On Monday night, a small gathering of mostly teenagers and barely 20-somethings occupied the stools and couches aimed at the stage at Empyrean Coffee House.
Some had guitars, others a cup of coffee or a cheap beer, as a large white sheet of paper was being passed around the room.
Empyrean co-owner Michelle Riddle raced back and forth between filling cups and twisting knobs on the sound board.
The week before, only two people had sung, so on this night – the last open mic night at Empyrean – the usual sound man had canceled and 20 people showed up, rather unexpectedly.
The fickle attendance at Empyrean’s music shows is just one of a plethora of reasons Riddle and her sister and co-owner, Chrisy Riddle, have decided to close Empyrean permanently.
The coffee shop, music venue and art house is going out with a big bang this weekend with a three-day music festival – which kicked off Thursday – featuring musicians and poets from Spokane and around the Northwest, many of whom played Empyrean when it first opened under the Riddles’ ownership four years ago.
The event also features nationally known spoken word poets Buddy Wakefield and Ken Arkind on Saturday.
Maybe not-so-coincidentally, Empyrean’s closing party falls almost exactly on the anniversary of its reopening in the former Big Dipper space last year.
Having relocated the venue from its original Madison Street location, and jumping through the hoops presented by the city’s fire sprinkler laws, the Riddle sisters are quite used to the challenges of hosting live music in Spokane.
But add to that a poor economy and something of a lull in the local music scene and they weren’t able to run the venue so much as run it into the ground.
“You’re seeing a lot of places shut down and Empyrean is no different. We’re not making it at all,” Michelle Riddle said.
“There are a lot of reasons for that – the economy, the switch over (to the new location) didn’t work out as planned and people aren’t coming to shows. We still have people coming in now saying, ‘Oh this is where the new Empyrean is.’ ”
When the Riddle sisters took over Empyrean Coffee House, the vision was to focus more on poetry readings and other literary events rather than music, largely because Chrisy teaches high school poetry.
But the idea was always for it to be a multipurpose venue, and the then-growing music scene quickly embraced Empyrean as a haven for everything from singer-songwriter types to experimental metal bands.
Local singer-songwriter standout Karli Fairbanks and her brother Zac were a part of Empyrean’s development from the beginning. They’ll both be playing the farewell bash this weekend.
Zac is coming back from Seattle to do so, as are Kevin Long and The Globes, which signed a deal with Barsuk Records in October.
“Zac and I helped them brainstorm when (the Riddles re-opened Empyrean),” Karli Fairbanks said. “We’re really proud of their work. They created so many cool experiences for a lot of people.
“They’ve invested their lives in this and I’m really grateful for that.”
Empyrean became a go-to venue for touring indie acts on the rise – such as Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band, Horse Feathers and Grand Archives – bands that would play Empyrean one day, and shoot off to the Gorge Amphitheatre to play Sasquatch the next.
Of them all, if Michelle Riddle had to name one all-time high, it would be David Bazan.
“He’s been hands-down my favorite person to meet at an Empyrean show,” she said. “He played here with (Fleet Foxes drummer) J. Tillman and it was so weird. He drank his beer, played and left. He didn’t say anything. I was crushed.
“Then six months later I was watching J. Tillman at Sasquatch and I saw (Bazan) on the grass and he said, ‘Oh, I loved playing your venue.’ ”
Riddle said she plans on getting more involved with social services – another passion of hers – but will continue to book music on occasion, such as the Flowmotion show she is helping promote at The A Club next Thursday.
“We have so many contacts,” she said. “We have to do something to keep Spokane connected.”