Three weeks ago, The Soundry was hanging by a thread, its owners locked out over delinquent rent payments.
The closing was a surprise to member artists and loyal patrons of the Vienna café, music space and “arts incubator."
They rallied for an Oct. 21 “Occupy Soundry” event, where more than 50 Soundry loyalists played music, sold art and asked for donations to save the institution many had come to call home. Shortly afterward, member artists were allowed to retrieve their art from the building in process that took hours, entering the building to retrieve their work one by one.
But there was still a question that remained: How did this happen?
The answer was, in part, that it had to happen, as much as owners Jennifer Crawford-Berglie and Thor Berglie tried to stop their dream project from falling to pieces.
“My heart and soul was tied up in the business, so the decision was made for me, which may have been good because I’m not sure if I ever would have been able to walk away on my own,” Crawford-Berglie said.
A partner at the Vienna Development Company, which owns the building in which most of The Soundry existed, said the owners shouldn’t have been surprised to find the locks changed on Oct. 19. The partner, who refused to give his name in this story because of the ongoing nature of negotiations between the two parties, said it was a long time coming.
“We gave them 30 days notice,” he said. “Our lawyer sent them a letter with a deadline and we waited until two to three weeks after that deadline to change the locks, so this shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
The partner said The Soundry owed approximately $47,000 in back rent, utilities and taxes.
“We wanted them to succeed, we wanted them to be there,” he said. “We even gave them $25,000 in rent concessions last year to try to help them, but they weren’t paying their rent or even the electricity bills and we have a huge mortgage to pay on this building.”
Crawford-Berglie said they thought they’d have more time to resolve the issue but indicated she understood the lockout decision.
“I think they thought that by changing the locks it would put pressure on us to pay and if we were holding back then the money would materialize, but that wasn’t the case - it wasn’t like we had a pile of cash in our backyard,” she said.
All of the artists have retrieved their art, but the coffee shop’s fixtures remain locked inside the building. The two sides are likely to meet sometime this week to discuss a settlement and Crawford-Berglie hopes to avoid a lawsuit.
So what went wrong?
Some think its location, blocks away from Vienna’s main retail corridors, was the problem. Others point to the bad economy. The partner at the Vienna Development Group interviewed for this story believes the business model itself was flawed.
“It was too big a space for them,” he said. “They had almost two-thirds of this big building. We tried to convince them almost a year ago to let us sublet some of that space but they wouldn’t consider it.”
Wheeler said the business model was “idealistic but realistic” and Crawford-Berglie, who owned a dog walking and pet sitting business prior to this business venture, opined Vienna is capable of supporting a business like The Soundry.
“It was just a funding issue- I don’t think we did a lot wrong,” she said. “Maybe we did too much for free. We accomplished so much with so little resources, so it’s hard for me to view this as a failure.”
The business was unable to secure loans from banks, so most of the seed money came from Thor’s job as a software developer. The financial strain of trying to keep the business afloat took a toll on the couple.
“It’s the most stressful thing in the world,” she said. “It was my dream job but you have so many sleepless nights and it sucks the pleasure out of the job when you have to worry about how you’re going to pay the next bill that comes in.”
Crawford-Berglie loves Vienna, but believes the community could have a more business friendly approach to entrepreneurs.
“I like to get my arts fix where I live and I don’t see why places like Vienna should be devoid of interesting things,” she said. “But the town could do more to support local businesses. For example, they’re really strict about signage and in this economy there is no reason why they can’t loosen up a bit.”
Whatever went wrong, Soundry loyalists have coalesced to try to preserve the community that formed in the former auto-body shop. Volunteers stepped forward to help and nearly $2,000 in donations were used to pay creditors. But Crawford-Berglie called off the fundraising efforts when some in the local arts community began to gossip about what the money was being used for.
“We’re not a charity,” she said. “I don’t need money that badly, where I’m going to let my reputation be tarnished or cause riffs in this great community.”
But out of the nightmare has come a small hope: They still have an annex in an adjacent space at 310 Dominion Road, owned by another management company and still accessible.
According to Crawford-Berglie, the new Soundry plan is to use the annex at 310 Dominion Road to host events, like their upcoming third annual Baby Canvases Art Show. But they will also create and host events, like their signature open-mic nights, at other venues in the area.
“The Soundry is alive and recovering, which is a big testament to Jennifer and Thor and the Soundry family of artists, musicians, poets and friends who resuscitated us,” said Melissa Wheeler, the Soundry’s Curator and Director of Member Relations and first and only remaining employee.
The new Soundry won't look quite the same as its first incarnation: Its Tuesday night open-mic event will now take place at the Epicure Café in Fairfax, as will a new Soundry-created event called Beatniks and Butterflies, an open mic for professional writers and poets debuting on November 14.
Whether they exist entirely in Vienna, or scattered in art havens across Northern Virginia, Crawford-Berglie believes the “real, tangible community of artists” built at the Soundry is here to stay, no matter what happens to the business.
“We might not be able to provide the one stop for everyone to meet at any more, but I have to believe that the relationships that were formed at the Soundry will stand on their own now and continue to flourish.”