For many in the music community, Caffe Lena is a sacred space. The legendary venue on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs has served as a testing ground for musicians such as Bob Dylan, Reverend Gary Davis, Dave van Ronk, Ani DiFranco, Sean Rowe, and others for more than 56 years. On Dec. 30, the 80-seat folk-club-that-could revealed its renovated listening room and game-changing backstage improvements, which are aimed at securing Caffe Lena’s next 56 years. In addition to the physical renovations, a state-of-the-art sound system, upgraded lighting, and future high-end livestreaming capabilities are part of the overall project, as is that elusive elevator, which will be operational later in 2017.
When I entered the cafe to speak to Sarah Craig, director of Caffe Lena, my astonishment was met with a knowing nod. Staff, board members, and workers zipped around the room to complete some last-minute preparations before the public opening. For me, it only took one glance around the listening room to realize that the cafe has pulled off something extraordinary—it has succeeded in completing a major upgrade of the space while simultaneously staying true to the personality and aesthetic that made it distinct. Craig sums it up this way: “We did it right. It still has the Caffe Lena vibe. The space is so welcoming and comfortable that everyone who walks in sits down and doesn’t want to budge.” To be clear, that’s not just director-talk or spin. While I was there on Dec. 30 and then again on Dec. 31, I witnessed it first hand—visitors entered the space, strolled around the room, found a seat, and sparked up a conversation. “It still feels like Caffe Lena,” one couple I spoke to during the pre-show remarked.
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Everyone has a Caffe Lena story. Mention the coffeehouse by name, and you’ll be treated to stories of legendary shows, performers, or time spent in the listening room. My own Caffe Lena story begins in earnest in 2011, when I joined the board of directors at a time of organizational transition and growing ambition. At that time, I happened to be writing a novel (Lay Down Your Weary Tune) about a reclusive folk music icon. The book is set in Washington and Saratoga counties, and as you’d expect, Caffe Lena makes a few appearances. My research, which consisted of attending shows, led to an interest in the Caffe’s plans for the future.
After Lena Spencer’s passing in 1989, a not-for-profit organization was born to keep the coffeehouse going. I think it’s safe to say that many still don’t realize that Caffe Lena is a not-for-profit organization, dependent on gifts and grants as much as ticket revenue. As a 501c3, the board had long desired to tackle a fundraising project that would add an elevator, address trouble spots in the building’s structure, and keep the look and feel of the space. Preparing for a campaign was daunting, but the board embraced the task. Within several months, they’d hired the Caffe’s first associate director, launched an annual fundraising appeal, and begun to strategize a timeline. As the silent phase of the campaign began in 2013, they built a case statement and campaign materials, submitted grants, and made some initial asks of longtime supporters. After securing board participation and several major gifts from the greater Caffe Lena community, the Campaign for Caffe Lena was officially launched. Later in the campaign, an innovative partnership with Bonacio Construction and a leadership gift by Kevin Bright propelled the project forward, giving it the fuel it needed to continue the momentum. Overall, it was an untraditional approach to campaign fundraising, but Caffe Lena wouldn’t have it any other way.
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At the corner of Henry and Phila streets, in the old parking lot, a new building is nearly complete. Between that building-in-progress and the Caffe is a glass atrium and stairwell, which serve as the new entrance to the coffeehouse (and eventual home to the elevator). The old black box theater (above Hattie’s) has been converted into offices, a “real” kitchen, and an actual green room for performers. The old office area is now a lobby with a merchandise table and a coat check. A hallway extends to the restrooms. Gone is the old kitchen and restrooms, which took up a quarter of the listening room’s potential footprint. Consequently, the room now sits 110 people, and it includes a row of couches and a sound booth along the east wall.
Besides the extra space, visitors will immediately notice that the floors are new and the ceiling has been raised a few feet. The tables and chairs will be familiar to those who’ve attended a show at the cafe, with one minor change. “We wanted it our way,” Craig notes. “For example, instead of going online and ordering recognition plaques for donors, we approached a wood burning artist to handcraft names into the tables.” The handcrafted feel carries over in the new hand-drawn menu, the woodwork and shutters, and even the ceiling tiles themselves. Craig continues, “We wanted to create an analogue feel in the middle of this digital world, but at the same time, we wanted the sound and lighting to be state-of-the-art.”
