Wild About Music – The Real Estate Tale of an Iconic Downtown Business

Wild About Music – The Real Estate Tale of an Iconic Downtown Business

When Jude recently asked me start writing some stories for DAB, he thought it might be beneficial for folks to get a sense of my “downtown history” from the perspective of a local retail business owners’ leasing odyssey over 16 years.  OK, here goes!  I’ll stick with the angle of space and location because you can find out more about the business itself, Wild About Music Art & Gift Gallery (WAM), by stopping in at 115 E. 6th, across from the Driskill Hotel, or checking out our fine website here.

My partner, Shelley Meyer, and I started out in 1995 by buying the name and assets of a tiny sole-proprietor hobby business located inside the old Bluebonnet Market on the NW corner of Neches and East 3rd.   A late-90s expansion of the Convention Center resulted in demolition of the Market which stood right where Exhibit Hall 4 is today.  We took that little 200-sf booth and set out to expand it into our vision of a 5,000-sf all-music-themed art and gift gallery, plus office and warehouse space.

The Wild About Music booth inside Bluebonnet Market

The original Wild About Music: a 10×20 booth inside Bluebonnet Market, 1991-95

We knew we wanted the business to have a heavy Austin and Texas flavor — to celebrate the confluence of art and music in this region and its influence on local culture.  As a dedicated “urban retailer” we wouldn’t have anything to do with malls or strip centers.  We required authentic vintage buildings/spaces with a more natural local vibe.  Downtown has always been the only choice for us, no matter what the challenges have proved to be.

Ironically, even though WAM’s heart and soul is grounded in music, we wanted nothing to do with East 6th Street at the time.  We had watched it decline in the late 80s and 90s to a cheesy array of shot bars raided by late night college kids and mostly vagrants wandering the blocks by day.

710 W. 6th in 1996

710 W. 6th in 1996

So our first stop was 710 W. 6th, the building where J.Black’s and The Ranch reside today. We figured we’d still catch some of the global  “Sixth Street brand” cachet but stay away from its problems by being west of Congress.  With a 5-year lease in hand on the long vacant former furniture store, we rolled out a fun piano keyboard entry foyer handmade with one-inch tiles, dressed out the big display windows mighty fine, filled out five giant rooms full of the coolest art and sculptures you’d ever seen, hung some outdoor speakers to lure in passersby, and waited for the customers to show up!  We waited alright.

710 W. 6th Today

710 W. 6th today

For a year we watched the cars stack up out front with the backup at the Lamar traffic light.  We soon realized we were about a decade ahead of “the scene” forming in that neighborhood.  There was only Katz’s, Opal Divine’s Freehouse and us at the time.  Oh yes, and Leslie making visits to the MHMR clinic across the street where Molotov now burns red hot.  There was supposed to be a big retail center going in where Whole Foods stands today that would help bring more shoppers to the area.  Never happened.

We knew we were doomed unless we got the heck out of there fast.  Fortunately my longtime commercial real estate agent, Don Cox, quickly found us a great sublessee, a dot.com company to use our space as offices during a growth spurt for the remaining 3.5 years of our term.  In fact, Don was so fast, we had not yet even found a new home for ourselves!  So we packed up our goods and fixtures real snug and moved completely offline into some teeny vacant space around the corner behind Katz’s.

721 Congress windows alive with light and color 24/7 during WAM tenure, 1997-2004

Finally, after three months, our search yielded an amazing new spot: 721 Congress Avenue, the Main Street of Texas, right next door to the historic Paramount and State Theaters!  It was a fabulous open building with huge display windows that wrapped around it’s great corner location at 8th.  It even came with a 60+ year retail history as the home of locally-owned Reynolds-Penland men’s store, a predecessor to today’s Keeper’s (6th & Congress).  The Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel was not there yet, but we knew that our friend, Tom Stacy, would not rest until he got that derelict building at the other end of the block completely remodeled and open again.

