Up in smoke

At the corner of the bar, beneath a thin, blue haze of cigarette smoke, the mood has turned bitter. Black coffee steams in worn mugs; thoughtful patrons hold half-finished cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. They stare around the bar and take drags from cigarettes, saying nothing.

Things have been grim here at Vincent’s Ear the past few weeks, ever since word first filtered down that the business had lost its lease on the building it has occupied for more than 11 years. By now, the patrons are well over the shock, and the mood has shifted to an angry and reluctant acceptance. This place — a second home to many regulars — is about to close for good, and there isn’t a damn thing any of them can do about it.

“What do they want from us?” blurts out longtime patron Andrew Hauet, who sometimes lends a hand behind the bar. He seems to be speaking as much to himself as to the others. “It’s not like we even did anything wrong.”

“I don’t think they want anything,” says off-duty bartender John Biggs. “They just don’t want us here.”

There’s a lot of confused, unfocused anger floating around Vincent’s Ear these days. It’s been a stressful time. Landlord Dawn Lantzius gave the club the legal minimum of 30 days’ notice — until Dec. 30 — to vacate the downtown Asheville building.

Vincent’s Ear’s doors will close for good on Dec. 18, and owner Joan Morris, who has taken on substantial personal debt to keep the club afloat, has no plans to reopen at another location. Morris says no reason was stated for not renewing the lease, leading more than a few regulars to conclude that the counterculture-friendly cafe is being shoved out to make way for a more mainstream — and presumably more upscale — business. The word “gentrification” seems to pop up in almost every conversation, and not in a positive sense.

“They want [North Lexington] to be acceptable to the people that are spending $600,000 on a new downtown condo,” says Hauet, pausing to take another pull from his beer. “They want those people to feel comfortable on this street. It’s ridiculous to assume that someone who has tattoos, a strange haircut or is wearing a black hoodie is a liability to this street, but we’re also an easy target.”

But if these considerations have played any part in Lantzius’ decision not to renew the lease, she’s keeping quiet about it. When contacted for this article, she refused to discuss the matter. Her brother John Lantzius, who owns the adjacent courtyard, also declined to comment. And niece Renee Lantzius, who has recently taken over dealings with Vincent’s Ear, did not return repeated phone calls. Ironically, both John and Dawn Lantzius were pioneers in the downtown revival that brought Asheville’s central business district back to life, beginning in the late 1970s.

No apparent problems

In some ways, a club like Vincent’s might seem to be a good tenant for the smallish basement space, which sits along the far back edge of a courtyard off a gated alley on North Lexington, not even visible from the street. And despite rumors to the contrary, Xpress found no evidence of problems at the cafe.

Clay Property Management, which has handled the rental since 1993, declined to comment on the current situation, although property manager Betty Crawford did comment that she had never had any problems with either Morris or her business. And Alan Page of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency said, “It sounds to me like they have been doing a pretty good job.” The club, he notes, has never had a single alcohol violation — which is all the more surprising, given that Vincent’s is one of the few music venues in Asheville that admit people under the age of 21.

It’s also been rumored that the club has been under investigation by the Asheville Police Department — but this was flatly denied by Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick, central community district commander for the APD.

The club has had financial problems. Much of its business dried up during the 2000 recession, and Morris took on a personal debt rumored to be in the five-digit range. But she says Vincent’s Ear had strongly bounced back from those losses in the past two years, and its status as downtown Asheville’s premier indie-rock venue seemed unassailable.

Meanwhile, the combined efforts of various Lexington Avenue businesses, including Vincent’s, had begun to curtail the rampant vagrancy on the street. (A problem in all of downtown Asheville in recent years, vagrancy was widely considered to be a contributing factor in the closings of two other North Lexington businesses — the Asheville Community Resource Center and The Body, a Christian outreach center — earlier this year.) And for the first time in nearly five years, Morris and her staff had begun planning further improvements to the space.

In fact, until just a few months ago, even the club’s relationship with the landlord seemed to be going along just fine, according to Morris. She says she was on the verge of signing a new, three-year lease with Dawn Lantzius — a woman with whom Vincent’s had always seemed to have a positive relationship, and who even stopped by as a customer now and then.

“She looked at me and said that she never wanted me to leave,” says Morris, recalling her last meeting with Lantzius earlier this year. “I trusted her.”

A change for the worse

Then, suddenly, everything went sour.

According to Morris, the first sign of trouble came when Renee Lantzius inexplicably entered the courtyard with two APD officers in early November and removed the concrete tables that Vincent’s had installed about eight years ago. No warning was given, nor was there any explanation. The tables, which Morris maintains are club property, have not been returned. After that, Morris says she was told that club patrons would no longer be allowed to hang out in the courtyard, which provides the sole public access to the building.

Then, on Nov. 4, Morris says she received a letter informing her that the lease would not be renewed but giving no reason. Morris also says her phone calls to the Lantziuses weren’t returned.

