Lee Anderson uses his 'bean' to stir up creative activism
Every college town has one -- the local bohemian enclave with a flavor all its own and a name that has to be explain-ed to visitors. In the town where I grew up, it was the Runcible Spoon, a cafe that featured a bathtub full of fish. In Burlington, that bastion of funkiness is Radio Bean coffeehouse.
Just a block from Church Street at Pearl and North Winooski, Radio Bean doesn't see a lot of tourists, says owner Lee Anderson. With its unmatched ceramic hanging lamps, curtains and jungly plants, the place looks like someone's living room. There's just enough space for a handful of booths and tables to be wedged between the bar and a barely raised stage. You may look twice at the wine rack over the bar --is it? Yes, a recycled bed-spring, entwined with crimson fake flowers that hold pinprick lights. The brick walls display unframed canvases, and a lamp with a fringed belle epoque shade sits atop the upright piano.
On a recent Monday, the crowd gathered for "no guitar open mike night" ranges in age from 10 to 60, though twenty- and thirtysomethings predominate. Anderson, who lives above the cafe and is usually on the premises, comes to the stage to introduce the speakers --spoken-word poets, for the most part, though some people want to pound the piano and some just want to shoot the breeze. At one point, a speaker-audience interaction about quantum physics erupts; at another point, the topic is hay.
For anyone else, presiding over this unique cafe culture would be all-consuming. But Anderson, 26, also finds time to be a record producer, magazine publisher, bike-race organizer and neighborhood art activist. He's one of the chief organizers behind a block party and "free-for-all" this weekend in the Old North End.
"My intention isn't to be a do-gooder. I'm not trying to change anything," says Anderson, who has an intense gaze and voluble speech. He makes a good case for the idea that simply encouraging people to "do what they do" -- particularly if what they do is creative -- is a political act.
Free expression is the theme that ties Anderson's various projects together. He opened Radio Bean in 2000 with the intention of making it the headquarters for a low-power FM community radio station that would air perspectives from all over Burlington's political spectrum. The Federal Communications Commis-sion delayed his license application, leaving the cafe's namesake still on the drawing board.
But Radio Bean, which offers live music every night without a cover charge and hosted 748 shows last year alone, has become the social hub for a certain segment of Burlington. David Symons, who plays accordion in Black Sea Quartet, describes Radio Bean as the "biggest influence on the local music scene in the past few years."
"This place has become nuclear," agrees Anderson. He offers a demographic explanation for Radio Bean's appeal: "There's a ton of people between the ages of 22 and 35 here who don't have a lot of money. That's different from a lot of cities, like New York or Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, where people go out to shows and can afford to buy $10 drinks because they have some tech job. Here, the hipster population is poor."
The upside to the small economy of Vermont, Anderson thinks, is that there's less pressure to "make it" and less of a stigma on those who don't. "There's the option of just making music or art for the sake of it and not for the money," he suggests.
Small venues such as Radio Bean, Anderson says, tend to dissolve the distinction between performer and audience -- not just because there's virtually no space cushioning the stage, but because they give struggling musicians a place to start. "My position in the arts community is that I'm the entry-level," he maintains. "Radio Bean is a place to make that jump from playing in the garage or your living room. It's where people can hone their skills in front of an audience, and they don't have to guarantee they can bring 200 people in the door."
Symons can attest to the fact that Radio Bean is, as Anderson puts it, "a bridge between here and Metronome." After a series of semimonthly gigs at Radio Bean, his East European folk band moved on to Club Metronome, Red Square and other larger venues. Small as the cafe is, Symons describes it as a place where the energy can be "like a firecracker in a phone booth."
Some of that energy is preserved on the compilation of 20 local bands Anderson has put out on his fledgling label, Radio Bean Records. The compilation is named after a multipurpose performance space Anderson runs at 324 North Winooski Avenue: Gezellig -- a Dutch adjective that Anderson translates as "the situation that facilitates the best possible vibe being created." In September, the space will host a weekly teahouse that Anderson hopes to make a gathering place for writers involved in another of his new projects, a "literary zine" called The Old Revolution, edited by Sara Beck, an English teacher at Rock Point School.
Anderson's projects have a determinedly local focus; he and Beck don't plan to circulate his magazine outside of Burlington. "The intention isn't to sell products to people outside. It's to unite a neighborhood, and I hesitate even to say that," he says, explaining that he's wary of becoming one of those "cultural creatives" who "come in and try to make places more artsy or desirable. But then it ends up having a counter-effect, because they change what they're trying to celebrate."
Anderson came to Vermont in 1996 on a serendipitous path. Originally from a small town in the Midwest, he went to college for a while and then dropped out. One day he watched a music video for the band Temple of the Dog on MTV and had an epiph-any: "It was time to get the hell out of Minnesota." He called 1-800-VERMONT because he knew that, unlike his home state, Vermont wasn't flat. "I thought, maybe I'll get a job at a ski resort or something."
After a few years bartending, taking photographs, and "meandering," Anderson opened Radio Bean in its space on North Winooski. Because of the difficulty of financing, his brainchild had a nine-month "birthing process." But, like his journey to Vermont, it was marked by lucky happenstance. Friends volunteered their labor. Anderson got deals on heavy things people wanted to unload -- fridges, wooden booths, an espresso machine that had been gathering dust in a Massachusetts deli.
The cafe ended up being partially financed on credit cards. But today, Anderson says, it supports itself -- and him. He funds his other, nonprofit ventures by living simply and keeping his overhead down. He manages Radio Bean himself and doesn't pay the bands that appear there. Nonetheless, he's managed to snare out-of-town acts, such as bluesman Cory Harris and Australian band Sodastream. Revenues from those shows help to finance the nights devoted to local unknowns.
As for the radio station, Anderson says, "I have a pretty good feeling about it," now that his last competitor for the frequency -- the Vermont Agency of Transpor-tation -- is out of the running. Anderson wants the station to be a "wide-open format -- not a leftist or a progressive thing, but just a community thing. We want people to feel that this is ours."
Radio Bean wears its idiosyncracy proudly, but Anderson says the last thing he wants to do is create a clique. Rather, he dreams of getting Burlington's diversity under one roof -- punk bands playing one night and folk bands the next, drag queens debating politicians and professors on the radio, Chomskyites and Bush voters contributing to The Old Revolution.
Symons, who calls Anderson a "selfless impresario," concedes that his ideal of a truly open venue may be hard to achieve. "Radio Bean is definitely a left-wing crowd. People like to be in a place where they feel comfortable -- they usually want to be around people like them." Still, he sees the cafe as more than just a hang-out for Burlington's bohemians. "For social change, you need community, and Radio Bean's all about that."