On the day after the summer solstice, the sun still burns bright late into the afternoon. But you can easily forget that fact once you step into The Cave, the windowless, formerly rather dank dive that's occupied 452 ½ West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill for the past fifty years. Outside, the afternoon heat is thick. It's comparatively cool inside—the air conditioning could use repairing, but it doesn't have to work hard when there are only three people in the club as the clock ticks closer to four p.m.
Autumn Spencer stands behind the bar, and Melissa Swingle sits across from her on the other side of the recently refinished bartop. The two longtime local bartenders completed their purchase of The Cave at the beginning of May, and now, they pause to consider the changes they've made so far.
"It looks a little nicer. We've got flowers out," Spencer notes.
"The bathrooms definitely smell better," Swingle adds.
Having saved it from an extinction that seemed certain, The Cave's new owners have picked up a heavy legacy that they want to build upon. As owner-operators who plan on handling most of the bartending and booking themselves, much of their focus seems to be on keeping overhead low while continuing to maintain its reputation as a beloved local watering hole. Starting with this weekend's reopening celebrations, they've got about a year to get it all figured out.
For all intents and purposes, The Cave went out of business at the end of April. After a few months of searching for a buyer and finding no takers, then-owners Mark Connor and Van Alston decided to close it; I went to its "final" shows and wrote about how its end was another tragic loss for weird Chapel Hill in this very publication. But in those last days, Swingle and Spencer were scurrying behind the scenes with Connor and landlord Julie Jennings to buy The Cave. Swingle says that it happened so last-minute simply because she didn't know the sale was even happening, and they had to keep it quiet because it wasn't a done deal before The Cave technically closed.
"It would have been a dumb thing to do to say, 'Hold up, everybody, The Cave's not dying!' because it wasn't a definite thing yet. We hadn't actually signed the lease yet," Swingle says.
These days, The Cave doesn't look all that different than it did the night I thought I was leaving it for the last time. It's noticeably cleaner, but the heart of it is the same. The back room still boasts a big-screen TV, and there are a few more big, comfy-looking chairs to lounge in; the floor is painted with Twin Peaks-inspired black-and-white zig-zags. (The bar's jukebox will return from its vacation in a Mebane warehouse soon, Swingle promises.) Two coolers have been repaired, and sound system upgrades are coming soon: new monitors, a new board, new microphones, and more.
Swingle declined to discuss the specifics of the bar's finances, but says that the money for the purchase and upgrades have come from personal funds and other sources, with friends like Stephanie Roquette, Maggie Zychowski, Rebecca Newton, and Virginia Sloop chipping in however they can.
"If they haven't actually given us money, they've helped us by fixing stuff for us, or refinishing the top of the bar for little to nothing, donating their time to help us renovate," Swingle says.
Those helping hands have contributed to the sense of community pride that Swingle feels is an essential part of The Cave's existence.
"I don't really feel like the owner of The Cave, I feel like the caretaker of The Cave now," she says. "I feel like this community actually owns The Cave. Autumn and I are just keeping it alive."
The biggest operational change Swingle hopes to institute is trying to shift bands' compensation model to one based on suggested donations or a pass-the-hat method, rather than a hard cover. Most shows at The Cave in recent years have cost between $5 and $10, and Swingle agrees that Cave covers shouldn't really surpass that. But she thinks that bands that take the pay-what-you-want route stand to as much—or even more—money than they would with an enforced cover. She says the policy worked well when she worked at The Cave under the ownership of Mouse Mock, who preceded Connor.
"The people who are here [already] want to stay here, and the people coming to the door don't end up going to The Cellar because we've got a ten dollar cover," she explains. "That doesn't mean we'll stop doing covers altogether, but as I'm booking them, I'm trying to encourage bands to go with a suggested donation."
Swingle says that it wasn't uncommon for happy patrons to drop more money in the hat—a crisp $20, say—than they would've spent on a regular cover charge, too.
Spencer and Swingle's lease on the space lasts a year, and they have an option to renew it if all goes well.
"I thought a year made sense, initially—starting off just one year, see if it works. You don't want to be tied into a five-year lease if you're still not sure what the outcome is going to be," Spencer says. Swingle, meanwhile, is actively optimistic that the outcome will be a good one.
"I'm feeling positive that we'll be able to renew the lease, that we'll be profitable at that point, and we won't even have to consider closing The Cave again," she says. "I really do feel confident that the community will help us, and will support what we're trying to do for the local music scene."
When The Cave was supposed to close, decades worth of musicians, music fans, and barflies shared their sentimental stories about the bar, and patrons packed it out every night of its supposed last week. Swingle and Spencer are hoping to leverage that passion into a building a business that'll finally boom again.
"This bar is your community bar. If you want it to continue, come down here. Come hang out with us and buy a drink," Swingle says. "All those people that were sad about The Cave dying—come help us keep it alive."