When the Hardback Cafe first closed down in January 1999, a crowd of passionate patrons gathered for a two-day concert featuring 26 bands. Images of broken windows, fire-breathing anarchists and police officers on horses painted a picture for many to remember — and many others to hear stories about.
In its 30-year lifespan, the venue, owned and led by retired attorney Alan Bushnell, outlived a 15-year-long hiatus, two relocations and a pandemic, all while fostering a close-knit community where human expression thrives. Patrons talk devotedly of the venue’s impact on the people surrounding it and the memories they have made there.
Perseverance and community support made the Hardback survive, but building lease and repair complications pushed it out again.
On May 25, it closed its doors again. Its community — reminiscent of one that gathered in 1999 — gathered again, this time for an eclectic event. Musicians, artists, speakers and patrons attended an open mic show performed in the style of a church service; Reverend Angel Dust’s Tabernacle of Hedonism served as the venue’s send off.
The venue closed a chapter right as live music hit a post-pandemic high. That irony isn’t lost on Bushnell.
While restaurants closed their indoor dining areas at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bushnell kept the space alive by selling eggs and milk outside of the venue’s small front porch.
He had a refrigerator and a business license that allowed curbside sales, so he made it happen.
“I've become a master at surviving and functioning with the minimum,” Bushnell said. “That’s, I guess, my art.”
While talking on the venue’s porch, a musician friendly to the venue rode by on a bicycle and approached Bushnell and Miller.
“We’re doing an interview with the Alligator about the recent final days,” Bushnell said to him.
“The latest final days,” Miller said. “Hardback is forever.”
A place for community
The Hardback embodied the do-it-yourself spirit of the Gainesville music scene. It stood on the pillars of diversity, free expression, originality and resourcefulness.
“No matter what your act is, you're going to get some love there,” Debra Fetzer, frontwoman of punk band Piss Test, said.
From its landmark punk rock, hardcore and metal; to country, hip hop, electronic and folk music, Bushnell made it a mission to give a stage to all musicians who come to his door.
Inside the dark main room, performers brought life and vibrance to the stage. Outside, a crowd gathered between performers, interacting and connecting with one another. Between couches arranged in conversational layouts facing the stage, unconventional decorations and more eccentric artifacts, the venue’s layout had a living room feel that made every show, no matter how big, feel like a house show.
“It's a beautiful symbiosis,” Miller said. “It's not about a band being onstage in front of an audience, it's about a community coming together to interact in creative ways.”
Twenty-four-year-old Adam Leme fell into those couches’ open seats after he moved to Gainesville in 2016.
He recalled feeling swept up in the shared energy that drew a like-minded crowd to the space, and he experienced that characteristic openness from the stage when he started playing there.
During his first show with the band Ra’sbry, Leme said Bushnell stepped in to fix technical sound issues in the middle of the set. To him, this exemplified the type of environment the venue created for new performers. Bushnell wasn’t just running the sound: he was looking out for the acts and helping them sound their best.
People like Miller turn to the Hardback as an escape from an otherwise overwhelming world. To him, the strength found in the artistic rawness being performed contrasted a highly-corporate world that has strayed away from human values of community and expression.
“This is like an oasis of peace and love even if somebody's throwing a guitar off the stage,” Miller said.
A generation’s home
Described by Alligator reporter Jenny Williams as “the bastard child of downtown Gainesville” in 1999, the venue gave a flawed but beloved home to the vibrant 1990s punk scene.
Bushnell founded the Hardback in 1989 after law enforcement started a city-wide movement to shut down house parties — where the punk community had existed up to that point.
The original location, where Boca Fiesta, the Backyard and Palominos now sit, wasn’t a perfect venue. The building wasn’t well maintained, and by the late ‘90s, the ceiling was held together by duct tape. But with a new space to exist, the community made the venue their own.
“The Hardback succeeded because there were no places for bands to play anymore,” Bushnell said.
Bushnell sold the business to Matt Sweeting and Drew Demaio in summer of 1997. Under their punk-enthusiastic management, the venue reached new heights of cultural importance in the scene. However, the change proved to be short-lived.
Investors bought the building, located in the heart of Gainesville’s downtown, and resolved to replace the Hardback’s space with commercially friendly businesses.
It was effectively the end of the Hardback as 1999 Gainesville knew it. So patrons went all out.
Twenty-six bands played in a two-day pseudo-festival, with venue regulars like Hot Water Music, Radon and Assholeparade performing their farewells.
The closure of the original Hardback was dramatized and mystified through oral tradition as it was passed from person to person. Some think of the farewell show as a riot, but Miller, who hosted it, denied that.
“The last day wasn't a riot, [there were] police on horses, that's true,” Miller said. “That's what made it look like a riot.”
“The last day” ended with the passionate patrons breaking windows, smashing beer bottles, blowing fire into the night sky and effectively tearing down the building with their bare hands.
No arrests were made and no one was injured — it was simply a passionate display of a memorial service for a beloved space.
While he admires the notorious farewell, Bushnell hoped the recent closure wouldn’t mimic it.
“Our last day is not going to be that,” Bushnell said. “I want my security deposit back.”
The Hardback’s legacy nearly became an urban myth during its 15-year hiatus.
For years, newcomers assumed the venue still lived, as Matt Walker noticed while teaching a class at UF on his book “Gainesville Punk: A History of Bands & Music”.
“People still talked about it,” Walker said. “It never went out of the consciousness of the local music community.”
In 2016, Bushnell reopened the Hardback on 211 West University Avenue, and the community that had been built around it promptly returned.
It moved to its current location, in the area near downtown dubbed “Undertown” by some locals, on 920 NW 2nd Street in 2019. Again, the community followed.
A flower in the turd
Facing lease conflicts and a faulty building, the complications eventually caught up to the venue, and Bushnell decided to close it down once again.
To the community surrounding the venue, the closure is a reflection of a city-wide trend: rising rent prices and new developments take up city resources and push longstanding local businesses out of the frame.
Miller sees it as real estate developers “taking a big turd on Gainesville, and wherever a flower can grow, it may pop up around the periphery.”
While trying to find a place to relocate, Bushnell has faced the competitive real estate market in the city. He says that whenever he looks at a space, it’s either needing intensive repairs or unaffordable. He’s not yet found a suitable successor to the Undertown location.
Even with these roadblocks, Walker doesn’t see the community going anywhere anytime soon. The author has seen how the scene regroups, reshapes and continues to survive.
“You might not know where it's going to pop up next, but it will keep existing,” he said. “There's always going to be people who are there to create.”
As the Hardback goes into an indefinite hibernation, the community won’t hold its breath. Wherever it might happen, the people will use their resources as they always have and will find, or create, new spaces to exist and interact in the creative ways the Hardback has always welcomed.
Contact Kristine at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktnedelvalle.
Kristine Villarroel is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Summer 2023 Engagement Managing Editor. She previously worked in the Avenue and Caimán desks as an editor and reporter. In her free time, she looks for dusty fur coats at antique shops and pretends not to be a hater on Twitter.