Death of a Small Venue: Saying Farewell to The Fort Street Cafe.
It’s the place where on any given night of the week you’ll find comedy, poetry, live music, a quiz night, and an open mic. It’s the place where you can drink, listen to great music and still hear your friends. Damn it, it’s the place where everybody knows your name. Yep, it’s the small venue and it’s disappearing.
Here in Victoria, where you will find a vibrant art and music community, we sadly have a dearth of small venues and this week, on the 15th December, the best of them all will be saying a fond farewell. The Fort Street Cafe, where by day you’ll taste the best grilled cheese in town and by night you’ll be privy to the best local entertainment is closing its doors.
The by, the why and the how are not important anymore. Business is business and as we say “stuff” happens, but thousands of people are lamenting the loss of the best small venue in town. As Benji Duke, one of the three owners of the cafe, says,
“The Fort is an independent performance space that serves homemade food and local ales. Our mission statement is to ‘support a positive and diverse downtown community.”
And I’m sure for the many small venue owners across the country, their mission is similar.
If you have ever played music, had the urge to perform live poetry or have felt the pull of the comedy stage, it’s likely only the small venue that will give you the opportunity. As Duke himself says,
“A lack of small venues means limited opportunities for up and coming and fringe performers. Not everyone can bring out 200+ people to a show and not everybody wants to go to a big show.”
Do you have a small venue in your town? I can remember all the small venues throughout my travels in Europe and now here in Canada. These are the places where you could grow as a performer and a patron, the ones that shied from the mainstream but would throw all their support behind you if mainstream was the mission. These are the all inclusive venues where everybody gets a chance.
Asking Benji what other small venues had inspired him as a business owner, his response was;
“None specifically. But do you know when you walk in a room and you feel good? Those are the places I draw inspiration from. But that room could be my Great Auntie Joan’s kitchen, the Golden Ball pub or a coffee shop on a cold November afternoon in Amsterdam. I like vibes.”
Discoveries have been made in small venues for years. Remember a little band called The Beatles, it was a venue with the capacity of 190 people that jump started their career. And it’s not just upstarts. Woody Allen chooses New York’s Cafe Carlyle to perform his current jazz sets whilst Chuck Berry can be found airing his favourite riff in the Duck Room of St Louis’ Blueberry Hill club every third Wednesday of each month. There’s just something about the intimacy of small gigs.
So how do you create a successful small venue that can make money and still host fringe arts? Duke says it’s all about expectations,
“I would say managing expectations is the most important thing. We talk to bands about what is expected of them and what they can expect from us. I ask performers to be honest with them selves and be realistic. Many bands can suffer from delusions of grandeur. There is no room for egos in small venues.”
Let’s pay homage to the small venues that have helped us out, either as performers or as customers searching for some space different. We salute you!
As for the Fort Street Cafe, the support has been so huge that the co owners have set up a fundraising campaign to offset the costs of relocation.
The campaign has picked up a lot of speed, it seems that so many of us don’t want to see our favourite small venue disappear. Tickets have sold out to the Fort Fest closing celebration this week, but contributions to the fundraiser are still important. Visit their Kapipal site for all the details