When Kym Register sits on the back patio of The Pinhook, the rock club and de facto community center she opened in 2008, the layers of modern Durham unfold before her.
Panning from right to left, there's the American Tobacco Campus and its web of high-end restaurants, offices and apartments, capped by the old Lucky Strike tower and abutted by railroad tracks. In the middle sits the rear wall of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which glows like a lantern in the summer, and DPAC's gleaming glass front. On the far left, the looming complex of the Durham County Detention Facility and new courthouse serves as a constant reminder of the city's historic and present struggles with race and inequality. And from the front door, Register's view of imminent skyscrapers and boutique hotels is one of constant flux, increased capital and new problems and possibilities.
But one aspect of Main Street likely won't change for quite some time: The Pinhook. In February 2013, Register became the sole owner of the business. Later in the year, she bought the building outright, recommitting to running more than a moneymaking venture.
"The business aspect of The Pinhook has always been second to the community-building aspect and the political aspect," Register says. "I've always seen music as something that is über-political and life-changing, a thing that people can access across identities."
And so like the people it attracts, The Pinhook harbors various labels. Initially called a gay bar, it's perhaps now best known as a spot where the drinks start pouring at 5 p.m. daily and a venue that hosts shows until last call, offering nocturnal activities ranging from karaoke, trivia and drag performances to concerts that span rock and folk, metal and hip-hop. One night The Pinhook may seem like an international dance club, only to function as a small independent cinema the next.
When downtown Durham was still barren, Register helped found The Pinhook with two friends. Everyone, she reckoned, should have access to a performance space, regardless of race, gender identity or politics. A Durham native, Register had some experience with such spaces through Bull City Headquarters, a short-lived but pivotal launchpad for the city's emerging scene. Music helped Register, who identifies as queer and embraces radical politics, feel less isolated in her own Southern town.
She realized, though, that a DIY aesthetic could be limiting. For instance, her former band, Midtown Dickens, struggled to get shows at bona fide clubs like Cat's Cradle or Local 506 when she would drop off demos wrapped in hand-sewn packages. She wanted to create easier access.
"One thing I thought about this space is that it can be a more legitimized club in the eyes of the world than a DIY venue," she remembers, "and still have that DIY aesthetic."
The mind-set applies to The Pinhook's role as an activist space, too. The club hosts politically inclined benefits, like a recent Halloween dance for an organization that posts bail for people arrested while protesting the state. And it has often served as a rendezvous point for some of the city's political movements.
In another DIY holdover, Register hires her friends to help shape the space. Heather McEntire, a fellow musician, worked behind the bar from 2010 through 2014. At the beginning of October, McEntire's band Mount Moriah celebrated the release of a new single by playing their first show in a year. They could have played a bigger venue, but she chose The Pinhook.
"I knew it would be a warm space," McEntire explains. "We wanted it to be where we felt comfortable. It does feel like home."
Melvin Peña, perhaps The Pinhook's biggest fan and most dedicated regular, was in the crowd that night. He met Register years ago, soon after he started coming to the bar to hang out after work while waiting out rush-hour traffic before heading home to North Raleigh. Register's enthusiasm was infectious.
"She was always extremely welcoming, extremely kind and extremely generous," Peña says. "Feeling comfortable at a place is down to the staff."
Register's focus on making patrons feel welcome extends beyond friendly chats, of course. Signs in and around gender-neutral bathrooms encourage consent and discourage hateful language. Register says employees feel a special ownership of the space because its values sync with theirs; you get the sense that the same applies to those who play, drink or dance at The Pinhook. The crowds are a loose confederation born of entertainment and ideology.
But keeping a community space afloat isn't easy, even when you own the real estate.
"Venues and businesses that exist in this capitalist world have to be successful, and success is not measured in the ways success can be measured on a personal level," Register, 33, says. "Doing things that feel good, creating community—it's actually about getting money in the door. That's been a hard marriage of politics and business."
So she books about 16 events per month, from recurring dance parties like Party Illegal and Dishoom to concerts featuring a mix of national and local acts. There are open mics each Monday and trivia contests each Tuesday. And if Register has a free night, The Pinhook is often available to those in need of a room.
She has to balance her business with her art, as she's still the songwriter of the folk-rock band Loamlands. Leaving for a week of dates with singer-songwriter Natalie Prass presents a challenge, certainly, but McEntire says having a boss who is a touring musician makes The Pinhook that much more beneficial to an artistic economy.
"She offers shifts and positions where we can be flexible and go on tour," McEntire explains. "She's doing the same thing. You didn't have to nervously ask your boss, 'Can I have these two weeks off?'"
Sitting on a couch in The Pinhook's front room, Register says she recognizes the importance of maintaining a space like this in an evolving city. Lose sight of the mission, and watch big money commandeer downtown's smallest spaces.
"I couldn't let it go because it's such a part of my identity, and such a hub for the people in the community essentially just being themselves," Register says. "There's no way to let it go."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Opening sets"