Nightclubbing on Denman: The Earth Club Factory Bistro & Guesthouse
Even if it is by no means all of Denman, the Earth Club Factory Bistro & Guesthouse has a loyal and steady audience. Sipping wine or beer or juices, with no sports bar TV, and a funky, relaxing décor, they do something not so common nowadays in the age of attention deficit disorder: they listen. No wonder musicians all want to come back, especially of the kind the Guesthouse attracts: duos, trios, soloists, playing jazz, traditional, progressive or new traditional bluegrass, folk, ska, or just their own personal take. They need a meaningful experience, too.
The food, homely, organic and tasty, and the coffee, which owner Sheldon Rempel roasts himself (originally on a barbecue, but now in a full-on roaster), are the reason people turn up at the Guesthouse during the day. But the entertainment that Sheldon brings to the Guesthouse, making it Denman’s only nightclub venue, is entirely due to his coffee cart business.
As the coffee guy at twenty-five years of music festivals, Sheldon has built up a tremendous network of hundreds of musicians over the years. “It’s a super eclectic group. I pull them in from large demographic areas because my reach is national . . . what’s unique is that they reach out to me because they are on tour. The music you see over in Courtenay are often local musicians making the rounds. They are the same people. What I get is people on tour from all over Canada. It’s a completely different crowd.”
Sheldon points out another compelling reason. They get paid. No show at the Guesthouse is without the performance jar sitting somewhere in the room and into which people plop a twenty or a five or whatever they can give. In addition to whatever drinks or food they have bought. But it’s not a charity. The Guesthouse dips into the till if the take can’t cover the musician fees. Like everything else in the entertainment (or should we say, cultural content) business, every show is a gamble, small or large.
Last year the Guesthouse bistro was almost doubled with the addition of the Performance Room. Yet even with a larger capacity, the venue still isn’t that big or all that easy to fill. Denman is his main market, though Sheldon tries to start some shows earlier, at five, so visitors can get away on the last ferry. Vancouver Island venues can draw on bigger, interconnected communities. And the Guesthouse is not a bar where the musicians can be just an expense against liquor sales. It’s a bistro, and for Sheldon and Donna, the whole point of being on Denman is to make things work on Denman.
Sheldon does much to promote the musicians he loves, on Facebook, on bulletin boards, and in the Grapevine. Music on Denman is hardly a minor interest. The Grapevine covered 32 musical events alone between September 2017 and March 2018 – and that was by no means all.
His program for 2019 is intense – a performance practically every week going well into spring, mostly all new faces, plus the island regulars who, he says, can be counted on to fill the place up. Speaking for myself, never one for clubs or shows, I have grown genuinely fond of an evening at the Guesthouse, listening to music I didn’t follow before. The place can change you, maybe because an island is a whole world unto itself, without the noisy fame and crowd pressure of urban life and the need for the relief of distraction; because it is community.
Their strong sense of community does not stop there. The Guesthouse is also an art gallery. They take no commission, which keeps prices down, which helps the success of shows by Matta Schall, Poet Maudit, and Cindy Dilts, as well as Katarina Meglic. The bistro has the huge advantage of putting art right on your path – when you gotta get that morning coffee.
From the beginning, through all this runs the mantra of the reincarnated Earth Club Factory of Sheldon and Donna’s Kamloops days. There is a cabin out back with the original store sign over the door, but that’s accommodation and not, as I long imagined, some sort of workshop run by gnomes. The concept was adopted from a hostel called the Arts Club Factory at Byron Bay in Australia. “It was a totally inspired property, Sheldon recalls. “It had a bar, a performance room that was pretty funky with a lot of reclaimed things. It had an environmental premise that we liked.” The Guesthouse Bistro is also a shop. “The basic principle,” says Sheldon, “is less for more.”
They run an organic food buying club for bulk grains and have a room off the bistro where you can bring your own containers to fill up on rice, beans, and flours, some of them hard to find elsewhere, as well as environmentally friendly cleaning products and shampoos. The sale of bulk grains now accounts for half their orders.
It’s also a bazaar. A table of jugs, cups and tiffins made of copper and aluminum from recycled metal appeared at Christmas. Big, woven straw hand-baskets now hang from the rafters. The display of incense, semi-precious stones, island jewellery and hand-crafted soaps, little Buddhas as well as odd games, and vaporizers for aromatic oils merit a regular browse out of sheer curiosity, redolent of the alternative culture which continues to thrive on the island.
As with his coffee cart, which continues to be an important part of the whole enterprise, Sheldon and Donna always have other irons in the fire. They seem always to be working, but they are also continually upholding the values that for many of us lie at the heart of Denman.
By Anthony Gregson, Published in the Islands Grapevine, January 24, 2019