The Shed has suddenly gone silent. The owners of one of Durham's most distinct and independent-minded music venues announced Monday, August 13, that the club would be suspending operations immediately but that they hoped to reopen soon with a new alcohol policy and with "stable lease terms to ensure long-term sustainability."
That optimism was dashed a few days later. By Wednesday, the venue had announced via Facebook that it would be closing for good, and that it would hold a two-day "everything must go" sale that would also serve as a conversation among the community The Shed fostered.
At the root of the abrupt closing is The Shed's new landlord, LRC Properties. It's a New York-based investment firm with an office in Charlotte that acquired the Golden Belt campus, where The Shed resided for three years, in July for around $19 million from Scientific Properties. LRC has a history of transforming large districts into commercial and residential attractions, and its plan for Golden Belt is for it to become a destination akin to the American Tobacco Campus.
The Shed was gaining a reputation as a hub for jazz in Durham. And its offerings went well beyond jazz in its many forms: singer-songwriter stuff, hard-to-define fusions of dance and spoken word, poetry—the palette was wide and getting wider. Stark says he and his wife, Jess, The Shed's co-owner, met the goals they had sought. They brought in the cream of local musicians; musicians from New York were coming down to play there, and The Shed had supported a host of new artists.
"We were able to break down some of the boundaries that we were seeing," he says. "In terms of, What is jazz? What is contemporary music? You can call something a jazz club and have hip-hop shows there. And if people show up and are surprised or pissed about it, then maybe they learned something."
When LRC bought Golden Belt, The Shed was already in a period of transition. Its lease had run out and its insurance policy was about to. Stark was planning to step into a full-time position at Carrboro's ArtsCenter, and the original idea was that Ernest Turner, a jazz pianist who hosts weekly jam sessions at the club, would take over the venue.
Stark says he contacted LRC and let them know that The Shed's insurance policy ran through late August and he wanted to take the opportunity to work out terms for a new lease. He also apprised them know that Turner—The Shed's artistic director for the last few years and someone with deep local roots and strong resources in the area—would be the operations manager and negotiating the lease. At first, Stark says, LRC didn't know who he was, believing he was a tenant in the adjacent artists' loft. Once that had been resolved, the issue seemed to concern alcohol.
A liquor license had not been an issue in The Shed's three-year history. The venue is zoned as an art gallery; thus it had never "served alcohol," but rather it provided beer and wine by donation—a common practice in Durham that had drawn no objection from the previous landlord. Stark assured LRC that The Shed was working to get a liquor license and would not be operating in the meantime. In subsequent communications with the Charlotte LRC office, Stark got the sense that once a license had been obtained and an alcohol rider added to its insurance policy, LRC would be willing to start negotiations about lease renewal with The Shed.
But within two days, he heard from LRC Vice President Portfolio Asset Manager Mario Mirabelli that The Shed had no choice but to shutter. LRC's plans for the complex, he explained, simply did not include an alcohol license and music presentation in that space. (LRC's plans do include an outdoor music venue, set to be overseen by Cicely Mitchell of the Art of Cool Festival, but in a new location in the complex's Cordoba building.) Stark says he offered to make it alcohol-free, but was told in essence that, because alcohol had been served there in the past, the firm anticipated that a similar scenario would eventually reoccur.
"They didn't trust us," he says.
Stark says LRC was unwilling to consider moving The Shed elsewhere within the complex, even with a proper liquor license and an increased rent. The best Mirabelli would offer, he says, was the possibility that in two years or so, a space might become available in an upstairs tower. Reached by phone, Mirabelli declined to offer a comment.
LRC's lack of interest in maintaining The Shed is surprising, especially considering that architects for the next stage of Golden Belt sent a filmmaker to create a promotional film to entice investors; the resulting video even featured a live performance by Ernest Turner at The Shed. Despite the sudden closing, Stark speaks with pride about what The Shed was able to do.
"I figure we did a hundred and fifty jam sessions," he says. "That's three thousand songs, and you figure probably five hundred of those songs were blues songs," he says. "We're hoping that the kind of impact we'll have is that, moving forward, every time that someone sits down to play the blues in Durham, that they're gonna have a little bit of The Shed in it, a little bit of the scene we built, and the kind of aesthetic and cultural impact and the community we tried to build."
Over the weekend, at the closing sale and community gathering, the people behind The Shed began physically dismantling that scene and selling off many items that were part of the vibe of the place: stackable chairs, turntables that sat behind the bar, several hundred books, and plenty of music equipment, including a 1942 Chickering grand piano. Stark says the emptying out of the club and its deconstruction is a performance piece in its own right.
"I think that's an important message: We built this, now we can take it apart. It's nothing that has to do with Golden Belt. That's a great location," he says. "Really, it's about the people who were involved, the people who came out to support, week after week, the musicians who came out and performed every week. And all of that is gonna be just fine."