Wild About Music had an excellent 8-year run on Congress, growing together with the resurgence of downtown as a whole during Kirk Watson’s energetic mayoral reign.  We found profitability and success there despite nearly being driven out of business by our landlord — who was the neighboring State Theater (pre-merger with the Paramount) — when they intentionally busted through the common wall into our leased space with a crazy expansion idea for box seats during their renovation.  But I digress; that’s a whole other story.

The 8th St. display windows of 721 Congress when WAM was there

We loved being in that 700 block of Congress — the only fully intact (both sides of the street) historic block left on Congress between the Capitol and the river, I may add.  We had excellent synergy with concerts, plays and events at the Paramount, and enjoyed good camaraderie with fellow retailers a few blocks in both directions.  We would probably still be there today had fate not struck again and our lease expire about the same time.

The theaters (merged by then, along with the ownership of our building) had fallen on some hard times financially and our building was put up for sale.  With hopes of maybe owning our own real estate and getting out of leased-space vulnerability, we planned to buy the building ourselves.  But the location ended up getting cleverly bundled together at auction with undeveloped overhead “aerial rights”.  That put the bid pricing at more than double fair market value for just the land and existing building, thus also way out of our price range.

721 Congress today

721 Congress today: empty for five long years

It forced the sale into the hands of a developer who had visions of million dollar condos stacked eight floors high and a big fancy steakhouse right where we sat.  He couldn’t wait for us to have to vacate, coming in the very next day and gutting the space.  And that’s how it remains to this day: sadly empty, not even a fresh coat of paint on the outside in 14 years, dirty windows, and absent a few nice temporary displays to help brighten the corner and the rest of that wonderful block.  It’s a fitting monument to when development gets ahead of reality…runs over yet another iconic local business…and then the new building owner doesn’t even have the pride and decency to maintain his building in a manner worthy of being on The Main Street of Texas.

But hey, that saga ended happily after all —  at least for us.  With contents once more loaded onto moving trucks and, once again, no new downtown home yet secured, we landed in our current funky, multi-level space in the Littlefield “Mall”/Garage/Apartments on a prayer and a lease done on a scrap of paper in about 20 minutes.  No joke.

I had inquired about this same long-vacant space several times over many months prior to our need to move.  Each time I was told: “you don’t fit what we’re looking for.”  But with nothing to lose, I tried one last time.  The leasing agent who I had spoken with previously was out of town, so I ended up chatting with his partner.  After explaining our plight, he agreed to meet us over at the space.  As prior AT&T retail space, it was perfect!  Then he said:  “Why, sure, we’d love to have y’all in this spot.  But the building is for sale so we can only give you a month-to-month lease.”

SRV In Front of OK Records at 115 E. 6thAlthough quite nervous about the term (or lack thereof), the next day we were in there painting and arranging.  A few weeks later Wild About Music re-opened downtown for the fourth time.  An interesting sidenote:  This also happens to be the very same spot (but in a previous building that stood there) of the original location of Austin’s famed Antone’s Home of The Blues, and the adjoining OK Records.  Here a young Stevie Ray Vaughan posed with his guitar out front for a classic Austin Chronicle photo that also later became the album cover of Blues At Sunrise.

Somehow we have managed to last for almost 6 years now on those month-to-month terms.  (Please, someone, knock on wood.)  This despite four changes of building ownership over the first four years.  During two of those painful interim holdings we were told we were soon going to be history again.  Once to be replaced by a high-end spa and salon to service an upscale South Beach Miami boutique hotel; clearly “WAM did not fit that formula,” we were told.  Then, later, another threat by a Walgreen’s coming to invade historic Sixth Street via our space — yes, I know, pathetic, aye? — because “a national-credit tenant could pay far more than a little local business,” said yet another very important leasing agent.

