Casbah, the 288-capacity music venue that opened its doors on Durham's Main Street in late 2010, will close its doors Jan. 1. The room is being transformed from a rock club into Social, a "bar with games," says co-owner Jana Bradley. The rock club business isn't what she'd hoped.
"This is a really tough industry, more so than people realize, I think. Although things have gotten better, we've been struggling. We knew earlier this year that it was really a make-it-or-break-it situation for us," says Bradley, who owns the club with her husband, Fergus. "It was a hard decision to make, but it's the best one for our growing family."
Tess Mangum Ocaña took over duties as the club's talent buyer in June; she says plans for the transition had long been in the works. Still, she'll miss the wide range of acts and shows to which the club catered. "It's pretty good one day to be talking about a drag show," Ocaña explains, "and the next day be talking to an agent about a national touring band."
The venue hosted songwriters' circles, photography slideshows, women's arm-wrestling bouts, multimedia reviews from Duke's Center for Documentary Studies and hip-hop summits, in addition to folk, indie, experimental and rock shows. During the last year, Duke Performances has often used the space to host jazz, dance and classical bills. The move leaves the Bull City Metal Fest and Crispy Bess' Instro Summit without a home.
"At The Cave, we just simply ran out of room," explains Bess of Instro Summit's 2013 move from Chapel Hill. For a festival that touts 27 bands over a single weekend, the bigger digs were important. "The sound, the locale, the parking, the fact that it's not a dump, it's beautiful inside, the proximity to Duke University campus: I think if this bar would have been around in 1994, it would be an institution."
Instead, Fergus Bradley and two new partners, Mark Cromwell and Jason Sholtz, will launch a set of renovations to change the room's layout and function in early January. Bradley, an Ireland native who also owns the Irish pub James Joyce across the street, says he's noticed that patrons like to be competitive as they party, and he hopes Social will give them the chance with shuffleboard, skee ball, pool and vintage video games as likely additions.
"We think that Social will be a fun place for people who want to do more than just belly up to the bar," he says.
Social won't have a kitchen, but Bradley says he hopes an adjacent parking lot will become a new home for local food trucks. With The Pit and Motorco's new restaurant opening on Rigsbee Avenue, he wants Social to be a harbor for displaced businesses such as KoKyu and Pie Pushers.
Casbah's transfiguration is the latest move in a turbulent year for the Triangle's music venues. Local 506 is for sale from longtime owner Glenn Boothe, and Broad Street Café shut its doors in July. The Cat's Cradle has opened a back room, while Motorco has added a restaurant and regular movies to its roster.
Jeremy Roth, the general manager of Motorco, isn't happy about the decrease in competition. "It sucks for Durham losing another venue," he says. "I viewed the number of venues going up being more of a sign of people seeing live music. The fact they're having to close suggests we may not be there yet."
Motorco's restaurant was always in the sketch pad for the large building, but in light of the Casbah news, Roth especially appreciates his business's newfound range.
"It is definitely helpful to have some diversity in terms of the experience for getting people to come to Motorco," he says. "It builds on itself: People who come to a show might eat at the restaurant, and people going to eat at the restaurant might find out about a show."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rocked the Casbah."