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Mag Preview: Subterranean Homesick Blues

Look for the new issue of The Blue and White on campus soon.  In the meantime, we’ll be posting all the articles from the magazine on Bwog. Today, Adam Kuerbitz investigates Postcrypt’s fight to stay underground.

“I joined at the beginning of freshman year. I came because I thought it was the art gallery,” chuckles Galen Boone, BC’12, head manager of Postcrypt, “but I haven’t left.” Decorated in tiny electric candles and strands of holiday lights, a storage room in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel becomes a cozy warren for folk musicians and fans, like Boone, who seek a few hours of musical and artistic escape. The audience sits at small round tables in front of the plywood stage and latecomers stand at the bar or sit cross-legged on the floor. With people old enough to receive senior discounts nibbling on oatmeal-raisin cookies sold at the bar and students pretending to enjoy coffee The New York Times once dubbed “so awful, they should refund your dollar if you finish it,” the space remains free of ostentation.

Although some Postcrypt legends—like Ani DeFranco and Jeff Buckley—don’t stop by the chapel anymore, “We’ve got people who have been playing every year since they graduated in the ’80s,” says Boone. “We do have a stable of regular musicians who we really like and love seeing.” Musicians like Suzanne Vega, who plays a surprise show every year with no advance notice, finish their set and plop down next to someone in the audience. It’s the kind of thing you heard went on a long time ago in Greenwich Village and always hoped still existed.

In 1964, Reverend John D. Cannon and faculty member Dotty Sutherland cleaned out a storage space under the stairs in the Chapel basement and turned it over to about 100 student volunteers who ran the coffee house three nights a week. A 1965 New York Times article about nonprofit coffee houses on college campuses across the country quoted Revered Cannon saying, “The purpose is simply to provide a place for students to have informal conversation under the stimulation of various art forms. There aren’t many places in the city where students can go just to sit and appreciate things.” Reverend Cannon was deliberate in pointing out that there were no religious intentions behind the program saying, “There’s no hidden agenda. We’re here to serve the student body, not to preach.” The one exception to Postcrypt’s secularity is the brightly colored mosaic counter, secured to a closet doorway with two vises, which he and Ms. Sutherland painted and donated to the program. The program still uses the same counter, which features an image of the Last Supper and religious symbols of life and death.

Like the counter, much of the Postcrypt of 1964 is still there today. Although it now runs two nights a week and the volunteer base is a quarter of its original size, the program continues to operate out of the chapel storage room that many say is the defining feature of the institution. “In the ’90s it was pretty popular and that’s where most of our posters inside the bar are from,” says Boone. “That was like the heyday of the singer-song writer that might have been its own like neo-neo-folk revival. I’m then sure there was a lull, but I think that [with] the war actually, people are feeling some of the things they felt in the ’60s… You know it is political. Even if you don’t think so.”

Last winter, though, an anonymous Bwog comment suggesting that minors can easily obtain alcohol at Postcrypt caught the attention of the administration and led to an emergency meeting between Ginia Sweeney, CC’10, the head manager of Postcrypt at the time, and members of the administration. Representatives from Public Safety, University Events Management, and the Office of Student Group Advising decided that Postcrypt would have to return to strict compliance with the university’s alcohol policy and that a public safety officer would have to be present at all Postcrypt shows. Postcrypt had once employed two alcohol proctors, but had appealed and won permission from the Office of Student Group Advising and University Event Management to employ just one. Even though the administration assured Sweeney that the securities fund, a fund managed by the undergraduate student councils, would cover Postcrypt’s new costs, the heads of the fund refused, claiming that Postcrypt’s needs would quickly drain their balance.

The program is still allowed to sell alcohol; but the combined cost of two proctors, $200 each per weekend, and a public safety officer, $400 per weekend, have made alcohol sales financially unsustainable. Even though Postcrypt is now dry and no proctors are required, the administration still insists on a public safety officer, but says it would be willing to reconsider next semester. The administration also discovered that the storage space was in violation of local fire code — too many appliances were plugged in too few outlets. As a result, Postcrypt can no longer make coffee or offer free popcorn, another of its better-known features. The staff currently brings cardboard Starbucks to-go boxes, but turns only a marginal profit. Without significant proceeds from coffee and alcohol sales, the program is unsustainable. “We still need to figure out a way where we can serve coffee,” says co-booking manager Laura Grossman, BC’12, “It is a coffeehouse. You know, if it turns out that we can never brew coffee in there again, we might have to change the name. That would be terrible.”

While board members try to remain positive, others are more candid about their frustration. “I’ve been involved with Postcrypt for four years now and it’s just disheartening to see these major changes happen and it just seems kind of arbitrary the way everything has happened,” says Sweeney, “All of a sudden this is a crisis with the alcohol. All of a sudden the fire safety is a crisis with no warning.”

There are still, however, reasons to be hopeful. In addition to administrative support, Postcrypt is also making an effort to recognize the religious nature of their secular program’s venue. Boone says, “To bridge that gap we’re thinking about having a non-denominational, devotional music night. We hear the choirs singing in the basement when we’re having our performances.” Fans of the concerts are also hopeful about the program’s future. Katia Sherman, CC ’13, speaks of “the adoration that so many feel for Postcrypt.” The rare affection students show at a university not known for its school spirit suggests that this little coffeehouse under the stairs is getting something very right.

Illustration by Cindy Pan

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7 Comments

  • 420raider says:

    @420raider “Although some Postcrypt legends—like Ani DeFranco and Jeff Buckley—don’t stop by the chapel anymore”

    True, but there are also a LOT of great acts that have stayed underground since the 80’s, too that are amazing. The big record companies just aren’t signing a lot of true folk people these days

    1. wha? says:

      @wha? when did jeff buckley ever play at postcrypt? is this just folklore or did this actually happen?

  • I mean, says:

    @I mean, Jeff Buckley died 13 years ago, so it would be kind of hard for him to stop by.

    1. Ginia says:

      @Ginia Jeff Buckley at Postcrypt is not folklore, it’s folk history!
      Postcrypt was founded in 1964. Jeff Buckley played there in the early 1990s (apparently around 1993-4). Here’s a photo of him in the crypt:
      http://www.mojopin.org/images/articles/jeff_postcrypt.jpg

  • Um... says:

    @Um... Also, Ani DiFranco… right?

  • who says:

    @who are these people running postcrypt now? don’t recognize anyone’s name except the awesome sweeney. maybe they need more experienced people handling their affairs?

    1. pico says:

      @pico Who are you? Commenting on my interwebs?

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