Last Call at the Garage
*Editor’s note: In the print version of this article, it incorrectly stated that Cat’s Cradle was located in Cary. The online version has been updated to the correct city, which is Carrboro.
By: Jon Epstein
Operating a live local music venue is not as cool as it would appear, and it definitely isn’t easy.
When you stop to consider the sheer number of details involved in the day to day operation of a venue, it suddenly becomes obvious that no sane person would do it unless they were highly committed and motivated by the idea that running a club is worth the effort because it matters. This is especially true of clubs that depend solely on artists and fans drawn from the local, community. In larger metro areas these clubs can become central to the identity of local music scenes and can become the incubators of new genres, styles, or scenes, and eventually take on their own mythic identity. Under the right circumstances, venues such as the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, CBGBS in New York, the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro become part of the fabric of music history.
In Winston-Salem, that club was The Garage.
The Garage was originally conceived by Richard Emmett and his wife Kim Lawson in the late 1990s to be a potential hub for the Winston-Salem music community that would provide a downtown venue for local and regional acts to perform. It didn’t take long for that to become a reality and by the mid-2000’s the Garage had become the symbolic home of the Winston-Salem Americana/Roots rock/Jangle Pop scenes.
That these were the genres that gravitated towards the Garage was certainly no surprise to anyone familiar with Winston-Salem’s central role in the global Alternative rock scene of the 1980s and Early 1990s. A young band from Athens, Georgia, REM, who would later go on to become one of the most successful rock bands in history began their recording career in Winston-Salem at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In studio where other “jangle pop” bands such as Let’s Active and the Connells recorded and by the late 1980s the city had at least half a dozen live music clubs which were mostly centered around what is now Deacon Blvd including Baity’s Music Garden and Ziggy’s. Unfortunately, while Winston-Salem was critical to the birth of the “jangle pop” movement that centrality did not result in any noticeable or permanent changes to the local music scene and by the turn of the century, all remnants of that scene had been bulldozed and replaced by parking lots and BB&T Field. The Garage was meant, in part, to help fill the void left by the relentless march of progress by providing a community space for the music community in the heart of the city’s arts district. In that respect, it worked like a champ, in no small part due to the original owner’s passion for succeeding.
By 2012, however, Emmett and Lawson decided that it was time for them to move on to other ventures and the club was sold to Tucker Tharpe, who had been working with the couple for some time and had a distinct knack for club management and a burning passion to continue what Emmett and Lawson had started. By virtually any measure he succeeded. Under his guidance, the Garage continued to live up to its iconic reputation as the crown jewel of downtown music venues. For that reason, Tharpe’s announcement that the Garage was closing on New Year’s Eve sent shock rippling through the local musician community. Why, after all, would a club that is by every outward appearance was thriving, close?
In the end, it boiled down to the economics of scale. The thing that made the Garage the club it became was its size. It is called an “intimate” concert venue, with a capacity of just over 100 people. While this makes it an outstanding place for an audience, it makes it very difficult for the club owner to manage operating expenses, and virtually impossible to bring in national level acts who routinely charge thousands of dollars in “guarantees.” With a maximum audience of just over 100 paying customers for any given show ticket prices to cover the costs would be prohibitively high, and beverage sales would likely not cover the costs. When you include the cost of overhead such as employees, equipment, rent, electricity and stock, it becomes a losing proposition. In the end, the Garage became iconic for the same reason it became untenable.
“The decision to close the Garage was one of the most difficult things I have ever done,” Tharpe told me during a recent conversation, “but I did not expect the reaction to be quite as intense.” Rumors about why the club closed, and what the next move will be, have been flying since the announcement. The idea the club moving to the location of the Downtown Ziggy’s is probably the most discussed but is wishful thinking. “I haven’t even considered it,” Tharpe told me, “and while it’s fair to say I will be back, it won’t be there.”