To get to Bloomington take I-65 southeast through northern Indiana. Get onto I-465 south to skirt Indianapolis, then take I-37 south. In about an hour you'll be on College Avenue. Parking your car close to the central square puts you just a spit down the street from most of the town's attractions.
Second Story (201 S. College; 812-336-2582) is the home of original music in Bloomington. This small room has seen it all, from a little band from Athens called R.E.M. to hardcore like DOA to gross-out acts like Ted Bundy and the Frat Girls to Alex Chilton to 10,000 Maniacs.
The room has come a long way since its unassuming beginnings as a Moose lodge. Much of the credit here goes to former manager Deneise Self, who gave the old place a much-needed face-lift. Now it regularly books live alternative acts, with an emphasis on local and regional bands, and some of the acts that make up Bloomington's burgeoning folk scene.
Since Rhino's (123 S. Walnut; 812-333-3430) is an all-ages club, there's never too much smoke or booze there. You can generally locate this spot as you approach by the knot of kids smoking cigarettes outside. This club features lots of original local music, and overstuffed couches and chairs from which to check it out.
Ready for a little shopping? The Eye (403 E. Fourth St.; 812-332-0048) is an exotic curio shop that carries tarot cards, essential oils, herbs and teas, incense, smoking tools, and some percussion instruments. They also have a small but interesting selection of meditation, trance, and world-beat cassettes, and videos on magic and shamanism for rental.
Books and magazines about alternative energy forms and solar electric equipment can show you how to "get off the grid," and if Bloomington's laid-back pace doesn't ease your urban stress, a massage therapist, skilled in both physical and aura healing, is on site three days a week. The store has a community bulletin board, a good place to see what's going on in town. Hours are 10 AM to 9 PM Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday.
For those who like to wear their art, Primal Urge (208 S. Dunn; 812-331-3777) offers approximately 26 different types of body piercings. In a few months, says Michael Sims, proprietor, that number will expand to include "a few more piercings that are a bit more serious."
It's hard to imagine anything more serious than the "Prince Albert" technique performed on the male member. "That one is really starting to gain popularity," Sims says. "So are tongues. I do lots of nipples and navels. Eyebrows are really big right now."
After studying in San Francisco with Fakir Musafar, one of the "forefathers of piercing," Sims brought his special skills to Bloomington. "In the ears, there's the Rook and the Daith piercings," he says. "There's only about 10 or 15 of us in the United States who know how to do those right now. Those are exclusive piercings that are in the ear cartilage. You really have to know a little trick to get the rings to go in there." Sims says he works with surgical steel and niobium, a hypoallergenic metal. Starting in August Sims will also provide branding services, another tricky process. "It's not," Sims assures us, "like branding animals."
The 25th Century Five & Dime (106 E. Kirkwood; 812-332-0011) says it has the largest comics collection in south central Indiana. It's a small store packed with tons of new and old comics, games, and gaming supplies. "Neat stuff" is how owner Michael Redman describes it in the ads, and he's not off base. He's got everything from Dungeons & Dragons to role-playing games like Warhammer, and White Wolf's series of games involving vampires, witchcraft, and the occult. The comic giants, like Marvel and DC, are available, but 25th Century prides itself on carrying creator-owned companies like Image and Valiant.
There are plenty of eclectic shops downtown, but the music stores are particularly worthy. Although CD Exchange (430 E. Kirkwood; 812-334-2588) carries mostly compact discs, the store also has a great selection of seven-inch vinyl releases and tons of used discs and imports. Lots of indie labels are represented here: Dischord, New Zealand's Flying Nun, Matador, and K Records. But you can also cop hard-to-find stuff put out by the likes of Bus Stop or Simple Machines, a small Virginia label that deals almost exclusively in seven-inch vinyl.
Looking for hardcore with a twist? Try releases by the Krishna band Shelter or Louisville's Endpoint. These bands fall into a genre called "straight-edge"--hardcore bands that espouse a no-drugs, no-alcohol, no-poisons-whatsoever life-style. Local band manager Lisa Sorg calls it "hardcore with a self-affirming edge--but just as angry."
