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Carolina Theatre CEO Bob Nocek has good reason to smile this holiday season. After a spate of good news about the finances of the theater, Nocek is looking to the future. For one thing, the theater is set to offer weekday matinee film screenings, starting Jan. 10, an unmistakable sign of downtown Durham's residential vitality.
He's got a bigger, if more nebulous vision, which he's happy to share with anyone who asks. The theater sits off Morgan Street, and the stretch between Mangum Street and Corporation is downtown's most bleak expanse of asphalt and concrete, glass and steel. Nocek thinks he's got a solution: turn the theater's administrative offices, which sit right at street level, into a pub.
"Space is a little bit limited, but if we could serve a little light food, there are hundreds of people working across the street."
Other ideas pour forth: "We're really starting to look beyond our walls," he continues, citing upcoming off-site shows at Hayti and Motorco. He also talks about creating a storefront somewhere downtown, "a unique film screening room. Almost like a pop-up movie theater."
It's notable that Nocek's in a position to dream a bit. For years, the Carolina, which is a nonprofit operator contracted with the city, has been dogged by concerns about its finances, particularly in the wake of the 2008 opening of Durham Performing Arts Center, the 2,700-seat behemoth a few blocks away. A four-month closure in 2011 due to badly needed renovations compounded the revenue challenges, so much that the theater went to the city in search of money to close the gap. The request was denied.
But one could faintly hear the fanfare of trumpets earlier this month when the Carolina Theatre announced its first profitable year since 2008. The $69,000 surplus helped knock the theater's deficit down to $266,000. The improved performance comes from a variety of factors, Nocek says, ranging from an increase in the number of self-promoted shows—the Star Series—from about 25 shows annually to 60, and increased rental and concessions revenue. Notably, movie ticket revenues are up 50 percent since the cinema reopened in 2011.
Nocek came to the Carolina as vice president and chief operating officer in 2009, assuming the top job a year later in 2010. He began his career in daily journalism and then moved to managing venues in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. There he developed a particular affinity for booking comedy acts such as Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart, a trend that has continued in Durham, with such recent visitors as Craig Ferguson, Lily Tomlin and Sandra Bernhard.
"I want to book the biggest acts we can, but I also want to bring in people who are just coming up—even if we know they'll just sell two or three hundred tickets the first time, and build up a relationship with them for the future."
Nocek says he doubts there was ever a serious possibility that the city wouldn't renew the operating agreement. "Nobody expressed doubts to me directly at that significant a level, but I know there were concerns," Nocek says.
"Honestly, when you have a deficit getting to be three or four hundred thousand dollars, you know, 'What's our future going to be?' They were asking that question."
Consultant Duncan Webb was brought in to review the theater's operations and concluded the theater was well run. "Once the city had someone else tell them we were in good shape, that's when they felt comfortable," Nocek says.
The renewal of the theater's contract with the city should happen within weeks, he says.
"We've essentially agreed on all the terms internally," Nocek says. "There's really no holdup at this point." —David Fellerath
Merge Records loves birthdays. Every fifth summer since they launched as an humble way to put out records their friends made, the start-up-turned-indie-rock lodestar has commemorated its own survival with a fleet of compilations, box sets, books and fan-camp-like festivals.
In 2014, they'll mark their silver jubilee, an event they actually began rolling out this October. So far, they've announced a road race from Chapel Hill to Durham (where the label started and where it now has its headquarters), a seven-inch subscription series (Merge's second format, following a pair of debut cassettes in 1989) and the start of a reissue run that will put many early or simply essential works by Merge bands back in circulation with bonus materials (up first, Lambchop's exquisite Nixon). They've yet to release dates for the concomitant festival or an Arcade Fire stop in the Triangle, but they've at least alluded to the former. Expect sweltering July days spent in various venues, with reunions that stretch deep into the label's back catalog. —Grayson Haver Currin
Shawn Galvin sighs just a bit when asked what's on the schedule for New Music Raleigh in 2014. "Not much yet," he says.