According to widespread rumors, the Lantzius family has a plan for “cleaning up Lexington” that includes running off Vincent’s and other businesses with a countercultural clientele. But though hard facts about the matter are in short supply, the dispute seems to have arisen precisely when the whole street is emerging from a more troubled past.

A hole-in-the-wall home

“When we found this place, the street was a little scary,” says Morris. “It was piled high with junk. Bums had gotten in here; there were rats and cobwebs. One piece of the wall came off, and behind it were thousands of dead cockroaches. In fact, this building was so scary that when the landlord showed it to us, she just handed us a flashlight because she wouldn’t go inside.”

“It was horrible,” says Morris, laughing reflectively. “But we saw its potential as a funky place for a coffeehouse. And it was a good price.”

Morris looks tired. As “den mother” to an entire micro-community that seemed deeply rooted in this block of North Lexington, she’s finding it tough to wrap things up at Vincent’s Ear. It’s not just a matter of trying to sell some tables, a few coolers and a coffee machine — it’s about saying goodbye to her extended family.

When Morris opened the club in the summer of 1993 with partners Rick Morris (her then-husband) and Kristen Chambers, downtown Asheville was a fundamentally different place. There were few nightspots and fewer cafes. Many of the storefronts on North Lexington were vacant, and there were constant problems with vagrants, drunks and prostitutes using the courtyard as a late-night hangout.

“Like I said, it was a very scary street,” says Joan Morris.

But despite all the challenges, the fledgling business quickly established itself as a cultural hot spot. Somehow, Vincent’s Ear managed to attract and retain a loyal following of patrons who didn’t seem to care that their cafe of choice lay down a set of steps in a dark basement off Lexington Avenue.

One reason for the club’s success was surely its staunch support of the local creative community. Paintings by local artists have graced the walls of Vincent’s Ear since day one, and it has consistently been one of the few music venues in Asheville where up-and-coming local bands could rub elbows with national acts like the White Stripes and Cat Power. Vincent’s has hosted events ranging from film festivals and benefit concerts to Japanese candle-lighting ceremonies and experimental theater. And the focus has always seemed to be on bringing in the kinds of acts the regulars would like to see, rather than the ones that would sell the most tickets.

“Rick has always known music,” says Morris about her ex-husband, the second in command at the club who also handles the booking. “He had a vision of what kind of music would work here. Even though we’re a teeny-tiny venue, a lot of big-name musicians want to play here. We try to treat musicians really well. We try our best to keep local music going and to establish bands.”

But Vincent’s Ear is more than a home for musicians. Over the past 11 years, an eclectic collection of regulars — from carpenters to painters and writers to businessmen — has made the cafe a regular stopping point.

“Vincent’s Ear is the only bar in town I can go to for an intelligent conversation,” says Lark Books founder Rob Pulleyn. The company’s offices are just around the corner from the cafe, and Pulleyn jokes that it’s one of the few places downtown where he and like-minded employees can go to hide from the world.

“Vincent’s Ear has given downtown a place for people to gather who might not feel comfortable in other venues,” says Pulleyn. “It never felt commercial, and the whole atmosphere was genuine. It also exposed me to all kinds of music that I would otherwise never have heard.”

A cautionary tale

Slowly — and due in no small part to the kind of creative arts community Vincent’s Ear was helping foster — North Lexington’s reputation began to change as well.

Today, says Morris, “Every shop is rented; every apartment is rented. When something does become available, it’s snapped up immediately. It’s completely different than when we moved in.”

Indeed, many people credit Vincent’s Ear with helping make North Lexington what it is today. The club, notes longtime Downtown Books & News Manager Stephen Bakes, “definitely added diversity to the street. … It’s one of the few places that exclusively caters to the locals.” The bookstore sits across the street from Vincent’s and shares many of the same patrons.

And since news of the closing became common knowledge, the club has been the focus of a major outpouring of support, both from neighboring North Lexington businesses and from other concerned community members (see “The Fight to Save Vincent’s” below).

“They’ve all been amazing,” says Morris, noting that nearly every shop owner on North Lexington signed a petition to save the cafe. “I didn’t really realize the impact we’ve had on people until recently. I think the city is starting to realize that they need places like Vincent’s Ear. To save downtowns, people are starting to realize that they need funky streets.”

How, then, does Morris feel about the impending end of the close-knit community she helped create?

Not surprisingly, she’s intensely sad. But she also hopes other neighborhood businesses can learn from her club’s situation and take steps to avoid being displaced in turn as North Lexington becomes a more fashionable address.

“At the very least, we’d like to put the story of what happened to us out there,” says Morris. “Just to keep the same thing from happening to the rest of the street — and the rest of the town.”

What price revitalization?

“Over the past 25 years, the Lantzius family has really done a lot to create an identity for Lexington Avenue,” says Jamie Metsch of the City Development office. John Lantzius, notes Metsch, “created many of the little park spaces, like the courtyard next to Vincent’s Ear. It was his vision to have an eclectic rental district that could be an incubator for businesses that couldn’t quite afford the higher-end rental areas of downtown.”

