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What's in a Place? 

The indelible mark left by Spokane’s Empyrean

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It's only Wednesday night, but that isn’t stopping the Empyrean faithful from showing up to pay respects to the venue and coffee shop’s last night at its current location. One last smoke on the Madison Street sidewalk. One last chance to hear Kevin Long croon on the coffee shop stage that has for almost five years hosted everything from open mics to poetry slams to film screenings. One last chance to lean over the copper bar and watch barista and musician Zac Fairbanks draws shapes in your cappuccino.

The coffee house, which has been grappling for almost a year with a new state building code requiring costly sprinklers in nightclubs, is closing at South Madison and moving seven blocks to the former Big Dipper on Washington Street. (They intend to open by Jan. 8.) It’s good news for the shop’s owners, who had feared they might have to close entirely. But for those of us — patrons and musicians alike — who grew to love the old place, it’s hard to watch it shutter without a certain melancholy.

“We’re trying to keep the same feeling, at least at first,” says Michelle Riddle, who co-owns the coffee shop with her sister, Chrisy. “We’re going to move everything over and see what it looks like. It might change just because of the space.”

Those words are consoling, and the Riddles are optimistic about the new space — a bigger stage, a sizeable bar, a kitchen where they can bake pizzas — but it simply won’t be the same Empyrean.

This summer I wrote in my music blog about what foodies and wine connoisseurs call “terroir.” That is, the specific set of environmental conditions — climate, soil type, drainage, etc. — that conspire to create a grape, an apple, a field of wheat. The theory goes that a bottle of wine would take on a whole different character — though not necessarily better or worse — if its grapes were grown in the vineyard just over the hill, or down the street, or across the country.

I was reflecting on this as some fellow musicians and I traveled on a short tour to the Bay Area and back, visiting venues and meeting people whom we would never have encountered had we stayed in Spokane and simply pushed our music online. The poetry in the men’s bathroom at Luna’s, in Sacramento. The bohemian Benetton ad that was Bollyhood Café in San Francisco.

These are the kinds of things I’ll miss about the now-former Empyrean. That long bar stretching in every direction. The smell of the old vault that the Riddles (and Alex and Shae Caruso before them) used as an office. The sonic gust unleashed when someone would open the door to the main venue during a loud performance.

These details are not insignificant. Because while the Riddles’ and the other bookers’ good taste and hospitality made the place a pleasure for music fans — the venue has hosted an impressive array of contemporary indie acts, from Damien Jurado to Thao Nguyen to the Appleseed Cast — it was in large part the particulars of the space that made it a joy for performers to play there.

No other venue in Spokane boasted a “listening room” — a space dedicated solely to the performance and reception of music. No bar. No chit-chat. Just a stage, a sound system, some lights and rows of chairs. Such austerity focuses attention on the performers and on a more meaningful connection between them and the audience. For music like mine, it was perfect.

And not just mine, either. Established touring bands regularly sang Empyrean’s praises (Matt Berger, drummer for Portland’s Musée Mécanique told me it was one of their absolute favorite places to play), and several locals I talked to on closing night remembered how they played their first gig at Empyrean, to rapt audiences both in front and on the bricked back stage.

Granted, there were problems, too. Shows at Empyrean often didn’t make much money, and its two sets of owners struggled persistently to keep the place afloat. The kitchen and drink menus were limited, and the listening room could turn into an echo chamber on a bad night.

But something about the place made it home — both for young, local musicians in a burgeoning scene and for touring artists, who helped put Spokane on the map.

And none of this is meant as a complaint, or even misty-eyed nostalgia. I wish the Riddles the best of luck, and I intend to be there to support their business. But as we look back across the decade at Spokane’s explosive growth — especially in the arts and among young people — it’s worth making a sober note about our peculiar terroir, if for no other reason than to learn to bury our roots even deeper in the years ahead.

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