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At Bainbridge's Pegasus Coffee House, the music is brewing
Downtown coffee house is marking 15 years of live music
Pegasus Coffee House may have modernized its business in recent years, but it still oozes a bohemian feel.
Ducking under the creeping ivy and into the small cafe, you come into tight space with sights and smells that stimulate the senses.
To Norm Johnson, it’s also the perfect place to get your fill of live music.
“I grew up in the ’60s in the Bay Area and visited coffee shops there as the whole folk music culture began to grow, and Pegasus is an exact replica of that,” he said.
Johnson is the most recent music promoter at Pegasus, which is marking 15 years of live music.
Now with a small marquee and guaranteed music three nights a week, Pegasus has become the downtown institution for consistent musical entertainment. From its folk singer-songwriter base, musical styles range widely from cello duos and classical piano to jazz, country and bluegrass outfits.
But the beginnings of the Pegasus music culture were a less steady affair.
David Dessinger, the original owner of Pegasus Coffee House, first opened up to live music in 1994. The concerts were run by islander Korum Bischoff, who was seeking a place for underaged musicians to play.
“David said we could give it a try as long as he didn’t lose money and we didn’t wreck the place,” Bischoff said.
Bischoff, also an employee at the time, would run the shows, make espresso and beg for donations.
“The idea was to find a place for locals to actually get out and play aside from their living room,” he said.
At first, it was an infrequent event, once or twice a month, catering mostly to local musicians. But over time Pegasus began to establish itself as a destination for regional acts.
“As time marched on, we got more interest from artists abroad and listed in publications as a regional venue,” said Bischoff, who now teaches at Island Music Guild.
But regional appeal to artists didn’t always bring equal appeal for local audiences.
“Everybody’s got to start somewhere, and people want to play in public” said Jeff Waite, who, along with his wife, Jocelyn, has owned Pegasus since 2006. “We provide the space to do that, but we didn’t always provide the audience.”
Johnson, who has been running the music end of the business for six years, laments many of those occasions.
“Years ago there would be times when it was only me and the musician,” he said. “Luckily we are past that and it’s become a sustainable evening of entertainment.”
Initially only those who were familiar with the acts performing would attend gigs, but after maintaining a consistent schedule, weekend music is drawing people from downtown and around the island.
“I’m starting to see the same faces coming back again, people trusting the venue to produce good music,” he said.
But it is the decidedly relaxed atmosphere that Johnson attributes to Pegasus’s recent musical success.
“Coffee house concerts are free and informal,” he said. “You don’t have to arrive at a specific time and you don’t have to stay until it is over. What you pay is whatever you feel like donating.”
The events have also grown steadily since last fall, when the economy started to take a hit.
“People wanted to do something locally, do things that are less expensive. So oddly enough the recession has been good for what we are trying to do there,” he said.
Recently other businesses cum venues have sprung up in the downtown area to cater to a growing music audience. Both 122 Winslow and Mud Puddle Coffee are some of the few now offering live music. The Island Music Guild also hosts a number of regular concerts at its Rolling Bay venue.
But for Johnson, it is the laid back, free and open attitude at Pegasus that will keep it in its own comfortable niche.
“Coffeehouse music, particularly, is a conversation between the musician and the audience,” Johnson said. “You have to be there to be a part of it. You can’t grab hold of it and save it for another day. If you miss it, it’s gone forever.”