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Music without Borders: Clyde's restaurant chain plans concert venue in former downtown bookstore


The Borders bookstore on 14th and F is about to get a musical makeover. (Nick Kirkpatrick/FTWP)

by Chris Richards

If you descend to the basement level of the soon-to-be-closed Borders bookstore at 14th and F streets NW, you'll see a shelf of romance novels. Tom Meyer sees a stage. Diana Krall is standing on it, cooing "Quiet Nights" to an audience of 500.

Meyer is the executive vice president of Clyde's Restaurant Group, the local chain that plans to open both a restaurant and a 15,000-square-foot nightclub in the Borders space in late 2011. Right around the corner from the the chain's flagship, the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street, Meyer's as-yet-unnamed restaurant is likely to be a hit. But the also-yet-unnamed nightclub downstairs?

"This is obviously brand new for us," Meyer says.

The Clyde's chain knows how to run a successful eatery. Including Old Ebbitt, it owns 13 establishments in the Washington area. But Meyer has zero experience in the music biz. He's just a music-loving nightclub-hopper who sees a niche that needs filling.

"If you come into town and you want to do some partying, that's the one thing that's missing down here," he says, sipping decaf in a rear booth at Old Ebbitt. "We're doing everything we possibly can to make it a premier venue - somewhere that artists would like to play and that people downtown would enjoy going to."

That means throwing plenty of Clyde's financial muscle into the venture. Once Borders moves out - the store closes Saturday - acoustic engineers will lay out plans to rebuild the retail space into a 500-person capacity concert space where the sound won't bleed into the dining room they're planning overhead. The venue will have terraced seating, a balcony bar and plenty of food and drink prepared by the restaurant upstairs.

Meyer envisions a "more adult" music club with a general focus on singer-songwriters. He hopes to book country acts and gospel artists. He hopes to curate free lunchtime concerts. He hopes to host local up-and-comers and marquee veterans. And, somehow, he plans to book it all himself.

He'll be entering a very competitive market. Meyer is eyeballing the type of talent that will put him nose to nose with the Birchmere in Alexandria and Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis. By late 2011, the field may be even more crowded. Next year, concert promoter Live Nation hopes to open its Fillmore Silver Spring venue, while the Birchmere is moving ahead with plans to launch a new nightclub in College Park. (Live Nation and Birchmere reps declined to comment for this article.)

"The only people who say [the Washington area] is becoming crowded with nightclubs are the people who own nightclubs," Meyer says. "Whenever I build a restaurant, people ask me, 'Who do you want as your neighbor?' . . . The best thing for me is another really good restaurant. . . . It keeps me on my toes."

Says 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz in an e-mail: "The more clubs there are helping bands develop, the better it is for the music business, of which we are obviously a part."

Meyer's biggest challenge will likely be learning to book talent from scratch. "It's going to be extremely difficult," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade magazine that tracks the concert industry. "There's a certain trust factor that exists between talent sellers and talent buyers. It's more than money. Before a CAA or a William Morris sells an artist to you to put in your club, they need to trust you. . . . If you're a complete unknown, you'll have a hard time getting them take your calls, let alone accept your offers."

When it comes to networking, Meyer is still getting his feet wet but plans to dive in next spring. He'll be heading to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, where he hopes to curate a showcase of artists and fill his Rolodex in the process. And while Meyer currently has no experience courting singers to his stage, he's confident about getting fans in his seats next year.

"My experience is just making people comfortable and happy. . . . I think I'm pretty good at that," Meyer says. "It's not like I'm a patent attorney opening a music club. There isn't a total disconnect there."

By Chris Richards  |  August 13, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
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Comments

Amazing how history dies! Maybe the author was born after the original builder and many decades long tenant of the site went under? Not a single word mentioning this location was Garfinkel's flagship store. Borders was a relative newcomer.

Posted by: egrbvr | August 13, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Sounds more like he'll be competing w/ Jammin' Java.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | August 13, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

@egrbvr: Plenty has been said about this Garinkel's location in the past. However, this space is ONLY the basement and ground floors. Garfinkel's took up the entire building, if I'm not mistaken. It's less pertinent to mention that history in this context than it would be if something were being done to the entire building, for example.

Posted by: crzytwnman | August 13, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone know when exactly Borders will close?

Posted by: didnik | August 13, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

who cares if it WAS a Garfinkel's? Garfinkels went out of business in 1990? how do this relate to anything in the article

Posted by: JeroRobson1 | August 13, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

In the 70s and 80s one could walk M St in Georgtown and have your pick of a dozen live music venues. That has long since been replaced with retail that does very little for the nightlife and culture of DC. Adding a stage of quality and artistic integrity would help to bring that back. The 9:30 Club is notthe only game in town nor should it be. Let the music play.

Posted by: mjoy | August 13, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

I'd rather have a good bookstore--not a Borders--than the Clydes plan for a yell-palace.

As to those who have offered their reminiscences about Washington nightlife in the 70s and early 80s....and M St. and the Dupont Circle area in particular....yes, there were some wonderful smallish clubs who offered a diverse array of various kinds of entertainment. It wasn't all music for music sakes. Non comedy club-type comedians....offbeat musical acts with traces of roots in Vaudeville inspiring performance not just for today but energetically projecting tomorrow...poets (yes, poets not the illiterate garbage that is served at DC's supposed poetry venues)....different acts of all types.

The last thing DC needs is a pure music venue which books essentially similar acts which turn off the brain rather than stimulate it.

Clydes can serve me hambugers or oysters, and belive you me, I'll enjoy them mightily. I'm not interested in their commercial version of music--or for that matter that of the great unwashed public. And if this plan goes through that's what likely will be performed there.

Posted by: smartheart | August 13, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Instead of trying to figure out the entertainment business, maybe he can get the DC government to shell out 40 million bucks to lure someone who already is a music promoter to open a franchise there.

Nah, only the Montgomery County government is that stupid.

Posted by: MyPostID27 | August 14, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

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