Instead, Galvin explains the resource-taxing nature of what New Music Raleigh—the nebulous neoclassical organization he co-founded with his wife, Karen—accomplished in 2013. In May, they produced a rock-club concert where the unrecorded songs of Beck Hansen went from sheet music to live performances, led by The Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins. And in late November, they served as the backbone for a wide team of collaborators in the premiere of All Souls, an hour-long piece by Duke composer John Supko that combined excerpts from a Dutch novel with operatic vocals and music that veered from stately brooding to triumphant almost-pop. These large-scale, trans-network concerts require time and meetings, money and travel. So for next year, Galvin is drafting a set of short works that a smaller iteration of the group might play without six months of lead time—a more portable, still exploratory chamber group.
But what New Music Raleigh doesn't have planned for next year matters much less than the cross-curricular template they helped establish this year. When they delivered All Souls at Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum, a packed house sat and stood sandwiched between walls of art and around a large centerpiece cut from particleboard. The configuration worked as a metaphor for the group's intentions to push beyond usual bounds of stylistic expectation, offering a challenge of sorts for other artists, whatever the form, in the area: How can your work connect to what's around it? How can your own endeavors power—or be powered—by those working right beside you?
New Music Raleigh isn't the only group making such inroads locally: Durham hip-hop group The Beast has become a collaborative magnet, while a scene of local improvisers has sparked similar activity across niches of jazz, classical and rock 'n' roll. Jazz band Peter Lamb & the Wolves has been stretching its retro image with circus performers and a motley crew of co-conspirators. These joint ventures offer more than a rock show; they offer an experience and, most important, a spark meant to incite new ideas. It's exactly the sort of thing to hope for in even larger quantities. —Grayson Haver Currin
Rebecca Evans and Jan Dickey scan the shelves at Letters, a new independent bookstore in downtown Durham.
"This is one of the best selections of fiction I've seen," Evans says. "It's curated."
That's exactly what Letters owner Land Arnold needs to hear. He opened the bookstore's doors for the first time just hours before Evans and Dickey arrived. He beams.
Letters joins So and So Books in Raleigh in its 2013 literary debuts. Raleigh's Sorry State Records and Carrboro's Vinyl Perk also opened for music-lovers this year. If this sounds like it's bucking a retail trend, then you haven't been following that trend closely enough: The niche of smaller, well-targeted stores is opening into a wider future.
Once upon a time, independent bookstores and record shops dotted the landscape like the truffula trees in Seuss' The Lorax. Then came the big-box stores to stomp them out. Many of the few survivors fell to online retailers. Nonetheless, where there are discerning readers and listeners, there's a healthy market for retailers who know the area's literary and musical tastes because they help drive them.
This has kept some longstanding favorites in business. Last summer, there was a wide sigh of relief among Triangle readers when Quail Ridge Books' beloved, retiring founder Nancy Olson found a buyer for her store. And, after four decades on Hillsborough Street, Schoolkids is moving across N.C. State's campus—and possibly expanding its business model to include a bar—in January.
Arnold should know what the Triangle reads: He sold his share of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, which he helped open in 2009, to start Letters. Before getting Flyleaf off the ground, Arnold worked at McIntyre's Books in Fearrington Village. "This is actually less risky than Flyleaf, which was a really big space," he says.
So and So, which is even smaller than Letters, opened in the spring in a 300-square-foot space at the front of the architecture firm on Person Street. Owners Charles Wilkes and Chris Tonelli have day jobs, so the architects ring up sales during some of the store's hours.
"It's enabled us to make this a slower, more pilot-program thing as opposed to 'Let's take out more loans and take on debt to get this thing going,'" Tonelli says. "It's more of an experiment than a gamble."
Their start-up cost was $3,000 for shelving and an opening-day inventory of a little more than 200 handpicked titles.
"We've just been getting to the point where we're turning some books spine-out," Tonelli says.
Blocks away on Morgan Street, Sorry State Records can tell a similar tale. Daniel Lupton started the Sorry State label in 2005 to release one record: Direct Control's Nuclear Tomorrow. That music production has a physical location now. Since his October opening, Lupton can hardly keep the record bins full.
