Indian Givers

They induced the best national acts to play in a small barroom, and now they're shutting down. Blame the owners. Blame the Beach. Blame yourself.

Practical recognition of that volatile element came late to Patrick Gleber. Not coincidentally, it was the Stephen Talkhouse that spurred a change in the way Gleber did business. Along with partner Kevin Rusk, Gleber owns the only truly legendary live-music bar in Dade, Tobacco Road. Although Tobacco Road is several miles removed from the Talkhouse geographically, and also somewhat distant in terms of the sorts of acts that play the club (the Road is known almost exclusively as a blues bar), certain bands overlapped. And with both a bigger budget and a bigger room, the Talkhouse could lure just about any artist who previously would have been counted on to play the Road. That didn't faze the owners of the smaller bar.

"It made us think more about the business," Gleber says. "Entertainment focus used to make up 75 percent of our thinking, because for us the weekend was that big. Now it's maybe 25 percent -- still a significant part, but we don't make money on the entertainment."

When Tobacco Road books a band to play its tiny upstairs stage, the bar charges six dollars for admission. ("It used to be five bucks," Gleber notes. "When we raised it a dollar, people were flipping.") Even when coupled with the money taken in for drinks during the show, that revenue falls short of a profit, when the costs of booking artists -- the band's fee, accommodations, advertising for the performance -- have been deducted.

"But we've gotta do it," Gleber says. "It's what the Road is known for, and the shows are great. And I can keep it going because my business during the day and on the evenings during the week has significantly improved. When the Talkhouse opened, I realized my business was gonna go down more than it already had. So I said, 'Let's start looking at Tobacco Road another way.' Our house band, Iko-Iko, had always performed downstairs. We moved them up to the top floor. The music is now all upstairs, we're doing much more food business on Fridays and Saturdays, and we're focusing on happy hour and late-night dinner specials."

Though he readily acknowledges that the Talkhouse beat him out for some bands, Gleber says he's sorry to see the club close. "They put on amazing shows. Whenever I'd go there, I'd look around and say, 'They can't survive doing this.' But it's Miami's loss."

Former Island Club owner Tom Bellucci shares one significant thing in common with the owners of the Talkhouse. They bought their buildings before going into business. For Bellucci the boom in South Beach real estate allowed him to sell at a slight profit. For himself and his partners, says Loren Gallo, the Talkhouse's pending sale will result in a loss. He won't comment about it further except to say, "If we hadn't bought the building, we'd have bailed two years ago."

Bellucci believes Miami Beach government should bear some of the blame for its spectacular legacy of fortune and failure, one that dates all the way back to Carl Fisher and John Collins, for whom an island and an avenue, respectively, are named. "I don't think the city realizes that bringing in more and more stuff isn't so good," Bellucci says. "I would never start a business here again, it's not worth it when you've got to devote such a large percentage of your energy to fight the city on nitpicky shit. If an inspector is overseeing a job and he gives you the go-ahead, and another inspector comes in later and says, 'No, you've got to do it this way,' you have no choice but to change it. And there's a very low dollar ceiling above which you have to get a permit. It's just a maze of regulations where they can come down on you if they want to. They're not user-friendly. And it's not like that in other parts of the country -- there can be a different mentality about helping people foster business."

As it stands, the Beach comprises very little of the sort of institutional knowledge that makes success possible in the long term. "When people come here to do business and it doesn't work out, they leave," Bellucci comments. "The city needs to reach some sort of consensus that there's going to be a community here. With all the new construction, they should set up some sort of board where small businesses could come and give feedback, where you don't just have a summons that comes down on you like a time bomb. Some people are wrong, sure, but a lot of people have legitimate beefs. As it is, new people will come in, they'll trip over the same things, and no one's there to help to change it, no one with stories of the problems they had. They go back over the causeway with their pockets empty, and they never come back. It's a bad dream."

In attempting to outline why the Stephen Talkhouse failed in Miami Beach, Peter Honerkamp's musings orbit insistently around two points: One, he honestly does not know exactly what went wrong. Two, no matter how dim a view he takes of South Beach A and that view is mighty dim A he is not bitter about his experience here and doesn't take the outcome personally.

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