In January, Zack Rouse and his wife, Elizabeth Klinger, were faced with a decision about the future of the Lents Commons Coffee House, a coffeeshop and venue co-started by Zack a few years ago: They could take over the café themselves, assuming the $10,000 in debt that came with it, or they could liquidate the business and share the debt with Rouse's ex-partner. (Zack says he hadn't been involved in the previous year or so of the cafe's operation, and had been on the verge of selling his share of the business.) They chose to take it over, and have been working since on renovating the space, determined to create a multi-use neighborhood arts space in Lents.
Last week, I rode the Green line MAX out to Lents Commons to check out the space. It was about a 40 minute trip from downtown, then just a few blocks to the café, which is big and high-ceilinged, with a stage at one end of the room and a balcony running along one wall. I wanted to talk to Zach and Elizabeth about their plans for the business, as well as the Kickstarter campaign they just launched.
Since taking over the space in January, Zach and Elizabeth have held regular all-ages open mic nights, where, Elizabeth says, performances range from musicians and poets to high school rap groups to a posse of 9-year-olds known as "The Justin Bieber Girls." The space also hosts a Sunday afternoon "jazz jam," and serves as a home base for TightRope Theatre, a new company whose debut production, the grand guignol-style The Happy Family, opens in May. Future plans include finishing an outdoor patio, and renovating the large basement to include both a theater rehearsal space and a recording studio, which they'll rent to to artists. "Because we're so far out, we can offer space for really cheap," Elizabeth says. But in order for all of that to happen, the couple needs to get out from under the debt they assumed when taking over the space.
"The business has a lot of vendor debt," explains Zach. "We owe 10k to various entities, and in order for us to really keep operating and move forward with creating a truly community-oriented arts space here in the deep southeast, we need to get that debt paid down."
"The main reason why we want to pay off that debt is so we can start using the café as support for our theater company," adds Elizabeth, who teaches theater at Pacific University. "We want to be able to have the café support the theater, so the theater doesn’t have to make any money—so then the theater can be pay —what-you will, which makes it more accessible to the neighborhood. In order to get to the point where we can see if this is a workable model, we need to get out from under that debt."
The model the couple envisions is unusual, but they say they're determined to make it work, whether or not the Kickstarter campaign gets funded. "It’s gonna take a huge wall of 'not gonna happen' for it not to happen," says Elizabeth. Both are convinced the neighborhood needs a space like theirs. "There’s this misconception that there are no people out here," Zach says of Lents, “but there's plenty of audience in this neighborhood to fill this place.”
If you are interested in supporting Lents Commons, the Kickstarter is right over here.