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What happens when you let light into a cave? Chapel Hill's underground venue changes hands.

Subterranean shifts 

If you let light into a cave, you never know what you'll find. And that's just what new Cave owners Dave Sorrell and Mouse did recently in the basement-dwelling Chapel Hill watering hole, unearthing four windows that hadn't been opened in more than 20 years.

Some Cave regulars were apprehensive that letting in even a hint of light could upset the bar's subterranean atmosphere. But modernity came calling, and its name was ventilation. "What we wanted to do," says Mouse, "was to clean up the air for our own health. And so that we would no longer alienate half the population of Chapel Hill." To preserve the dark ambiance of the basement bar--and to head off any criticism--Mouse and Dave tinted the windows they'd opened. Truth be told, there wasn't much light coming in from the 3-foot-wide alley outside anyway.

You can pardon The Cave's patrons for being resistant to change. The place is believed to be the oldest true bar in Chapel Hill, having opened some time around 1968. (It may even be older; legend has it people stopped in during the local civil rights marches of the early '60s.) Perhaps because it shoos fake ID-toting undergrads, The Cave has established a consistent, fad-free identity over the years. It is a true local bar, a townie bar in the best sense of the word. No one says "Norm!" when you walk in, but it wouldn't be out of place. You know, if your name were Norm.

Sounding like he might be running for something in this election year, Mouse says his goal for The New Cave is to create "more opportunity for everyone." That means booking two unknown and untested bands for a $2 cover every Sunday. That means adding Internet hookups for live Web casts. It also means documenting the local music scene for cable-access television. (In his spare time, Mouse hosts a cable-access variety show called Z-TV.) The forthcoming "Live at The Cave" will be a weekly half-hour music show hosted by Two Dollar Pistols frontman and Cave bartender John Howie.

Aren't the new owners worried that all these high-falutin' changes will alienate their longtime customers? I mean, what's next--those slick new mechanical bulls? Dave, a regular at heart, jumps on this one. "In one sense, I want The Cave to stay the bar that I've known for the last 13 years. But I know it needs new blood and Mouse is that new blood. I want it to be there another 30 years, to go from family to family. Mouse is as close to family as Meg and I have in this town."

Meg, by the way, is Meg Sorrell--Dave's wife and Mouse's old boss--who just gave up the reins after 18 years as the owner of The Cave. Dave, which incidentally rhymes with Cave, became a regular in the mid-'80s; he and Meg married in 1991. (Mouse also met Gloria, his future wife, at the bar.) Dave's only previous role at the bar was the occasional fixing of toilets or re-hanging of Christmas lights. Meg had no initial intention of selling the place to her husband; it just sort of happened.

Meg started hanging out at The Cave in 1979. She was so taken by it she started working there in '80 or '81 and bought into the place a year later. "The reason I liked it was because it was so much like a cave," she recalls. "I had actually been doing some caving, spelunking at the time." She vividly remembers the first time she went into the bar. "There was a black-and-white TV up on the stage, and everyone was sitting around in folding chairs watching the baseball playoffs. It was kind of nice."

On Meg's watch, live music bookings proliferated. You can trace that back to the mid-'80s and The Love Masters, a local doo-wop group. "I heard them singing on the street and invited them to come play at The Cave," Meg says. "After that, every time they played, the place was completely packed."

Soon after, the club hosted Cave Aid--a show featuring such locals acts such as Lee Gildersleeve, Dog Eat Dog and The Love Masters--as a means of raising money for a sound system. In the ensuing years, The Cave carved out a niche as something of a haven for roots music and singer-songwriters. The most famous out-of-towner to perform there was Lyle Lovett, who gave a free show on a Sunday afternoon in 1987. "We always emphasized bands that played original music," Meg says with no small hint of pride. But what about cover bands? "We send them to the beach."

Mouse came onto the Cave scene in 1985 at the tender age of 19. "The drinking age had just changed so Meg was asking 19-year-olds to have two IDs!" he recalls with horror. Those who have faced the inquisition from Meg or Mouse know how seriously they take their carding duties.

But does their seriousness mask some glee? "Absolutely," Meg shoots back. "People who are trying to get beer from me when they're not old enough? Yeah, I take a great deal of pleasure in kicking their asses out." For the record, Meg concedes that she was, uh, less than the legal drinking age at the time of her first bar experience. It was at the old Tempo Room in Chapel Hill. She suavely ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

While it used to attract an after-work crowd, The Cave now caters primarily to musicians and service industry workers in search of late-night drinks and live bands. (As a concession to customers with early bedtimes, the club has started offering additional early shows on Thursday and Friday nights.) "The Cave is a hub," says Mouse, "between what used to be Tijuana Fats and is now Henry's, and the Pyewacket. It used to be a big triangle and people would walk through all the time. They didn't always buy something, but they'd always stop and say hi."

Marty Smith, a Cave regular for more than 15 years, gets downright dewy-eyed when he talks about the bar. "I just prefer going into places where I'll meet someone I know. And I'm assured of that every night of the week I go down there."

Since getting out of the business a month ago, Meg has shed new light into her previously dark life as a cave-dweller. She's taken a day-job--an antidote, you might say--working at the Niche Gardens plant nursery out on Old Greensboro Highway. But what might seem like a shock to the system was a natural step for her.

"My schedule has changed as I've grown older," she says. "I really don't like to stay up late at night and I really do like to get up early in the morning. This was honestly what I wanted to do and it was nice for me that I had two people in my life who wanted to run The Cave. I could leave knowing it would be left in good hands."

  • What happens when you let light into a cave? Chapel Hill's underground venue changes hands.

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