After nearly two decades in the Triad, a live music venue beloved by audiences and musicians alike will shutter its doors in January. The Garage in Winston-Salem contributed much to the downtown culture there. But like most small clubs across the country, it has struggled to survive in an increasingly competitive market.
Over the years, for many people, The Garage has become a symbol of the city's transformation from a tobacco and textile town into a model of the New South. In 1999, when the doors first opened, it wasn't much more than an old, brick rectangle that could hold about 100 people.
Musician and songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster performed at one of the early concerts there. He describes the surroundings as “humble.”
“It was really cold, and really dark,” says Foster. “And there was one heater—one furnace—that was up on the ceiling that blew onto one spot on the stage, and I would sit at that spot with a hat on so that I could stay warm enough to play, and I think I even thought about playing with fingerless gloves that night.”
Over the years, several additions were made to the stage, bar, and sound system. But Foster says through all the changes, the mission behind The Garage remained the same.
“From the beginning, it was all music-oriented,” he says. “That was the difference between [The Garage] and any other bar. It was a music room that just happened to sell drinks too.”
According to Foster, that emphasis is being lost on a growing segment of the population whose listening habits have been formed in the digital age.
“Everything is instant,” says Foster. “People that have grown up in the last ten or fifteen years maybe didn't have to experience the idea of waiting early in the morning to get a ticket to go see a concert. Waiting all night to see somebody because that's the only time you're going to see them that year when the band comes to town.”
Once inside the venue, concert-goer expectations are different today as well. Long bar menus of microbrews and handcrafted cocktails are standard at many clubs. Rather than pay a cover charge and take a chance on a new band, many of today's twenty-somethings have begun favoring local bars that provide live music (often by lesser-known artists) for free.
Another headwind for club owners is the hours that must be spent researching acts with the hopes of booking the right bands for the right price. Those decisions can make or break any club, says Glenn Boothe, owner of Motorco Music Hall in Durham, North Carolina.
“What a lot of people don't realize is that there's enough music out there to be open seven nights a week,” says Boothe. “But really only one or two of those shows are contributing to the bottom line. So, there's an unlimited number of shows you can do, but there's a very finite number of shows that actually make money. And those are the ones that all of the venues are competing for.”
Music halls are spread out farther and wider across North Carolina than ever before too. According to Boothe, bands that would have routinely stopped in The Triangle fifteen years ago are today being lured away to growing music markets in cities like Charlotte and Asheville.
Original Garage owner Richard Emmett says it was always a challenge to make a bona fide business out of a small venue like The Garage, and today it's even harder.
“You know, we struggled to do that, and we were going to close down in 2005,” says Emmett. “Then people said, ‘No, this is important to the community.' And a number of people came forward as investors to help us renovate The Garage, and have some money to be able to put some new energy into it. So, then we did that, and with community support we were able to put some new energy to it, and that led to another five years of…breaking even at best!”
And yet, over its 18 years, the club has helped launch nationally known bands like The Avett Brothers and Drive-By Truckers long before they ever won a Grammy. For Emmett, seeing them move on to larger and larger venues has been bitter sweet.
“That hurt, but it also was a compliment to what we were doing and the important role that we played in the scene and we played that role for a lot of local bands,” says Emmett.
In 2012, Richard Emmett passed along the keys to current Garage owner Tucker Tharpe who has worked hard to maintain Emmett's vision. (A note of disclosure here: Tharpe is a WFDD Community Advisory Board member.)
“Someone once wrote that 'The Garage was built around music and held up by the posters,'” says Tharpe. “And I really love that because it is. It reeks of vibe and history, and…greatness. It's a platform for young artists to grow.”
“It doesn't work financially,” he says. “It just seems crazy. We win a lot. We lose sometimes. But at the end of the year we earn less than we…than it costs to run the business. And so, I have to end up kind of subsidizing that.”Given the legacy Tharpe inherited, his belief and optimism, the biggest surprise in running the business was, for him, a painful realization.
Jews and Catholics bass player Alanna Meltzer-Holderfield says she feels fortunate that The Garage kept up the good fight for as long as it did. The people there always nurtured the musicians, and continue to do so.
“It's really made me think about what a creative home it has provided for myself and for a lot of other local musicians and artists over the years,” says Meltzer-Holderfield.
“Providing that outlet for experimental bands and new bands to go out and play and practice things out, and to get a new crowd, and really giving people a chance to help bands develop into something great. And it can be really hard to find a place that will let you do that. That was really valuable.”
That tradition continues with twenty-five-year-old Foxture front man Marlon Blackmon. He credits The Garage for helping him launch his musical career.
“We released our very first record there, Circles. And before that, one of the milestones that we had coming straight off the gate, not having any recordings, was like, ‘Alright, I want to play The Garage!'” says Blackmon. “But I want to play The Garage for a reason. I want people to be there, know that we're there, and I want to make a proud night playing at The Garage.”
With real estate prices soaring all around The Garage, it's closure in the current location and size appears to be imminent. But a sense of optimism still remains. There's talk of a new chapter for the beloved venue, and a hope that the city will continue supporting it.
The Bo-Stevens front man, Richard Boyd, calls The Garage “home.”
“Well, I hope that something takes the place of the niche that The Garage served. It won't be The Garage—there won't be anything that takes The Garage's place—but there is a niche that can be served, and it is my hope that things will come around again,” says Boyd.
"I'm forty-nine and I've been going to music venues for quite some time, and there's always been times when it's been tougher, but it comes back around.”
The last concert for The Garage is scheduled for New Year's Eve.