The $975,000 Question

The future, sans shades, of the Hole in the Wall

Hole in the Wall owner Debbie Rombach
Hole in the Wall owner Debbie Rombach (Photo By John Anderson)

The Hole in the Wall has always been here and isn't going anywhere.

-- Christopher Hess, The Austin Chronicle Live Music Guide, 1999

It's like a time warp in here.

-- Beth Richard onstage at the Hole

last Wednesday

It's a scene that could've taken place here anytime over the past three decades: In the front room of the Hole in the Wall, on a stage that's hosted more Austin music legends than almost any club in town -- performers such as Doug Sahm & the Texas Tornadoes, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Timbuk 3, Fastball, and too many others to mention -- an up-and-coming local band whose sound straddles rock, pop, and country sets up.

Today that band is Quatropaw, and as friends and fans file in, the late-afternoon sunlight streams in the front window through the garish painted letters advertising Happy Hour specials. At the bar, a few neighborhood regulars sip beers and watch a ball game on the TV; it's finals week across the street at the University of Texas, but the crowd appears to be entirely devoid of college students. Nonetheless, when the music kicks in, heads turn and the years begin to melt away

Since November, Knight Real Estate has had a for-sale sign hanging on the front of the building. The asking price? Nearly $1 million. Meanwhile, come the end of June, the Hole in the Wall will lose its lease, a six-month deal that was signed back in January when it became apparent that buyers weren't exactly lining up to purchase the run-down building that houses this Austin institution. Owner Debbie Rombach says she would love to buy the building and keep the bar intact, but she just doesn't have the money.

"My biggest regret is that I don't have the money to pull this off," says Rombach, 46, who's been coming to the Hole in the Wall since it first opened in 1974, and who for the past four years has been the bar's principle owner. "All the time, I have people come up to me and say, 'It's one of my favorite bars,' and I just want to say to them, 'Then why haven't you been here for the past two or three years?'"

In order to bolster the funds to negotiate a new lease, or at least pay off some lingering debts and figure out what comes next, Rombach is enlisting the help of musical friends past and present as part of a fundraising scheme called "30 Days in the Hole," during which all the acts will donate their take at the door back to the bar. It began last Wednesday and runs through June 15.

A week into it, Rombach has yet to cement a full calendar of acts or produce a poster, relying instead on word of mouth; it's been hard getting commitments from many of the players, she acknowledges ruefully. Still, upcoming performances shape a veritable who's who of local favorites, including Alejandro Escovedo, the Pocket FishRmen, Meat Purveyors, Orange Mothers, Damnations, and a short list of potential "special guests," which given the club's longstanding place in Austin's musical history could involve an impressive array of stars.

The fundraiser also consists of several Hoot Nights, including a Stars Fall From the Skies and Wretched Excess hoot. The former will feature acts covering songs by musicians killed in air crashes; the latter, songs by artists who died from overdoses or overdoing it. If nothing else, these choices reflect a macabre sense of humor on Rombach's part. The money raised will go into a "war chest" that allows Rombach and her partners to "go out gracefully," and hopefully, relocate the bar.

Robert Knight of Knight Real Estate says the asking price for the property at 2538 Guadalupe is $975,000, which gets you two buildings (there's a T-shirt shop out back), totaling nearly 8,400 square feet, and an adjacent billboard. Parking on the property is virtually nonexistent, Knight points out, and the building needs plenty of work. Judging from development around West Campus, Rombach acknowledges she's getting one of the best rent deals in town, but barring a miracle she probably won't be able to stay put.

As with the rest of Austin, real-estate prices have skyrocketed, and despite the current economic slowdown, there's little impetus for the current owners to hold onto the property when they can cash out for what's likely a substantial profit. Even assuming that the bar, which has a capacity of less than 200 people, can raise $500 per night for 30 nights running, that's still only $15,000, a far cry from the money needed to make a down payment on the building or to potentially equip a new space.

"The property is being leased on a short-term lease that just isn't bringing in that much money," explains Knight. "What needs to happen is that the owner needs to put money into it, or they've got to offer a long-term lease, and the lease-holder needs to invest their own money. ... We'd rather sell it to the current occupants, but I think if they thought they could afford it, they would have made a serious offer by now."

Danny Crooks, owner of the newly resuscitated Steamboat, which first opened in 1975 and has now re-opened in its third locale at Riverside and South Congress after a two-year hiatus, knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it as a live music venue in this town. For Crooks, it was a matter of luck and no small perseverance that allowed him to re-emerge as a force in the local scene. His assets were almost gone when he discovered that the former Bad Dog Comedy Theater, an 11,000-square-foot hall that had been renovated to the tune of $1 million, was up for rent.

"Most of the time, when a club closes down, it doesn't open back up again," sighs Crooks, "but this place was great for what I wanted to do. I knew I didn't want to come back and fail."

Steamboat's rent alone, notes Crooks, runs $4,700 per month; at that rate, before figuring insurance, beer, booze, and the supplies needed to keep a bar afloat, the Hole in the Wall would end up depleting Rombach's "war chest" in a mere three months. Still, Crooks thinks the Hole might be saved.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was that I closed down," he muses. "Hopefully, they can raise enough money to put a down payment on a new place. We don't need to lose another major player, and even though they're a small place, the Hole is a major player."

Realtor Joe Bryson, a former Austin record shop owner who can recall getting thrown out of the Hole in the Wall with Lucinda Williams, takes a mixed view of the state of affairs in the so-called Live Music Capital of the World. From Bryson's perspective, the chances that the bar can stay where it's at are slim to none, and the chances that a major national chain steps in and renovates the property as has been happening up and down the drag during the past couple of years is more than likely.

As Bryson speaks, the names that trip off his tongue -- Raul's, Liberty Lunch, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Les Amis, Electric Lounge -- are reminders that the so-called Austin scene has been in constant turmoil since Willie Nelson returned from Nashville. Ultimately, Bryson says, "It's really, really, really sad to see something like the Hole go away. It just seems like we're killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

"Sometimes," he continues, "you've just got to weigh the value of money against the value of having a really special place to live. It takes people that care giving up an economic benefit to sustain our quality of life."

Of course, that's something that the musicians who play at the Hole in the Wall have long understood. Certainly, Quatropaw and other hopeful talents will continue gigging there as long as the doors remain open and the beer continues to pour, making 30 days in the Hole an even more daunting project for the bar, and all the more bittersweet. Whether the Hole in the Wall closes next month or next year remains the $975,000 question.

Quatropaw has held down its Wednesday Happy Hour gig there for five months, playing for peanuts, trying out new songs, and holding court amongst a group of friends and admirers while they try to make their mark. For this dubious privilege, the band is willing to give up their tips, if that's what it takes to extend the life of this institution for a few more months

"It's like a broken record," says the band's Beth Richard. "The bands aren't making any money and all the cool clubs are closing. The Hole in the Wall is just one of those places that really is Austin. People are going to miss it when it's gone." end story

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