"I figured out the amount of money I needed to make every day to keep the doors open," he says, "and there have been very few days that I've been under that."
Lupton's record descriptions have added value, too. "I think there are people who read my web store like a music blog instead of a retail site," he says.
Sorry State fits the mold of small stores with pockets of expertise—locally, much like Carrboro's All Day Records or Durham's Bull City Records, and nationally like San Francisco's weirdo emporium, Aquarius Records. Carrboro's new Vinyl Perk, though, moves in a different direction by serving up pour-over coffee with the music. Proprietor Jay Reeves opened the shop in October, and as his happy customers have discovered, it's really a living room with a cash register and a certificate of occupancy. —Chris Vitiello
The close of 2012 seemed an especially perilous time for Triangle rock clubs.
Both Volume 11 Tavern and the DIVEbar, two Raleigh rooms devoted to all sounds heavy and loud, announced that they would close after New Year's Eve finales. Tess Mangum Ocaña, the booking agent who had pushed Carrboro's The ArtsCenter to a point of national prominence, lost her job. And Casbah, the intimate new room on Durham's Main Street, dumped the booking agent that essentially built the club's programming from nil.
But 2013 ends on a much more positive note, at least for the area venues willing to take the relatively slow road. Many of these changes mean that where and how you experience music in 2014 might be very different. After more than four decades of serving as a beacon for touring bands, Cat's Cradle made what long seemed to be a logical move. In November, they opened the Cat's Cradle Back Room, a small annex that serves whiskey and should house many of the shows that the Cradle presents in rooms such as the nearby Local 506 or Kings in Raleigh. After years of talk that the Cradle would have to move location in the coming years, owner Frank Heath instead reasserted his club's status as a cultural anchor in Carrboro. And in Raleigh, the former owners of DIVEbar used the momentum they'd established over the course of nine years on Glenwood Avenue to uproot their entire organization to the building that used to house Volume 11. Since a breathing-room-only opening night, their calendar has offered several doses of hard rock and heavy metal per week.
Meanwhile, the upstairs rock club Kings Barcade and subterranean bar Neptune's Parlour completed the third phase of their Martin Street cultural hub by opening Garland, a street-level eatery focusing on surprising ethnic fare. Similarly, after three years of developing its rock club identity, Durham's Motorco finally forged ahead with its plans to develop a restaurant addition within their space. The step-wise, steady process of both enterprises parallels recent news concerning the long-running Shakori Hills GrassRoots Music Festival in Chatham County: In mid-December, after a 10-year mission from festival organizers to buy their 75-acre parcel, they closed the deal by gathering funds from 30 investors and Shakori Hills supporters. The purchase not only allows the event some stability, it also gives the organization a chance to expand its mission of community outreach and education.
"The property is not going anywhere at this point, and that's a real relief," says Puryear. "That will allow us to grow."
Not all the news, of course, has been good: Glenn Boothe put Local 506 up for sale in August, though he is willing to keep the club open while he searches for a suitable new owner. A month before, Durham's Broad Street Cafe closed without much noticed. Following early attempts at being a proper rock club, the restaurant had shifted its programming largely to a dinner-and-drinks crowd. Five years ago, its sudden absence would've been more acutely felt, but Durham's explosion of venues in the interim mitigated the loss.
But the sting was a bit worse when, only three months later, the Casbah announced that it would be closing, too. The room went through three booking agents (including the relocated Ocaña) in as many years, making it the equivalent of a major-league sports franchise with expectations no coaches could meet. Early next year, the space will become a bar with shuffleboard and video games—a slightly less risky adventure than a rock club, to be sure.
The success and failures of these venues seem forever cyclical, a point driven home by the upcoming swap of Sadlack's Heroes and the Berkeley Cafe. After more than 30 years of being situated across from the N.C. State Belltower, Sadlack's will take its leave of Hillsborough Street at the end of the year. They'll take their menu and their music two miles into downtown Raleigh, where they'll take the space and name of the Berkeley, another Raleigh institution. They'll open in early January, perhaps starting or ending a long trek of music venue musical chairs. —Grayson Haver Currin