Fortunately we now find ourselves in the care and attentive property ownership of T. Stacy & Associates and their great staff.  We know full well that handwriting is on the wall and another move still looms large in our future.  Our block has been designated for some very intensive redevelopment one day.  Some of it would have already begun had the recession not intervened.  But at least with Tom Stacy on the other end, we also know that we will have loads of advance warning and likely plenty of helping hands to make sure we do alright in any transition.  Perhaps we might even end up right back in the same spot post-redevelopment (if we could survive an interim solution half intact).

Wild About Music today at 115 E. 6th

Wild About Music today at 115 E. 6th

Alternatively, our hope is to find Wild About Music a permanent home within one of the amazing old buildings of East 6th’s majestic Historic & Entertainment District — to experience a return to the days when buildings like those on East 6th were, in fact, owner-operated buildings and businesses.  As a visitor to the street you should be able to evidence an O&O shop by the pride exhibited in the fastidious exterior presentations, the warmth and genuineness of the interior business offerings, and the down home friendliness of the proprietors and staff.

That’s why I serve on the 6ixth Street Austin board.  That’s why I and my fellow board members are so passionate about the renewed vision for this street.  That’s why we and a handful of fellow dedicated E.6th property and business owners are working tirelessly to bring about much needed change to the street after two decades of dirt, neglect and despair.

Sure, it’s still fairly dowdy in spots right now.  And we know we need additional quality daytime offerings like more shops and galleries, a few more unique eateries, and more live music venues back on the street.  But we do have a vision: to become the premier destination for the best of Authentic Austin owned and developed businesses to be found anywhere.  And, importantly, a plan (to be discussed separately) to get there.

Thanks for reading.  To be continued…

Copa on Congress – Downtown Austin Restaurant and Dance Club

Copa on Congress – Downtown Austin Restaurant and Dance Club

Copa - 217 Congress Street, 78701

Part-time Salsa dance club, part-time tex-mex dining establishment, Copa (@ 217 Congress Avenue) moves to the beat of many a drummer.  Since my dancing skills are reminiscent of Elaine Benes at a company party (“like a fully body dry heave set to music”), I chose to visit Copa at lunch, lest I be tempted by Salsa rhythms, thereby making the other patrons lose their collective appetite.

And it was pretty decent, if I do say so myself.   I walked in to a warm, cozy environment where brick walls and arches dominate the scene. There’s three areas downstairs: the front area which seems dedicated to dining, the middle bar area, and a third, large and mirrored room with a small stage that’s dedicated to dancing. There’s also an upstairs and a small patio (of which I did not get any pictures – sorry)  Here are some photos:

The architecture is well-done in my opinion, but I’m a sucker for free chips and salsa, and Copa “brings the pain” so to speak, in that department.  My waitress was prompt with hot tortilla chips and mild salsa, and the refills didn’t stop throughout the meal. Yum!  And, my meal was easy to choose because the menu is only a one-pager of reasonably priced food.  I ended up ordering the fish tacos, which my server, Joanna, explained was her favorite item on the menu. At $8.95, they were a pretty good deal – deliciously seasoned and generously portioned:

As I mentioned, Copa also hosts Salsa lessons.  Not having taken lessons there, I can’t speak to the quality of them, but the reviews of the lessons from other folks are generally pretty good, though there seems to be a widespread disdain regarding the fact that they do charge a cover for these lessons.

If any of our readers have been, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

Overall, I’d recommend giving Copa a try (at least for lunch or dinner)!

217 Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 479-5002

Qua Dance Club Now Admits Toddlers

Well, at least on the first Saturday of every month from 1pm – 4pm…..

Qua No Longer Just for the Butabi Brothers

I read this article in the Statesman over the holiday weekend, and I must admit, I was a little intrigued.  Apparently, a group of parents (The Little Lounge Lizards) have organized a monthly family-friendly dance party at downtown Austin dance club Qua (213 West Fourth) on the first Saturday of every month (skipping January 2010) from 1pm to 4pm.