In 1977, Lantzius bought several crumbling buildings on North Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street to establish “Lexington Park” — a mixed-use community that he envisioned as including impoverished artists as well as unique businesses. He also helped mobilize opposition to a planned downtown shopping mall that would have demolished a substantial portion of the central business district. In the wake of a failed 1981 bond referendum to fund the project, the city began seriously investing in downtown restoration efforts.

Since then, Lantzius (a landscape architect who’s originally from Vancouver) has personally funded such streetscape-beautification projects as tree planting, designing the “bulb outs” that slow traffic while offering pedestrians a place to sit, and providing the decorative Lexington Park banners, says Metsch.

In recognition of those efforts, the city declared Oct. 10, 2001, John Lantzius Day. Other family members — particularly Dawn Lantzius — are also said to be actively involved in preserving the character of downtown Asheville. Why, then, would the Lantzius family want to push out a small, local business like Vincent’s Ear without so much as an explanation, as Morris maintains?

A stroll down North Lexington reveals no sign of the kind of rampant commercial development that might require the relocation of the club.

“What we in the City Development office have been observing on Lexington is that a lot of new business coming in can take advantage of the more affordable rentals on the street,” says Metsch. Many higher-end businesses, he reports, are now seeing North Lexington as a more desirable area. And that increased demand for the limited number of available spaces may be playing a role in the evolution of the street.

In light of these changes, it is perhaps not surprising that some in the North Lexington community (including Vincent’s Ear, on its Web site) assert that gentrification is to blame for the cafe’s demise. Others, however, disagree.

“I don’t see gentrification,” says Sharon Willen, director of business and industry services for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “It has certainly become a more attractive business district than it once was, but the stores on Lexington are all offbeat, and I don’t see anything too mainstream going in there.”

Willen is quick to point out, though, that losing a unique local institution like Vincent’s could be a real blow to both the arts community and the downtown business community.

“Places like Vincent’s Ear are extremely important,” says Willen. “Asheville needs to attract talented, creative people to live in our area, and places that offer a diversity of entertainment are a very important part of the cultural landscape.”

But as North Lexington becomes a more and more fashionable address, the economic pressures on businesses like Vincent’s seem likely to increase, raising serious questions about downtown’s future.

Picking up the pieces

It remains to be seen whether current efforts to save the club will pan out. But if even a fragment of the shattered dream of Vincent’s Ear survives, it will probably be found embedded deeply in the beating heart of the city’s vibrant music scene. Dozens of local bands got their start on the Vincent’s stage, and dozens more nationally known acts have made the tiny venue a regular East Coast stop.

Perhaps the most obvious success story is Fisher Meehan’s. He’s the founder of the rock group DrugMoney, which found an enthusiastic audience at Vincent’s Ear early on. These days, DrugMoney is signed to the New York-based indie label Hybrid Recordings, which released the band’s nationally distributed debut album, MTN CTY JNK, in 2003.

“To me,” says Meehan, “Vincent’s Ear is probably more of a home than I’ve had since I was living with my parents as a little kid. It’s a great, wonderful family of people. As a musician, it’s a great place to play.”

Meehan sees the club’s closing as a loss for the entire Asheville music scene. Playing at a place like Vincent’s, he explains, is a step up for a lot of young bands, which may be musically talented but are often fairly disorganized.

But beyond that, Meehan believes the loss of the venue will have broader repercussions for a whole circuit of touring musicians — not to mention Asheville audiences.

“There’s a huge chunk of national bands that aren’t big enough to play the Orange Peel or Stella Blue,” says Meehan. “This was their place. Where the hell are bands like Enon or Bardo Pond going to play at when they come through here? Nowhere, because they aren’t going to come through here now. They’re going to skip over Asheville, and it’s a shame.”

Closing time

Meanwhile, back at the bar in Vincent’s Ear, there are still no answers.

Somehow, the patrons had managed to get off the dark topic of the club’s impending closure for a few moments. Instead of dwelling on nonrenewed leases, unstoppable gentrification and vagrant street kids (the “gutter tourists,” as bartender Chris Waite calls them), they’d moved on to a decidedly lighter theme: everyone’s all-time-favorite Vincent’s Ear shows.

The mood once again turns somber.

“I’m going to miss being able to have a cup of coffee and a smoke,” says Richard Page, the club’s doorman since the mid-1990s.

“I’m going to miss the social aspect — the people I only see here,” says Biggs.

“I’m going to miss my whole f**king family,” adds Waite.

“It’s not about what we’re going to miss,” says Hauet. “It’s about everything that Asheville is going to miss when this place is gone.”

The fight to save Vincent’s

A Nov. 29 community meeting at Vincent’s Ear saw an unlikely collection of cafe regulars, community activists and local business leaders brainstorming ways to keep the club from closing. At press time, it remained unclear what, if anything, would come of those efforts. But here’s a brief listing of some of those who’ve expressed an interest in preserving the downtown fixture.

David McConville: This West Asheville building owner, entrepreneur and multimedia activist has been leading the charge in the business community on the club’s behalf. A longtime Vincent’s patron, McConville often cites it as one of the reasons he came back to Asheville.

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