Castaways, the local bar and music venue known for its intimate concerts, charity benefit events and community-friendly environment, plans to close its doors by May 1 after 40 years on the West End waterfront.
On Wednesday, Castaways’ owners Kimberly Hemphill, Phil Aubin and Debra Wilson announced on their Facebook page that ongoing attempts to renegotiate the building’s lease with their current landlord had failed. They conceded that, although the fight to maintain their space wasn’t over yet, as negotiations between the owners and landlords are still ongoing, April would likely be their last month in business at their current location.
Over the years, artists like The Hold Steady, Mac Miller, St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens and Dar Williams have passed through Castaways on tour stops in Ithaca. Local acts, like The Gunpoets and John Brown’s Body, have played shows regularly at the venue, which has become an institution for local music in the Ithaca community.
Hoyt Benjamin opened the bar in 1971 under the name “A Salty Dog,” a reference to an album by the band Procol Harum. It has since been called “Captain Joe’s Reef,” “Maxes” and “Key West” before becoming Castaways in the early 2000s.
Aubin, Wilson and Hemphill have run Castaways since 2005. In a statement on Facebook released Wednesday, they captured the nostalgia that the departure of a beloved community fixture invites.
“We look back with pride at what we have done to clean up this place, at the money we raised over the years for the Finger Lakes Cancer Resource Center ... and at all of the incredible, wonderful music we have shared together over the years as a community,” they wrote.
The announcement has sent waves of grief reverberating through Ithaca’s music community. Within hours of the release, community members had already inundated the page with comments expressing shock, frustration and sadness. Many of the comments reflected on memories of concerts or friendships formed at Castaways, while others shared the hope that Castaways could find a new home — an option that the owners are currently exploring.
“We definitely hope to find another space and reopen Castaways in another location, but we’re still trying to find out if we can stay,” Hemphill said. “We want to stay here and continue what is an awesome Ithaca tradition.”
The news that Castaways will close raises questions about the future of the music scene in Ithaca. Hip-hop artist Dan Lisbe, whose band The Gunpoets played its first show at Castaways four years ago, said that the loss will create a temporary void in the music scene.
“Life goes on, and we’ll find other places to play, but since it’s [been] such a big part of the Ithaca music scene for so long, its absence is going to change things as far as live music in Ithaca,” he said.
Lisbe said he is particularly close to Castaways. He performed solo there for several years before joining The Gunpoets, and likened the bar’s closing to the loss of a family member.
“It’s surreal seeing it go,” he said. “We all picture Castaways as our home. We’ve been playing there for so long and it’s our favorite place to play. It’s really a big loss on a lot of levels.”
Eliot Rich, the booking and event manager at Castaways and a member of The Gunpoets, bemoaned the loss of a breeding ground for local talent, but was optimistic that the vibrancy of the music community would generate new spaces to play.
“We saw many great bands grow under our roof and we took pride in nurturing the bands that played our room, giving them the tools they needed to grow,” he said in an email.
Dan Smalls ’92, the local concert promoter who is responsible for many of Castaways’ national acts, also lamented the closing of a “local neighborhood hang” and a “tremendous asset to local music.”
Still, Smalls said that he hopes that, should Castaway’s not find a new home, music traffic through Ithaca would not decrease.
“It’s always sad when any community fixture goes away,” he said. “They and that location have been an institution for live music in Ithaca. My job is to put the right show in the right venue and give the patron the best possible experience, and losing an option to that end is never desired.”
Echoing Smalls, Rich said, “Ithaca has such a strong musical community [that] I think that places to play will appear and musicians will find rooms to play in.”