It was a Wednesday night, just like any other, except that downtown Winston-Salem’s premier music venue would be returning to the scene.
John Hampton, longtime doorman at the Garage, sat at the bar finishing the last bites of a sandwich he’d brought from home. Lights behind the bar carried a low flame of light to dark walls covered with bygone show posters, and Hampton sat eating with a perfect view of the entire club.
Like many other employees of the Garage, Hampton found other work for the few months the club closes its doors during the slow summer months. Being a member of the Hampton family that owns a local art framing company, John Hampton spent several weeks hanging every piece of artwork in the newly renovated Forsyth County Central Library.
“I recently had the opportunity to hang a 200-year-old painting of George Washington in the new library,” Hampton said. “And you know, as I was lifting it and placing it on the wall, I kept thinking, He was right there. Washington was just on the other side of this canvas as the artist worked. That’s something that can blow your mind.
“I’ve worked the door for dozens of places,” Hampton continued. “Ziggy’s, the old Aquarius, and I love being on this side of things. I’m blessed to be a stay-at-home dad most of the time, but to come and work here at night and see all the bands and amazing shows, it’s something I love doing.”
The doors would open in an hour. The dancefloor and bar were empty and yet the club hummed with life; the bartender carrying ice and stocking the coolers, the sound engineer making notes and getting the last few levels for Must Be the Holy Ghost, the night’s opening band. Amps, drums, guitar cases and shining cymbals festooned the side of the stage.
“It’s something I think we’re very lucky to be able to do,” said Tucker Tharpe, owner of the Garage. “It’s like a lot of those beach shops. They make enough to live off during the busy season, and close up after Labor Day. This town is notoriously slow for restaurants and shops in the summer. Even more so for live music. And so instead of losing money every year, risking having to close the doors permanently, I found taking a break for a few months is what’s best for business.”
An employee brought Tharpe his dinner, and he stood behind the bar as he bit into his burrito, watching as Jared Draughon, aka Must Be the Holy Ghost, ran through one of the songs on his setlist.
“I try my best to take care of everyone here,” Tharpe said. “I know it can be tough on employees being closed like that, but I do what I can for them.”
Most of the Garage’s staff also work at other bars and clubs in Winston-Salem, but many of them consider the Garage to be a second home.
“I’ve worked the doors here for seven years,” Hampton said as he set up his post on the sidewalk in front of the club. “You never know what will happen on any given night. Could be a bluegrass show that sells out and there’s a line out the door. Could be no one at all and you’re the only one who gets to see an amazing show. I’m lucky to be a part of this.”
As Hampton slapped a fresh pack of Marlboros against his hand, drew one out and lit it, a man came up to buy 12 tickets for the show.
Sitting in a road-worn van parked along Seventh Street in front of the club, Josh Weaver, guitarist for headlining band Royal Thunder, ate his cheeseburger under the pale glow of the street lamps.
“We’re just doing this short tour,” Weaver said. “We’ve played [the Garage] a few times now, and of course we had to add it to this tour. We try to play here whenever we come through. Honestly, it’s hard to find such great people as Tucker.”
As the staff finished their quick dinners of burritos or sandwiches inside, everything slowly fell into place. The show was nearly sold out with an hour to spare before the doors opened. A small crowd began forming outside the club, and Hampton smiled as he stood at the entrance.
“Well, here we go,” he said, and took a few tickets.
The Garage has been open for almost 18 years, becoming a mainstay of the local music scene and a constant in the lives of employees like Hampton, but Tharpe doesn’t take its success for granted.
“It’s one of the hardest businesses to keep alive,” Tharpe said. “I’ve watched so many great clubs open and close, and each time it’s crushing. It’s a fear I have, of course — I have to. That’s the only way to beat it. But for however long we can keep it up, we’ll keep putting on the best shows. We’ll always be here for this town.”