Purchase of building by the Bellingham Housing Authority for conversion into apartments meant the end for nightclub
New Year’s may have marked the official closing time for Aaron Roeder’s renowned 3B Tavern, but, as the saying goes, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Such is the case downtown right now.
As plenty of local music fans are still shedding tears in their beers over the final curtain call of the venue many credited with putting Bellingham on the national music scene, others are quickly looking to pick up where the 3B left off, in hopes of keeping the town’s reputation intact and capturing some of its coveted clientele.
“There are two ways to look at this: Either the glass is half full or half empty,” said Brent Cole, co-owner of What’s Up! Magazine, which covers the local music scene. “It’s a devastating loss, because the 3B was a nationally recognized club, but, as awful as this is, it’s a wake-up call for the music scene. Other people now have to step up.”
While some bars are moving fast to stake their claims as Bellingham’s new mecca for live music, the 3B, or “The B,” as it was affectionately known to regulars, will not soon be forgotten.
“It was Bellingham’s venue,” said Joel Myrene, a former booker at the 3B who’s now booking shows at Chiribin’s. “It had a very comfortable atmosphere. It wasn’t flashy. In Seattle clubs, a lot of the time you feel like you’re not dressed up enough, but the 3B wasn’t like that. It was what it was. Either you liked it or you didn’t.”
Indeed, for 16 years Roeder — who opted not to talk about his bar’s last call — served a recipe for success at 1226 N. State St., mixing a concoction of amenities that catered to various crowds.
On many weeknights, the 3B was a watering hole for the everyman, a place to shoot pool, grab a cold one or belly up to the bar and watch the tube.
In recent years, thousands of college students stormed the eclectic establishment and hit the dance floor to some “Come On Eileen,” “Karma Chameleon,” and other tunes from yesteryear at its popular ‘80s night.
On Tuesdays and weekends, to many, it truly was the place to “B” for live music — especially underground, alternative and garage rock — whether it was an up-and-coming local band or a nationally acclaimed act.
Prominent bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Idiot Pilot cut their teeth at the 3B, while other notable bands such as the Flaming Lips, The Reverend Horton Heat and, more recently, Federation X, also graced the stage.
Despite the bar’s popularity, it became apparent over the last few months that it was no longer a good fit for its location — or, possibly, wasn’t worth as much to the building’s owners as a new development might be, Cole said.
Last month, the Bellingham Housing Authority purchased the building the 3B is located in, the Hotel Laube, from downtown developer Bob Hall for $650,000, according to county records.
Housing Authority officials have said they plan to spend several million dollars on renovations to the building and construct around 20 affordably priced apartments at the site.
Roeder searched hurriedly for other downtown spots to relocate his bar, Cole said, but the potential for apartment owners and others to express concerns about the bar’s shows creating too much noise were likely to salt any deals.
Roeder ended up calling off his search and decided to go back to school to become a chef.
“The 3B closing is a big deal because it was basically the place for bands to play locally,” Myrene said. “I know of a couple bands that started here with their main goal being to play The B.”
Many nationally and regionally known bands chose to play the 3B, which could accommodate about 200 revelers, because of its knowledgeable audiences, Myrene said. Others liked that 3B crowds were typically respectful and appreciative of different genres, and nights with mixed acts, such as hip-hop followed by a punk band, could have full houses for the duration of the evening.
“There’s really only a handful of venues like that around the country,” Myrene said. “The 3B was known for treating bands well.”
Currently, several downtown bars are scrambling to pick up where the 3B left off, a move that could ultimately benefit them financially, in terms of new patrons.
In recent weeks, sources close to the Nightlight Lounge said the basement establishment on Chestnut Street, which has hosted nationally known bands in the past such as Son Volt and Wilco, had planned to close on New Year’s.
Earlier this month, however, bar manager Spencer Willhoft said the Nightlight only had to close temporarily for “repairs and regrouping,” and was taking over the 3B’s ‘80s night on Thursdays and live shows on Tuesdays.
“Local music is alive in Bellingham and we’re doing everything we can to nurture it,” Willhoft said.
Also ramping up its live acts is Chiribin’s on East Magnolia Street.
The fledgling eatery and bar, opened last summer by Michael D’Anna, Myrene said, has purchased new sound equipment and is aiming to go after the bigger acts on Fridays and Saturdays that previously would have played the 3B.
Elsewhere around downtown, said Cole, the World Famous Up & Up Tavern and Rogue Hero will also offer more live music.
In addition, other popular live-music venues, he said, such as the Wild Buffalo, Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro, and Bay Street Coffee House, which all traditionally cater to an older audience, have not announced any significant changes.
With the 3B’s farewell, Cole said, Bellingham’s marquee venue for live music is now up for grabs.
“The bar with the best opportunity is the Nightlight, because they’ll have the same format as the 3B and they’ve been bringing in some amazing bands,” he said. “Both the Rogue and Chiribin’s are making improvements for live music. Their capacity isn’t nearly what the 3B’s was, but they’ll carry a lot of local bands.”
Though bar owners are working to keep the live-music scene up to the 3B’s standards, some in the local music community worry it may be on the decline, and point to last year’s closings of the Factory, Smash Your Guitar and Viva La Vinyl as examples.
Meanwhile, others worry the influx of downtown condos and wealthy newcomers to the area are transforming Bellingham from a laid-back college town to a pretentious upper-middle-class community. Also, with more baby boomers moving to town, Bellingham is increasingly being seen as a retirement community.
Neither of the two reputations bodes well for venues when they’re looking to book regional or national acts, Cole said.
Keeping the old-Bellingham vibe alive, he said, will be largely up to college students and local venues and musicians.
“Now’s the time for the kids to rise up,” Cole said. “There’s going to be a battle for the soul of this town.”
While its uncertain whether Bellingham will keep its rep as a rockin’ college town, many say live music is a key to downtown’s vitality.
“The downtown music scene is an integral part of th
e nightlife here,” said Kirsten Shelton, executive director of the Downtown Renaissance Network. “It provides a really strong cultural element to downtown Bellingham, so it’s very important to us.”