The (slow, cautious) return of Ace of Cups

Joel Oliphint
Ace of Cups owner Marcy Mays on the venue's patio with Carmen Ownens and Kyle Sowash.

Fear took hold of Marcy Mays first.

Even before Ace of Cups closed its doors amid statewide COVID-related shutdowns in March, the Old North music venue owner began fretting over the safety of her staff and concertgoers. She put tables in front of the bar to keep patrons distanced from bartenders. She placed signs about handwashing in the bathrooms. And when Ace of Cups closed down, she worried about the sold-out shows the bar had hosted in recent weeks.

“For the first two months, we were all just terrified that everyone we knew was going to be sick and in the hospital,” Mays said. “I was constantly checking in: ‘Is anybody sick? Is everybody OK?’”

Once it looked like nobody from Ace caught the virus, the fear began to (somewhat) subside, but that relief was soon replaced by shock and paralysis. “As soon as they said, ‘You’re going to be closed for maybe four to six weeks,’ I was like, ‘OK, we are toast. There's no freakin’ way,’” said Mays, who grew more discouraged as the weeks dragged on. “Most small businesses, and especially music venues, are owned by a person or two and not a consortium of people with investors and boards and all that stuff. I mean, it's just me. I didn't really know what I was going to do. I just kind of hid for the first few months.”

Adding to the sense of despair was the terrible timing of the closure. “You're already in debt, coming out of the worst part of the winter — the slowest months of January and February, where you lose all the profit that you made the year before,” she said. “Right after St. Patrick's Day is when things finally start picking back up, and that’s when everybody closed. … It was the worst possible timing.”

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Mays decided not to apply for a PPP loan, for a few reasons. For one, while the loans are supposed to be forgivable in some instances, she didn’t trust the current administration to keep its word. “I wish people understood how complicated it is to decide whether or not to get a loan, especially with the arts and entertainment, because you don't know when you're ever going to pay it back or how you can pay it back,” she said. “And you’re not eligible for some of the loans because you can't really bring people in. I mean, what would I use the PPP loan for? To have everybody mop the floor all day, every day? There's nothing going on in there.”

While Mays helped to make sure her staff received unemployment, she wasn’t eligible for unemployment herself. Someone launched a GoFundMe for Ace staffers early on, but Mays didn’t want to start her own crowdfunding campaign. “I can't make promises to anybody,” she said. “I don't know if I'll be open in two more months or three more months, so saying, ‘Hey, everybody! We're going to do this big thing and save Ace of Cups!’ I feel like... are we? I don't know. This thing is going on and on and on...”

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Even though Mays didn’t launch an official fundraiser, a grassroots version happened all on its own. Sometimes, out of the blue, a check would arrive in the mail. “It’ll say, ‘Here’s 500 bucks. Try to stay open.’ It’s incredible. … People have been completely, unexpectedly generous. … Some people gave me money just to live on, because I didn't have anything. I mean, I had nothing,” said Mays, who also pointed to Ray Ray's Hog Pit, the barbecue food truck in the Ace of Cups parking lot. “James [Anderson], who does Ray Ray’s, he was like, ‘I need electricity to keep this food truck running. Let me help you.’”

One day, while standing in a Ray Ray’s line that stretched to the alley and up the street, Mays’ friend and former business partner Carmen Owens got an idea. “We can do to-go cocktails,” said Owens, who previously ran Grass Skirt Tiki Room and was a co-owner of Surly Girl Saloon with Mays and Liz Lessner. “There’s a captive audience. … What if I just set up a table on the patio in the sight line of people in line?”

Mays gave the go-ahead, and Owens began designing a drink menu. “We did a bourbon punch and peach margaritas, that sort of thing — something a little above and beyond the norm. It's a little bit elevated, but it's not so fancy,” Owens said. “People can feel like they're getting a well-made, well-crafted, well-thought-out cocktail with some fun flavors that they might not be able to get anywhere else, and that would hopefully go well with a big bag of brisket.”