Roscoe's, the store upstairs (812-333-0272), carries jazz, world, country, and blues releases in addition to mainstream titles. There are plenty of imports, and over 3,000 used discs in stock.
As for creature comforts, Positively Fourth Street (111 W. Fourth St.; 812-323-1055) has a nice selection of southwestern cuisine, including a breakfast burrito with eggs and salsa, though the menu is not limited to the desert. Popular dishes include everything from fresh tuna steak to an all-white-chicken pate with cilantro and jalapenos.
Lunch ranges from $3.95 to $5.95, while dinner entrees are priced at $8.95 to $15.95. Strict veg heads should take special note--this place offers plenty of choices for the vegetarian, including some vegan dishes. Beer and wine are available, including some brands from wineries that use organically grown grapes, like Setzer in California. Don't miss the homemade pies: lime chiffon, sweet potato, and chocolate cream.
As you walk down Kirkwood Avenue, the town's main drag, be sure to stop in at Michael's Uptown Cafe and Bakery (102 E. Kirkwood; 812-339-0900), a restaurant that specializes in American regional cuisine. The sprawling main dining room is well lit, with wooden booths along the wall and plenty of tables and chairs. There's also a small beer and wine bar decorated with local artwork.
There are plenty of veggie meals, plus lots of house specialties: gumbo, New Orleans-style red beans and rice, and a Cajun meatloaf sandwich. Lunch will cost you $4 to $8, dinner $6 to $20. Breakfast is especially fine, with biscuits and gravy and Michael's home fries, topped with melted cheese.
If the idea of traditional French cuisine served in an unpretentious atmosphere appeals, there's no place better than Le Petit Cafe (308 W. Sixth St.; 812-334-9747). Marina is the chef, and if you go for dinner you'll meet a man you'll never forget--Marina's husband, co-owner Patrick Fiore, will pull up a chair as he takes your order. If it's summer, Patrick will open the garage door in the dining room to let in a pleasant breeze.
For lunch order one of Marina's homemake quiches or a ham-and-cheese or vegetable crepe. On the side you can get an order of fried spuds and onions. If there's more than one of you, they'll serve them family-style.
Dinner entrees include a variety of seafood items, from steamed mussels with garlic butter to squid salad. Chicken breast with marsala wine and tarragon sauce, steak with bernaise, and rabbit in mustard sauce are a few of the selections on the ever-changing menu, plus imported beer and wines. Lunch is around $5, dinner around $15. The restaurant is open seven days a week, 11 to 2 for lunch, 5:30 to 9 for dinner.
The collegiate atmosphere of Bear's Place (1316 E. Third; 812-339-3460) is as comfortable as an old sneaker and so are the old wooden booths. Besides a wide selection of bottled beer, there's Harp, Guinness, and Bass on tap. People magazine once rated Bear's pizza among the nine best in the United States. You'll probably want to try "Dante's Inferno," a pizza that piles on the cheese, Italian sausage, green peppers, and jalapeno peppers. There's also a pizza with a garlic-sauce base and a low-sodium one for the health conscious.
Bear's back room is a comfortable hangout where you can hear live blues, jazz, and folk. There's also comedy on Monday nights, and an art-film series that gets the highest marks of all.
Because it was within staggering distance of the bars, we chose the Downtown Motel (509 N. College Ave.; 812-336-6881) as our spot to bunk for the night, but be warned--our room came complete with sticky shag carpeting, bad reception on the TV, and curtains that wouldn't close. No bathtub, just a shower nozzle in a stall sticking out about shoulder height. And I'm not even picky!
One night in this place cost us $37.40, and we were staying in the room the guy described as the "bigger, nicer one." The only thing to recommend it is the location--if you plan to drink too much to drive or you want a place to hide out until the heat blows over.
Otherwise, you might want to try the Comfort Inn (812-339-1919) or the University Inn (812-332-9453). I can't vouch for them personally, but they simply can't be any worse.
If you're really stuck for lodging, just go to Second Story and tell people you're in a band. Before the night is over, you'll wind up crashing on somebody's floor.