The picture Chrisy and Michelle Riddle had in their head when they took over the reins of Empyrean was not of a music venue.
“Chrisy really wanted to open a coffee shop,” Michelle says. “She’d say, ‘If I ever opened a coffee shop, I’d want it to be like Empyrean.’” “Michelle and I had traveled to Czech Republic, and they had all these great little coffee shops that were bars,” Chrisy says. “I had an idea that someone would sit on a stage playing a little guitar ... I didn’t think it would take over my life. I just had a cute little picture in my head.”
That was the vision when the Riddles re-opened Empyrean on Madison Street at the end of 2006. The original Empyrean had closed in that location about two months earlier, after an 18-month period during which owners Alex and Shae Caruso ran it as a vibrant coffee shop and music venue. But under the Riddles’ ownership, Empyrean upped its musical offerings, eventually becoming the focal point of Spokane’s all-ages scene and a place for the singer-songwriter community to root, grow and thrive.
“I think at one time, we counted in one year like 400-and-something concerts, 47 poetry readings, 12 dance shows,” Chrisy says.
But this week the coffee shop, in its new location, will shut its doors for good. The business has changed, thrived and almost died several times before. This time it has to die, the owners say. They’re out of money. They’re done.
It's not the first time the Riddles have faced a difficult decision. Just over a year ago, revised state building codes began to require music venues to install expensive sprinkler systems. The sisters — Chrisy is a high school teacher and Michelle is a social worker — could either pay $11,000 to bring the Madison Street location into compliance with the rules, or they could reduce the capacity of the venue.
As a business that makes its money off of live shows, a reduced capacity was out of the question, they say. A series of “Save Empyrean” shows raised $3,200 for the sprinklers.
The death of Empyrean seemed imminent.
The sisters wouldn’t go down that easily, though. In January 2010 they packed their coffee cups and microphones and moved their business seven blocks away to the empty Big Dipper venue. They took on two new partners — Will and Kathryn Haworth — who had money to invest. Empyrean’s legal capacity would be higher in the new space than if they stayed in the Madison Street coffee shop without sprinklers. The business would not die. Yet.
“We gave ourselves a deadline,” Chrisy says. If they weren’t making money by the end of the year, the partners agreed they would close.
Closing the venue now, they say, is simply a financial decision. The owners don’t have the money.
“All good things must come to an end. It’s been a good run for us. We can’t do it forever. We don’t want to do it forever,” Michelle says.
Sitting at a table in the middle of the venue last week, the Riddles and Will Haworth say they lost that critical “coffee shop” feel — the vibe that Chrisy originally hinged her smallbusiness dreams on — when they moved to the Big Dipper. Daytime business plummeted there. And the support for the nighttime business — the live shows — seemed to wane at the new venue, despite its longtime history in the local music scene.
Today, the owners say they don’t want to point fingers. But they will. They have fought hard and feel bitter that the city didn’t help them more.
“I feel like your city is only as good as you make it. And our city officials make it really hard to open a business. There’s a lot of red tape. They make you feel like [you] shouldn’t be able to do this. It’s wrong,” Chrisy says. “There are other cities who work really hard at getting small businesses going — especially business that invest in youth. And our city doesn’t.
“High schoolers don’t want to hang out in community centers,” she says.
The owners are somber today. Quiet. Eyes glassy. Chrisy says she’ll keep teaching. Michelle and Will have to look for work. There are a lot of sighs around the table as they reflect on their reasons for closing.
“I’ve cried a lot about it.
I’ve been hysterical. We’ve all cried together,” Chrisy says.
“Sometimes things have to end before they’re not good anymore,” she says. “But it does feel like someone is dying.”