Like a burrowing animal peeking from his hole after a storm, Glenn Boothe's neck bends uncomfortably from behind the bar of the Local 506. He shoots his bright blue eyes down to the club's darkened concrete floors and then back again to the ceiling. Every few seconds, another drop of water lands in a fresh puddle, and his eyes trace the path of a threat that's quietly becoming the day's headache.
He shakes his head and sighs. Last night, a piece of black ceiling tile fell during a show at the long-running West Franklin Street music venue. An employee told Boothe about the incident, but he assumed that, like so many of the other features of the room, the tile had simply succumbed to old age.
Nearly a decade after buying the two-decades-old club, Boothe has grown accustomed to that, he admits with an air of homesteader's self-satisfaction.
"I've become a really good plumber," says the former college radio DJ turned record label executive, smiling, "because I've had to."
But before Boothe arrived at the club late this morning, he had time to forget about the tile. He'd dropped his 3-year-old son, Walter, off at day care and then run a gauntlet of errands—purchasing boxes of cleaning supplies and reams of colored printing paper for flyers, and mailing away an iPod left behind by a touring soundman.
Once inside the club, he cleaned the twilight blue walls and scattered ceiling fans and opened the door for a small crew there to fix a routine problem with the club's humming ice machine. Three hours later, he sat down to scrape the surface of a steadily accreting mountain of emails. And then he noticed the drip. Those emails will have to wait, he supposes, at least until he can tell the landlord about the problem. This summer's been a rainy one, and a ceiling with a steady leak likely won't hold long.
On this Wednesday afternoon, hours before the three bands playing the stage in the next room arrive, the bar is crowded but not with patrons. Instead, the place belongs to the requisite bric-a-brac and fuselage of running a rock club—the aforementioned reams of paper and cleaning wipes, two cell phones, an iPod, a laptop open to its email program, a tiny pad of feverishly scrawled to-do lists, a stray drum stick, stacks of unopened envelopes.
Yes, Boothe has a staff of bartenders and sound engineers, ticket takers and production assistants; until last month, he had a de facto manager who helped him split the day-to-day responsibilities of running his small business, including the plumbing. But nine years after salvaging a Chapel Hill institution that was about to be sold off for parts, he has turned Local 506 into the most important showcase for emerging Triangle and national talent. For instance, Justin Vernon, the singer-songwriter better known as Bon Iver, first played Local 506 with DeYarmond Edison, the band he relocated with from Wisconsin; less than two years later, he packed the club with his new band before moving on to open for Wilco at Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary and eventually headline Raleigh's downtown amphitheater. That's one of countless stories of Local 506's role in musical ascension.
The bulk of the responsibility for that reputation falls squarely at Boothe's feet.
"If I had any idea how much work this would be, I don't know if I would have pursued it. It's something I question all the time: How much longer can I keep doing this?" he says. The toil used to have its payoff when he'd see a really great band at the club, but now, with his family commitments, he sees far fewer shows than before. "The reward aspect isn't as tangible as it once was."
But that doesn't mean Boothe is actively looking to offload his workload, a fact confirmed by Local 506's calendar of events, not to mention the touring bands he books at the larger Motorco in Durham and at Chapel Hill's free, town-sponsored Locally Grown concert series.
Booking rock clubs is a lot like gambling. Each show is a bet that requires an ante investment—a guaranteed sum for the band, your employees, and the electricity and equipment required to produce the show—in hopes that enough people show up, buy tickets and swig a drink or two. If they do, and if you've done your math right, the club can perhaps put some profit into its generally thin coffers. Oftentimes, then, clubs bet only on those shows that have a chance to make money, or at least break even. If a club has only three financially solvent gigs a week (and is only open on those days), so be it. At least they're not losing money on a band that doesn't get people in the door. But Boothe wants Local 506 to be open every night, if at all possible.
"I'd rather be open, trying anything, than be closed, because to me, it's all market research. We don't have a chance to make money if we're closed, nor do we have a chance to know how much these bands are worth," he says.
This philosophy produces happy accidents; in recent years, Boothe, who books nearly every band who plays the club, took chances on such unknowns as The XX, Fleet Foxes and The Lumineers before they headlined major music festivals, as they do now. The Local 506 is unequal parts launching pad, incubator and dive bar, a room that allows Boothe to take chances on musicians who do the same.
But Boothe knows he can't be open nightly by simply depending on touring bands that are in the middle of getting famous. Instead, he's helped foster an open environment in Local 506, with panels about the music industry and trivia nights and karaoke experiments. His latest trial is called "506 Front Room Presents," where, typically, new and local bands play the club's square-shaped lobby. They use a small PA system that, on this day, sits dangerously inches away from the menacing drips of water. Years ago, Boothe tried a similar idea in the club's main room with the big stage, using a smaller PA so he didn't have to pay full production costs each night. Even when a few dozen folks came to see a friend's new band, though, the club felt empty.
Rusty Sutton, the de facto assistant manager who left just last month, came up with this new plan. It makes the proper rock club feel somehow like a house show, fans huddled around a band, which in turn is cramped between two speakers against the wall. For Sutton, it's an extension of the 506's generous approach to serving as a booster and platform for new talent while also paying the bills.
"The 506 is this interesting place because it appeals to as many markets as possible—to not just be an indie rock club or a hip-hop club or a reggae club. You go to other towns and there is that," Sutton says. "It's a club that, since Glenn took over, has bridged a lot of gaps. A lot of work goes into that."