Entertainment

Curtain falls on beloved arts venue

Fort Cafe co-owners,from left, Jon Perkins, Benji Duke and Melissa Byrnes stand on the small stage in their restaurant/club. The trio
Fort Cafe co-owners,from left, Jon Perkins, Benji Duke and Melissa Byrnes stand on the small stage in their restaurant/club. The trio's lease isn't being renewed for their Fort Street space.
— image credit: Don Denton/News staff

A day after the news broke that the Fort Café is set to close, its owners were able to laugh about the good times they’ve shared at the eclectic arts hub, one of the last easily accessible venues in Victoria for up-and-coming performers of all kinds.

When Benji Duke, Melissa Byrnes and Jon Perkins – who had worked together at the previous Fort Street Café in the same location – purchased the business in 2007, the café looked nothing like the groovy basement haunt that exists today.

Along with donated labour from friends and family, the trio replaced its drop ceiling, bisecting wall, and cafeteria-style array of disused fridges with pea green walls and board games, not unlike your dad’s basement where you can hang out and feel good, Duke said.

A key feature: the stage – an element of Byrnes’ interior design that Duke couldn’t help but constantly admire when it was installed a year after the business opened.

“It was a treat,” Perkins said of the early days after the stage was installed. “It was amazing. (Duke) would just hang out with it.”

“We’re not builders,” Byrnes said. “So when something like this happens, it’s quite rewarding.”

The small stage – built by Perkins’ stepfather and a friend – was christened by 54-40’s Neil Osborne exactly one year after the café opened, but it’s better known for hosting smaller acts.

For the last six years, indie bands, amateur comedians and fringe artists have had a chance to perform at the café, which also serves a full menu. Following landlord Garnett Rancier’s decision not to renew their lease, the owners fear independent artists in the city will be left without another accessible venue to get in front of an audience.

“It’s a relaxed atmosphere that’s open to everybody,” Byrnes said. “It’s not clean, slick and sterile. It’s warm in lots of different senses of the word.”

Rancier has been clear his decision is final and the doors will close one last time Dec. 15. The owners aren’t about to abandon the business, which employs about a dozen people and has become profitable within the last year.

“It’s finally working,” Duke said. “We’ve found the Holy Grail of an independent music venue with liquor, food and all-ages and it’s working – now it’s going to stop? That’s the most heartbreaking thing. We’ve got it down and now it’s disappearing.”

“We don’t feel it’s time to just give up,” Perkins said. “We’re not done. Victoria needs what we provide.”

Since the news hit, the café has been flooded with support from across the country. Social media has lit up with those saddened by the news, both locals and acts who have performed in The Fort and can’t bear the thought of its closure.

“I feel bad,” said Rancier, who cited concerns over safe access to emergency evacuation as one of the primary factors behind his decision. “I appreciate and respect what they’ve done there, but they’ve changed from a breakfast and lunch café into an entertainment venue with alcohol which does not fit the premise I’ve rented it under. … I’m sorry to see them go and I hope they succeed in finding a more suitable location that will suit their needs better.”

And while Byrnes, Perkins and Duke were initially shocked and dismayed, they’re not wasting their final weeks in the café weighted down by negativity, opting instead to focus on the positive history they’ve had at The Fort.

The team is currently gauging support and brainstorming the possibility of relocating the business in which they estimate they’ve invested between $80,000 and $90,000 since opening. But before they can entertain the idea of launching elsewhere, they’re first tasked with covering about $10,000 in closing costs.

The 80-person venue has seen more than 400 bands, 60 charities, and 3,300 comedians, actors, and stage performers, through its doors. The Fort has returned an estimated $300,000 in cover charge profits to artists, with many of the bands – such as Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, Acres of Lions, MeatDraw or Hank & Lily – staging their early performances at the café before garnering success outside of the city.

Over the years, The Fort has also hosted the much-loved Sunday Lowdown, The Friday Quiz, Open Stage, The Underground Comedy Fort and the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival.

“We’re asking for people to think about what it means to them and what it means if it isn’t here,” Duke said. “We love this stage and we’d really love to have another one,” Duke said.

To keep up with The Fort Café’s calendar of events and updates on fundraising activities, visit facebook.com/Fortcafe.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

 

 

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