With no concert bookings in sight, Mays and Owens devoted all of their energy to this new side hustle. “It was something I kicked around, but there's no way I could have executed it [without Carmen]. It has very slowly felt like starting a completely different and much, much smaller business,” Mays said. “That has been the only thing that has kept the place open, honestly.”

“It keeps the light bill paid and the gas bill paid,” Owens said. “Small business owners always have to be thinking on their feet. You got to be scrappy.”

“It's kind of like working at the fair,” Mays said. “It's not like a rock club where I get to act tough and be like, ‘What do you want, whiskey or beer?’”

Recently, Mays went to an outdoor show at Natalie’s in Grandview, which was one of the first local venues to begin experimenting with socially distant concerts. For the first time, she began to feel like small, outdoor shows could be possible. “It felt really safe,” she said. “I thought they did an outstanding job.”

Still, she wasn’t sure how to pull it off at Ace, and one night she was venting about it to local musician and booker Kyle Sowash, who was getting barbecue at Ray Ray’s.

“I was like, ‘I can throw something together. If you’re serious about it, let’s do it,’” said Sowash, who, after years of booking at Tree Bar, Big Room Bar and countless other venues, can set up a show in his sleep; concerts in the COVID era, though, require some extra planning. “Marcy did a lot of the hard work, as far as figuring out seating arrangements. She got graph paper out and marked off the patio by the foot. She probably went through 50 different seating configurations.”

On Friday, Sept. 18, Ace of Cups will host its first concert in six months on the venue’s outdoor patio, with sets from Sean Gardner (Winter Makes Sailors, the West Ghost), Sam Corlett and Sowash. Instead of individual seats, Ace is selling tables of two, four and six. Patrons will be seated (no standing and mingling allowed), and masks are required whenever guests leave their tables. Doors open at 7 p.m., and last call is 9:45 p.m.

Sowash and Mays are open to doing more shows if this one goes well, and they both have other ideas once the weather turns cold. “There are options. There’s these things called coats,” said Mays, who’s also hopeful that more of the bands she loves will be open to patio shows and the like, rather than the same five bands that seem to be performing over and over again. “There’s an age-old difference between people who are like, 'I love music. I'll go see anything and love it.' I'm not one of those people.”

Taste is a tough thing to put your finger on, but it’s something Ace of Cups has always had, and something that has set it apart since its inception nine years ago. It’s something Mays has cultivated (alongside talent buyers like Archie Fox Live) as someone who has toured the country in the band she’s best known for, Scrawl.

“She’s a member of the music community first, so she wants the experience of the artists to be top of mind. And she has world tours under her belt, so she knows what it would be like from their perspective. In creating Ace of Cups, that was something that not a lot of other venue owners bring to the table,” Owens said. “She wants to create a space where the artists themselves feel super comfortable, feel appreciated and don't feel taken advantage of. That’s tied into how much people loved Surly Girl and how much people love Ace of Cups as a place to go see shows. She may not be a wiz accountant, but the experience was the important part for her.”

Sowash recalled a day in late 2018 when he was driving down High Street and noticed smoke coming from behind the venue. He started screaming in his van, panicking at the thought of his favorite bar burning down. It turned out to be a fire in a garage behind the venue, but the relief he felt was palpable. Now, there’s a latent, low-key sense of panic again, mixed with just a bit of relief. “One show is a drop in the bucket,” Sowash said.

Like many other independent music venues, Ace of Cups isn’t out of the woods by a long shot. In fact, Mays recently started a full-time IT job to stay financially afloat (though she was already looking to return to full-time work and hand over the managing duties of Ace before the pandemic hit). Meanwhile, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) continues to push Congress to pass COVID relief legislation for places like Ace of Cups through its Save Our Stages campaign.

Still, this week brings some optimism. Local band Caamp asked to use Ace as a rehearsal space, so for the first time in months, Mays has been listening to music inside the venue, and tomorrow night she’ll watch musicians perform outside Ace, too. It’s not business as usual, but it’s something. “It feels kind of hopeful,” she said.

Ace of Cups owner Marcy Mays on the venue's patio with Carmen Ownens and Kyle Sowash.