seems to be cleared away. On Christmas, she stays open, and offers free coffee, soda, and snacks for people who have nowhere else to go.

An exterior view of Doobies Bar showing chalk drawings for David Bowie memorial day.
Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK
For the second annual David Bowie memorial day at Doobies, regulars and fans chalked their respects on the wall.

In other way, it has evolved: There are now 10 draft lines dedicated to craft beer, at the moment including Bowie tribute beers like “Loving the Alien,” a saison from Round Guys Brewing. And, after customers began asking for Citywide Specials — and, then, variations on the Special — Brett created a whole shot-and-beer menu.

About 10 years ago, Brett also added a donation jar for her ad hoc cat rescue operation. It’s taken in about $3,000 over the years, which is just a fraction of what Brett’s laid out in vet bills.

Many of her customers have also stepped up to adopt. Among them is Allison Lang, 37, who was there for a post-work beer and a Scrabble game when Brett brought in a kitten named Toby, who’d been found in a Dumpster and, at two weeks old, required bottle-feeding every few hours. “I asked if I could hold him. He curled up on my chest, and that was it,” Lang said.

Lang returned Wednesday to chalk a Bowie tribute onto the wall. She found Brett pouring beers and sharing memories in a Bowie T-shirt, with a Sigma Kid tattoo on her forearm to commemorate the time Bowie invited her and a handful of other groupies to listen to his album inside the now-defunct Sigma Sound Studios at 12th and Race Streets.

When Bowie died two years ago, someone left flowers in the door at Doobies. Today, the place still functions as a sort of shrine.

“People come up to me everywhere and say, ‘Nobody understands the pain I’m feeling over his loss,’ ” Brett said. “People come here because they know this is a place where we understand. We’ll always understand.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
Scenes from Doobies, including Patti Brett with her “Sigma Kid” tattoo.

Doobies
2201 Lombard St., 215-546-0316, Doobies.com

When to go: Check Doobies’ Facebook page for Quizzo, open-mic nights and other events. Otherwise, it’s open 2 p.m.- 2 a.m. weekdays, and 3 p.m.-2 a.m. on weekends.

Bring: The diehard Bowie fans in your life. Worthy Scrabble opponents. Classic jukebox appreciators.

Order: The original Special is a Sly Fox pale ale and a shot of Heaven Hill bourbon for $5; the most popular is the Joe, which is $3.75 and swaps the Sly Fox for Yuengling Premium.

Bathroom situation: It’s a tight squeeze to get into the narrow bathroom, but it’s clean enough. Distract yourself by trying to make sense of the graffiti covering the door.

Sounds like: The jukebox — which, to the endless despair of Brett’s contracted repairman, is analog — is filled with Bowie albums, of course, along with assorted others: Nick Cave, Duran Duran, the Jayhawks. Even when it’s on, it’s a peaceful 82 decibels.

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