UPDATE (2:30 pm): Co-owner Vivien Lyon says that the venue's landlords didn't get an initial loan, and that talks are back on to get the venue a new lease. She puts the Woods' chances for survival at "30 percent," which is a lot better than Ritchie Young's initial "five percent" estimate. We will keep you updated.
In last week's WW, we reported that The Woods—the Sellwood neighborhood's only real music venue and a staple of Portland's club scene—was likely to close its doors in January after two and a half years. This week, the club's co-founder, Ritchie Young (who moonlights as frontman for Portland band Loch Lomond), confirmed the bad news via telephone. "We had no idea what we were doing when we started out," says Young, who, along with co-owners Vivien Lyon and Yoni Shpak, has been unsuccessful in negotiating a new lease. Young says his landlords intend to eventually move the Woods' building (an ex-funeral home built in 1929), and that, barring a holiday miracle, the club will host its final show on Jan. 7.WW talked to Young via phone.
WW: So what happened?
Ritchie Young: "The landlord bought the whole block at the height of, you know, real estate being worth something. They thought they were just going to flip it and sell it, and then that didn't happen. The only reason we got the place is because we were the only game in town—because we didn't really know what we were doing, we were overpaying. So we were constantly battling, trying to lower it and [the landlords] wanted to raise it. Our lease is up January first, and they're going to possibly pick the building up and move it towards the building, then flatten the [original] lot and try to sell it.
Then are you totally out of there?
It's probably 95 percent. There's a five percent chance, in my mind, that [the landlords] will not get this loan that they're looking for, or that the city will say "no you cannot move this building, this will take you a couple years." And then we could say 'listen, this is what we could actually afford,' and try to get a two or three year lease. We had no idea what we were doing when we started out. We were more excited to get in there and make a space then actually worrying about the overhead. This is a super hard business and there are tons of amazing clubs in this town. I feel like if we moved the Woods, even with what we had to pay, to Seattle or another city we would be successful.
Would you still have gone for that space if you had this to do over again? It's pretty far out there.
I think I was just so blinded that, holy shit, we could have a music venue. And then the first couple days after we opened the door, we were like "oh fuck, we're so far south." But over the last two and a half years, I've been totally impressed by people from Portland riding their bikes all the way from North Portland to see Breathe Owl Breathe or whoever. I have learned quite a bit, and I'm thinking about poking around this year and maybe opening up another bar? I love being around music. I would consider doing this again.
It's a pretty big space. Is that something that made it tough to book?
Definitely. There's Mississippi Studios and Doug Fir and other medium-sized clubs in town, and we would have to fight. Like, we would put in a bid for Cass McCombs and they wouldn't even consider it, even though our overhead per night was low and bands could make money. It was just this thing, where [they said] "you're not a real venue, you're just a club house." So I don't think I'd consider doing a medium-sized room, I'd just think about doing a small room, where you get 80 people there and it feels full.
You did have a lot of good bookings out there, did you get them on reputation?
Yeah, it was word of mouth. [Touring agencies like] The Agency Group and Billions, they didn't take us seriously at all. But when it kind of shifted for us was when Sean Lennon was here [in January]. He just told everybody, and suddenly the flow of emails started coming in. Or when Blitzen Trapper played here in 2010, then people locally said "hey, we'll play here, too."
Is it harder to close down because your reputation is starting to get out?
Yeah, it's disappointing. I know that everything has got a shelf life and that you only have a certain amount of energy before you get greedy or weird or whatever, but I really wanted to hit the five-year mark. We spent two and a half years trying to prove that we were reliable, that we don't screw bands over, ever, that it's a good place to go dance or see good music. So it kind of feels like the rug is being pulled out from underneath us. But at the same time, I think I can walk away not being jaded or pissed off. We had tons of fun. There were moments—like the Sean Lennon show, and a bunch of other shows—where it was just like "holy shit." That was something I never would have experienced if we never did this.
Are you and the other owners leaving with debt?
Uh, yeah, totally. We didn't have a ton of money [invested], but it was all the money we had. We structured the place, the three of us owners, so that we wouldn't pay ourselves unless we had to, but everyone from the door person to the manager made the same amount of money. So I would work like 100 hours in a week and pay myself like 200 bucks. We knew that risk going in—we knew there was a good chance we'd walk away with like 20 bucks in our pockets.
In the age of Kickstarter, is there some kind of benefit you might throw just to get you out from under debt?
That's something we discussed, but I think just out of stubbornness and pride, we didn't want to do that. I mean, my band did a fundraising thing. But with this it was like, I don't want us to go out begging, you know? I think we're going to have a big party on the seventh of January. We're going to get a lot of our favorite bands to come play. I don't think we're going to charge at the door, but it would really help to get the word out. Before we were officially open, the day that Michael Jackson died, we had a little benefit where we listened to Michael Jackson. So I think the last couple hours we'll do that, just for fun.
Well, I'm trying to be professional, but I know Ned [Lannaman] at the Portland Mercury] said this in his post and I'll say it, too: I'm really going to miss the place. It was such a cool, low-key, friendly place to see a show, so my condolences.
Well thank you. That means a lot, that both [Portland's alt-weeklies] have always helped us out and that people we really respect have said such nice things about us. That helps immensely to feel good about this thing that we really poured ourselves into for two and a half years.