It is natural, of course, for organizations to grow and adapt, but it is the special organization that can retain the aura and atmosphere that made it unique while addressing structuring issues and the overall visitor experience. Craig notes that she wanted to “make the spirit of the space manifest in the physical space.” She goes on to say that it isn’t by accident that it all came together in that way. “A series of decisions shape the look,” she says. “And it’s a look that cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world. It is distinctly Caffe Lena.”
The unveiling of the renovations is a milestone, but it’s just the beginning. The $2 million campaign is 75 percent to its goal, leaving nearly $500,000 left to raise to complete the full scope of the project as imagined. As such, there are many opportunities for people to still get involved, including a buy-a-brick project and the ability to fund a named concert series. Also, Caffe Lena is the beneficiary of Hattie’s 16th Annual Mardi Gras, which will take place on Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park. Proceeds from the event will support Caffe Lena’s new endowment fund, which will help defray the increase in annual operating costs associated with the expanded public space.
There are other surprises in store for Caffe Lena fans and visitors as well. For example, to mark the renovation, the Caffe commissioned a mural by artist Andrew Benincasa. “The mural tells the story of the music and the venue in parts,” Craig says. “It’s three panels. The first takes a deep dive into the music, the second tells the origin story of Caffe Lena amid the social movements of the ’60s, and the third is about the music that binds us all together.” Also, along with the re-opening of the Caffe, an expanded set of programming is in the works. The venue will have shows six days a week, with Tuesday being the only dark day. Craig is booking acts on Thursdays as part of the weekend schedule, which shifts the ever-popular open mic to Mondays. Lastly, new concert series have been announced. These include the Bright New Music Series, the Nordlys Global Voices (for international artists), and Stewart’s Little Folks series, which is a Sunday afternoon program for kids.
I asked Craig how she feels now that the renovation has become a reality. “This music deserves this treatment, but it rarely gets it,” Craig explains. “The renovation does honor to their art and all the people who invest time and money to support it.” Craig is energized and inspired, and it is easy to understand why. The Campaign for Caffe Lena and the resulting renovations are the product of years of work not only raising the funds, but getting the organization to a point where it could succeed at such an endeavor. Craig, the board, the associate director, the Caffe’s members and supporters have all raised the bar, which in turn, has widened the Caffe’s vision. “Yes, the rebirth is about improving the physical space and making it fabulous. But it’s also an opportunity to start moving beyond the room,” Craig adds. “This is done through very high-end livestreaming, yes. But it is also done by giving artists opportunities to perform throughout the community with partners and groups.” She speaks of residencies, pop up shows, master classes on specific instruments, and partnerships at senior centers, daycares, and other venues. She also speaks about Caffe Lena’s renovation in a larger context, in conjunction with the Universal Preservation Hall (UPH) project and changes at SPAC. “It’s the beginning of a shift in the arts landscape of Saratoga Springs. Together, there is a push to expand the artistic potential of the city, bringing more visitors from afar for a wide range of music and performing arts.”
Back to the opening on Dec. 30. Before the Suitcase Junket took the stage, I stood in the back and watched the audience arrive. Their reactions were nearly all the same—heads on a swivel, eyes wide, mouths open. One man walked in, eyes pointed toward the ceiling, big smile on his face, and simply said, “Yeeessss.”
Before the show starts, I see Michael Eck, musician, writer, and longtime Caffe Lena board member in the back row. As we chat, I ask him about the future of the Caffe. He says, “Everyone will have their minds blown when they enter. Some are hung up by tradition, but I say that the history is in this room; the tradition is in the booking log in Sarah’s office.” He pauses, watching visitors enter and take in the changes. “The history is here, and the tradition continues.” Caffe Lena did it right, and they are ready for the next act.
Editor’s Note: The author, a contributing writer for The Alt, served on Caffe Lena’s board of directors from 2011 to 2016.
update: editor’s note moved to the end of the story.