Not quite two years ago, on April Fools' Day, Mouse Mock celebrated a decade of owning The Cave with an anniversary party. During the day, he and his staff tidied up some of the club's more run-down features. Later that night, Mock stood in front of a crowd of the bar's regulars and gave a toast, affirming his excitement to keep running the town's oldest tavern for another decade.
While he wasn't quite pulling a fast one, he wasn't being completely honest, either.
"On April Fools' Day 2010, I meant to sell this place," Mock confesses. "Instead, we re-painted the place in the back, and we refixed things up. And we had a big anniversary party. And I said, 'To 10 more years!' Quietly inside, I was like, 'I'm supposed to be passing this on.'"
The storied Chapel Hill haunt sits down an alley and under the ground on West Franklin Street. On this bright March afternoon, the sun doesn't penetrate the holes of the faux-rock ceiling that lines the 43-year-old music venue. Mock slowly sips at a PBR and glances at a basketball game as he explains why he is trying to sell The Cave.
"Anything you get into you have to have an exit strategy," Mock says, explaining that he bought the bar intending to hold on to it for a decade and then pass it on. "Mine was that I don't want to be a bar owner for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a piece of The Cave's history. I wanted to be a part of The Cave's community, the music community in Chapel Hill. But I wanted to exit gracefully. I wanted to have a legacy here at The Cave but pass it on."
Long a starting point for local bands, the venue is a cornerstone of Chapel Hill's music scene, a stage to grow up on before moving on to larger rooms. Country singer John Howie Jr. knows this well. His old band, the Two Dollar Pistols, got their start at The Cave. He was also a bartender at the club and the host of the tunes-and-interviews series Live @ the Cave.
"I think it's very important, very important that it remain a live music venue," Howie says. "There aren't that many open right now for local bands that aren't Megafaun."
On Feb. 27, Mock's wife, Gloria, posted an advertisement on Craigslist, saying The Cave was on sale with an asking price of $65,000. (Note: Gloria Mock is the Director of Advertising at the Independent Weekly.) Mock is neither nervous nor defensive in justifying the decision to move on: It's simply the right time, if not two years past it.
When Mock bought The Cave, he wanted to use it as more than just a music venue. In college, he studied photojournalism; after college and before he bought The Cave, he made goofy TV shows that he released via public access. In buying the club, he was also hoping to acquire a studio.
For many of his years at the helm, The Cave served both ends quite well. Music-related programs like the game show Band Delirium and Live @ the Cave successfully utilized the space as both a venue and a recording room. When Mock bought his partner's share of the venue in 2005, his ideas became more ambitious. He fit the front room with four cameras and began streaming live performances online.
"We never really got the shows rolling," Mock says of these endeavors. "I've accumulated hundreds of hours of entertainment on television, on video."
In 2008, the company that provided the bandwidth for those online streams went under. Mock took the setback as an opportunity to step back from his multimedia plans. He managed the bar and made up for lost time with his wife. He was making money and was content to hold on to The Cave a little longer.
By 2010, things started to change. There was the smoking ban and the recession, not to mention a wave of new Triangle music clubs adding to area competition. The summer festival Femme Fest, which had been so successful for Mock the year before, was a bust. He suffered his first losing year since buying the place. When 2011 rolled around, he found himself in need of a new liquor license and PA system. But he only had enough cash to pay for one. That March, The Cave hosted a benefit—its first—to pay for the sound system.
Mock's ideal situation would be a buyer to come in and take over most of the ownership, leaving him as a minority partner with time to utilize The Cave's video potential. As they say, old dreams die hard.
"I would like it to just be passed on in the community somehow," Mock says. "I think it takes somebody young and with energy that comes in, that has vision, that is creative, that is part of the culture that wants to create culture. That's what it needs. It just needs new energy."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Digging out."