I tend to applaud the daytime use element, and, although I’m not sure I had daytime clubbing for little ones in mind, the Statesman article makes it appear to be harmless enough and to be something that seems engaging….

Qua is probably best known as the dance club at the center of quite a bit of controversy (since 2007) about the shark “exhibit” that doubles as its dance floor, a controversy that has sparked PETA‘s interest and has also unified many Austinites against the club’s use/treatment of marine life.

Per their website, Qua offers daytime student field-trips to the shark tank, in addition to The Lounge Lizards’ dance parties.  It seems like, for whatever reason (the pursuit of profit, most likely), the club is trying to extend its money-making hours and demographic reach by incorporating daytime/family-friendly uses.

The Statesman article says that The Little Lounge Lizards group is negotiating with Qua to extend the monthly parties in 2010, however, negotiations aren’t finalized and the venue may soon change.  The next dance party will be December 5th from 1 pm – 4pm.

Source: “Kids – and parents too – can get their disco on”

Fantastical Fun Fun Fun Fest

In honor of Fun Fun Fun Fest (this weekend at Waterloo Park), I thought I’d write a fun, fun, fun and fantastical story that incorporates some of the band names (with links to their Myspace pages or Website) that will be playingBecause word games are fun, and not at all nerdy.

RATATAT!!! Was the sound made by some group of Night Marchers, and heard loudly in the Crystal Castles of Montreal (which just happens to be less than 7 Seconds from the Moonlight Towers, but an incredible distance from Harlem.) Regarding all this noise, Why? Well, the marchers were a group of The Laughing Young Widows, along with their All Leather wearing Street Dogs (whom, by the way, kept running Russian Circles around the Strange Boys that were passing by) and were on their annual Mission of Burma to find the Shonen Knife and to finally come Face to Face with Lucero (who, in his ever Growing power, would grant them the gifts of the mighty Destroyer.)

The plan that this Youth Brigade had was to Broadcast the Atlas Sound and light the sacred D.R.I Torche in The Underground Railroad to Candyland, where hopefully they would meet Lucero.  Then, these Cool Kids would Reign Supreme, yelling “Off With Their Heads” to the deaf yeasayers and the already Dead Confederates who made mayhem in the Coliseum there. Things might get Fucked Up, but they were prepared for The Roller coaster, and did not let the bitter warnings of “This Will Destroy You!” upset their brave Foot Patrol or push their Fuck Buttons.

Danzig, the Neon Indian who was their king, donned ceremonial Crystal Antlers atop his Royal Bangs.  He seemed to have No Age – to be in perfect HEALTH. Death could not touch him. His Kid Sister, whom they called Mika Miko, however, was definitely one of the Whitest Kids U’Know (or will ever know – trust me on this). Red Sparowes told of how her whiteness was brighter than Alaska in Winter.

As their journey wore on, the group began to Coalesce like a Melt Banana – their purpose was clear and true.   There were the Bankrupt and the Borrowers during these Black and White Years, but one Pack of Wolves would begin the New Movement that had been wished for since the beginning, since the time of Vega.  It was time….time to conquer, time to entertain, time to get on with things…it was time to go to FUN FUN FUN FEST!

Enjoy everybody!

Downtown Austin Neighborhood Watch Training Session 10/29

Sixth Street Austin Community Forum


We have scheduled a training session with officer Carlisle and officer Ehrler who help coordinate the Austin neighborhood watch programs. The meeting will be held at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Rizt (320 E 6th Street) at 3:00 PM on Thursday, October 29. Complimentary drinks and light snacks will be available.Officers Carlisle and Ehrler will train residents and business owners on how to safely patrol the district, what to look for and how to report and give us guidance on setting up a system appropriate for our neighborhood.Following the training, we will then meet as a group to discuss a system that is appropriate for our neighborhood.

If you are interested in attending this meeting, please RSVP to info@6thstreetaustin.com