It’s a kick: Vince Lau of Go Kart Mozart catches air.
By Gabe Meline
Even gold, they say, has been discovered in the middle of nowhere. Granted, the small corner of an industrial warehouse on a vast, empty road along the outskirts of Sonoma isn’t likely to cause a nationwide influx of Sutter’s Mill proportions. But this out-of-the-way oasis has changed the climate of this upscale city for the hundreds of teenagers who enter this warehouse’s corrugated steel walls.
It’s called the Shop, and though it has nothing to do with wine, cheese or fancy festivals, it’s one of Sonoma’s crown jewels.
Founded in 1999 as a senior class project for budding garage bands, the Shop has grown into a venerable and largely under-the-radar venue serving the young community in Sonoma. It’s run by teens for teens who every weekend work the door, run the sound board, manage the stage, sell concessions and book the bands, giving the kids a much-needed outlet in a city that caters mostly to adults and tourists.
Co-director Dave Robbins realized the city’s need for a place like the Shop long before he joined colleague John Randall in overseeing the venue’s operations. “It’s terribly difficult to grow up around here,” he says. “I first moved here 24 years ago–my son was one at the time–and my wife and I would look around and think, ‘What the hell’s he gonna do when he gets a bit older? There’s nothing happening here!'”
When he discovered the activity at the southeast warehouse–currently sharing space with auto shops, storage space and a biodiesel outlet–Robbins eagerly came on to help. In the eight years since, the Shop has hosted hip-hop contests, dance nights, performance art and the ever-reliable stream of loud rock bands. On any given night, the performers run the gamut. Some groups consist of local members as young as 12, while others are older touring bands from out of state. (Before their cover-song hit “The Boys of Summer” flooded the airwaves, the Ataris stopped by the Shop on one of their first-ever tours.)
But what makes the Shop special is that it doesn’t feel like a teen center. Like Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater, the walls are covered in murals and spray paint. A few ratty couches and a chain-link fence are its only adornments. And even though other adult-mandated programs exist for the area’s youth, Robbins says the key to the Shop’s success is its decidedly hands-off approach.
“A big factor for teenagers,” he says, “is that they have to feel that most of what they’re involved in is theirs, that they’re a part of it.” Therefore, the Shop is run by a board made up of mostly teens who come to meetings, discuss issues, make decisions and guide the venue on their own terms. There are always older chaperones at the shows, ready to assist if needed, “but there’s not a whole bunch of adults monitoring them,” Robbins says proudly. “We just let them be themselves, and generally, that’s the best way to go.”
Minor mishaps, naturally, do occur. Sometimes the sound equipment breaks and a makeshift PA has to be assembled from a microphone and a guitar cabinet. Sometimes the concession stand runs out of soda during a packed show. Sometimes the band doesn’t show up, or the drummer falls off the back of the stage in the middle of a song. Solving these problems on the spot–and attending meetings to avoid them in advance–offers the “Shop kids” a chance to control their own entertainment and foster their own community.
“We know a number of teens,” Robbins says, “who came having no direction or were just very footloose and maybe lost a little bit.” Being a part of the Shop, he says, gives them a push in the right direction. “All the members are very supportive of each other, and they become good friends because of their association there. It’s very positive reinforcement. We’ve seen huge changes in people who have come and gone, who have made very positive changes in their life.”
The local community has responded in kind. The building’s landlord has been amenable during financially lean months; an outside Port-a-Potty is supplied at a hugely reduced rate; pizza is delivered to the venue at a discount. There’s also a healthy stable of audio technicians who work on the sound equipment “for pretty much nothing,” Robbins says. “We have a lot of parents who just do work for us and don’t ask anything in return. We don’t even have to pressure anybody–there’s a lot of people who just really want to be involved.”
And though the Shop is about as remote as can be, people tend to drive from all over the county to be a part of the action. “Some nights we don’t get a huge crowd,” Robbins admits. “We still have a lot of fun, the kids are great to be around. They’re all cool.”
Go Kart Mozart, Sound and Shape, Forgotten Masterpiece and Radio Suicide perform on Saturday, Aug. 11, at the Shop, 21600 Eighth St. E., Sonoma. 7pm. $8. For more info, visit www.myspace.com/theshopltd.