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Artist's Escape Seeks $4,500 to Stay Open

Several regulars of the Artist's Escape Cafe Bar and Arts Gallery started a frantic search Thursday for money to prevent their favorite cafe from closing down.

The Artist's Escape, located at 137 E. Franklin St., showcases local art, live music, coffee, food and a lounge with couches and a pool table.

And for some in the Triangle area, it's a home away from home.

Jamie Sohn, secretary for the Queer Network for Change, said it serves as a safe space for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the area.

"It's really homey," Sohn said. "It provides everyone a safe place to be."

The cafe was opened in June 1999 by childhood friends Meredith Weiss and Joe Caldarone. But both owners said they are ready to move on, and they expect the cafe will close its doors Saturday night -- that is, unless the regular patrons can prevent it.

About 30 regulars got together on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to figure out what could be done to keep the cafe running.

The patrons decided to try and raise a total of $9,700 for initial operating costs and taking over the lease.

But first, $4,500 must be raised so the group can pay the rent and keep the doors open throughout April.

Artist's Escape regular Lee Davis said if this money is not raised, there is a chance that the cafe could be bought by someone else. "We have to get past this first crisis before we go forward," he said.

Weiss and Caldarone said they were proud of the atmosphere they fostered.

"It had always been a dream of ours to open a little cafe that would serve a diverse crowd where everyone could be themselves," Weiss said.

Davis said he agrees that the cafe provides a relaxed setting for its patrons. "It's like a coffee shop you'd see on 'Friends,'" he said.

Caldarone said he is proud of the cafe's openness to a wide range of people. "I relish in the fact that this has become an extremely diverse atmosphere that's open to everyone," he said.

But the owners said they feel it is time to try different things.

Caldarone said he's wanted to go back home to New York for a long time. Now he says he has that opportunity and cannot pass it up.

The owners informed their patrons of their decision to close the cafe sometime last week. "People came in crying," Caldarone said.

But the owners said they were pleased the patrons wanted to keep the cafe open. "We created exactly what we wanted to create," Weiss said. "And now we're glad other people want to continue with it."

Former Caffe Trio manager Aaron Pinkston said he did not want the Artist's Escape to close, as Caffe Trio, another local hot spot for the LGBT community, did for a while.

"When Caffe Trio closed down, it would always take a while for the community to regroup," Pinkston said.

Davis said the group of patrons is contacting anyone it can think of for donations. But he also said there is already a vision for the direction the Artist's Escape will take. "We've decided that the only way to keep it going is to turn it into a nonprofit group," Davis said.

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Rather than being run by two people, he said, Artist's Escape would be run by one paid manager and the rest of the staff would be on a volunteer basis.

The basics of the Artist's Escape would remain intact, with a few minor changes being made. "It will have more diverse coffees and less of a food selection," said Troy Wood, a sophomore biology major from Lexington. "It will also feature reading materials for the GLBT community."

Wood stressed the importance of the Artist's Escape. "This place serves a vital role for many people in the community," he said. "Anyone is welcome there. It's not an exclusive place. It's inclusive."

Wood said he has made a "family" at Artist's Escape. "I don't view my dorm as my home," he said. "I view the Artist's Escape as my home. If it closes down, I will be losing my home."

The City Editor can be reached at citydesk@unc.edu.

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