The closing of Morris’s Grill nearly three years ago left a gaping hole in the Skaneateles music scene. Residents accustomed to regular live bands found themselves with one less option when lease complications forced the popular bar to shut down in April 2009. In response, a number of local bars and restaurants have bolstered their musical schedules in the subsequent years to fill the void. Among the leading contenders for the next “place to play” in Skaneateles is a very unassuming venue: a bookstore.
Erika Davis opened Creekside Books & Coffee, 25 Fennell St., in spring 2004, shortly after moving home to Skaneateles from Texas. With no experience selling books or coffee, she attended bookselling school (yes, it exists) and studied up on running a coffeehouse. Davis has a background in business and marketing; she worked for herself as a consultant for investment firms in Texas. So when Davis returned to Skaneateles, she saw a niche not being filled in the village. That empty niche, however, wasn’t coffee or books; it was a gathering place that was missing from the small, lakeside community. And her bookstore/coffeehouse seemed the most reasonable place for people to come together.
The independent Creekside is entering its eighth year of business, an impressive feat considering the circumstances. Operating a bookstore during the supremacy of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble is a near-impossible task, although former retail giants like Waldenbooks and Borders have succumbed to the shrinking market along with countless other local shops.
Many booksellers are looking for ways to diversify their offerings. The Bookie, Skaneateles’ previous independent bookstore, closed in 1999 after a series of efforts to increase revenue, including selling specialty toys. “Everyone was taking a hit because of the Internet boom,” recalls Linda Foster, Bookie’s former owner. “But there were a number of factors that made it really hard to stay in business. People just don’t buy as many books anymore.”
Davis used Creekside’s coffeehouse to supplement her bookstore’s revenue. And in the end, she says, the small café has proven more popular than the page-turners. That isn’t to say the bookstore doesn’t pull its weight, but the coffeehouse emerged as a trendy hub for java drinkers, music fans, and villagers just looking for a cool place to hang out.
“For having such a good community here,” Davis says, “there was nowhere to go meet someone and enjoy a cup of coffee without feeling like you had to order a full meal. A bookstore/coffeehouse is the perfect gathering place.”
In the past year or so, Creekside has earned a reputation beyond its specialty books and fresh-roasted coffee. It has become Skaneateles’ go-to music venue, attracting popular musicians from throughout Central New York, including Kevin Dorsey, Tommy Connors and local guitarist Loren Barrigar, whose live act has toured all over the world.
“It’s a great listening room with solid acoustics,” Barrigar says. “And it’s intimate. It’s like playing in your living room to a group of friends.”
The cozy setting is no accident. Davis purchased what was, at the time, a 2,000-square-foot residence on Skaneateles Creek in 2004. She added a 4,500-square-foot addition, which is now home to the coffeehouse. The meticulously decorated room has all the charm one would expect from a Skaneateles establishment. The furniture—from a refurbished oak coffee table down to the brown trash bins—matches a carefully crafted, cozy aesthetic. The main floor of the shop hums with music, conversation and the occasional whir of a five-pound coffee roaster. Upstairs, the atmosphere is more subdued, but not completely removed. The half-story balcony provides a quieter getaway with a great overhead view of any live musicians.
In an effort to compete with other nighttime music venues, Creekside also serves adult beverages. “I think the wine and beer really helped with the music scene,” Davis laughs. “We got our liquor license over two years ago and it’s given us a big boost.”
Shortly after booze sales began, Davis hired Denise Headd to coordinate music and events at the coffeehouse. Headd began booking live acts on a regular basis, filling the calendar on Friday and Saturday nights. She also established a series of regular events, including a weekly open mike night on Thursdays hosted by Joanne Perry (of Joanne Perry and the Unstoppables). “We want to bring Syracuse music to Skaneateles,” Headd says. “And, in turn, we want to bring Syracuse to Skaneateles.”
And why not? The picturesque town is a truly awe-inspiring place. Nestled at the north end of one of America’s most pristine lakes, its Dickensian streets are constantly bustling with window shoppers and day trippers. “There isn’t a nicer place in the world than Skaneateles,” Barrigar says.
Despite its relative proximity to downtown Syracuse, the village has remained somewhat under the radar in the Syracuse music scene. “There’s this idea that Skaneateles is way out in the sticks,” Headd says. “But in reality, it’s at most a 25-minute drive from the city.”
Perhaps the issue wasn’t so much that artists were unwilling to make the trek, but rather that they are rarely asked to do so. Headd began inviting Syracuse musicians to the coffeehouse for gigs last summer and was somewhat shocked to find everyone she asked more than willing to play. “I haven’t had anyone say no to me yet,” she says. “And people always want to come back. Right now our weekends are booked through August.”
Open mikes with Perry remains a popular attraction as well. Between 18 and 20 artists, from beginners to pros, show up on a weekly basis to try out new material and hone their act. “We get anyone from 3-year-olds to 93-year-olds here,” Perry says. “It’s mostly acoustic guitar acts but we’ve had fiddles, banjos, ukuleles, stand-up comics, poets and even a magician.”
This week’s events include the next open mike with Perry on Thursday, March 15, 6:30 p.m., East of Earth performing on Friday, March 16, 7:30 p.m., and The Sloppy Joes! on Saturday, March 17, 7:30 p.m. All events are free. For more information, call 685-0379.