President Obama may regret the fact that he gave the Republicans the soundbite that lit up their recent soiree in Tampa: "You didn't build that!" OK, maybe it was taken out of context, but on the surface, it is little surprise that the statement ruffled a few feathers among small-business owners. For example, it's possible that John Yurt, owner of the venerable Backroom Blues Bar, might have wondered where his support system was when he gamely tried to keep his establishment open, only to find it was an impossible feat.
Facing a diminishing clientele and a problematic location, he closed his place in Delray, the city that was the bar's home for the past 20 years, and relocated his business to Boca Raton. The move came in mid-August. By the end of the month, Yurt announced that he was shuttering the new location as well, blaming his dilemma on "too many venues, too little customers and bands to go around," at least according to an email he sent to the press.
He went on to cite the fact that the people with an appreciation for the blues are getting older, and by implication, less likely to go out, and that the numbers of musicians committed to the playing the blues had shrunk considerably since the early '90s when he first set up shop. A final concert on Friday, September 14, featuring Ben Prestage and JP Soars and the Redhots offers a parting soundtrack.
I don't know John Yurt, but I can empathize with him nevertheless. I once owned my own business, a record store, as a matter of fact, at a time when vinyl albums still held dominance over CDs and downloads and iTunes had yet to come into existence. I was living my dream just like he was living his. However, unlike Yurt, my store, wistfully dubbed the Heart of Rock 'n' Roll (yes, Huey Lewis was still a force to be reckoned with back then), lasted only 11 months, the victim of too little capital and too much optimism. I reinvented my original intentions like Yurt did, veering from alternative music to heavy metal, hoping to placate the high school kids who'd come in and loiter but rarely reached into their wallet to buy anything. I also stocked a reasonable quotient of all things Duran Duran. Again, a testimony to the new generation of British new-wave posers who were also popular back then, in the late '80s.
Sadly, though, no matter what I tried to lure in new customers -- advertising, plastering fliers in school parking lots, word of mouth, crying uncontrollably -- nothing staved off the inevitable. Those 11 months were the loneliest of my life. With a wife, an infant son, and another child on the way, I was forced to spend my days pacing an empty shop, listening to music I had no interest in hearing and resisting every urge to grab passersby and force them into my shop. There were many days when revenues barely topped $30, and some days it was even less than that.
It was so bad, in fact, that I had to get a job outside my shop, leaving family members to tend the store while I was away. To make matters worse, I had invested my entire savings, some $15,000, into the business, and walking away would mean surrendering all I had worked for. Ironically, the only thing that saved me and that allowed me to recoup my meager monies was a settlement that transpired after I was accosted at a concert and the sponsors chalked up some cash to assuage the fact that I was left with a broken jaw and a broken ego. It was then that I sold off as much as I could, closed the doors and forever abandoned any ambition to run a retail store again.
Even now, when I pass stores that seem to have little action inside, that have an out of the way location, or that sell a product that doesn't seem to encourage a run of customers (a rubber band store anyone?), I feel sad for the owners, knowing full well the frustration they must be feeling. It was the feeling I felt when I read about the Backroom, and I not only wish Mr. Yurt all the best in his next endeavor but I also congratulate him for his courage and conviction. Because when you venture out on your own, it takes an ample amount of both.
Ben Prestage and JP Soars and the Redhots at Backroom Blues Bar, 7200 N. Dixie Highway, Boca Raton, on Friday, September 14.