It’s a hot summer’s day and the Caledonia regulars, including the brass section of the Philharmonic Orchestra, have retreated into the cool interior of the pub for a pint, some home-cooked food, and the company of two small dogs called Miss Havisham and Sir William Huskisson.
Two months ago, the future of this Georgian Quarter local didn’t look quite so rosy, as landlady Laura King was given just 28 days to vacate the Cale after the Admiral Taverns group accepted an offer for the building’s lease. For fans of Liverpool’s grassroots music scene and its associated venues, this felt like the latest in a long line of beloved businesses coming under serious threat. MelloMello, for example, a place that acts as a community arts space, bar, music venue, rehearsal studio and vegetarian café, is similarly being faced with closure after their offer to buy their building was declined in favour of a larger bid from a private developer.
Happily, however, it’s not all doom and gloom. Those intent on closing the Cale didn’t count on the determination of King and the huge wave of public support which rallied behind the #savethecaledonia campaign, with a petition of over 3,000 signatures and the backing of Liverpool councillors and Mayor Joe Anderson. Just before the pub’s third birthday, the date it was supposed to close, Admiral renegotiated the deal and the new buyers asked Laura to carry on as usual, now as a free house, with a contract to stay on for five years and then possibly indefinitely. Bido Lito! met up with two of the women involved in these crises, Laura King of the Caledonia and Laura Powers-del Arco of the team behind MelloMello, to ask is there still hope for our favourite independent venues?
“I was overwhelmed by the reaction of people when we had the news we were closing,” says King in between pulling pints. “It wasn’t jumping on the negative bandwagon it was, ‘We can do something about this’.”
“It’s such a wonderful example that it can work,” adds Powers-del Arco, who experienced a similar reaction through MelloMello’s campaign to raise funds for a deposit on the building. “It was unbelievable. When something like that hits you, doubts can sometimes set in and you can think, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But those levels of support imbibe all those who work there with a kind of positivity. It’s good to have those moments to remind you.”
Despite this largely encouraging reaction, there will always be some who question the importance of one pub or bar in the grand scheme of things, but these businesswomen know the positive effects a well-run venue can have on a community.
“You’ve got your venue, I guess, and your immediate walls but it’s also about the area at large that one helps to shape and make a better place,” says Powers-del Arco, explaining that Mello was completely derelict when they moved in but has helped to improve the surrounding area over time. “It just brightened up that corner didn’t it?” says King. “Now there’s tons of little bars and venues round there, and it’s not that Mello is the whole reason for that but it’s probably a big part of it. It’s got the community feel.
“When I took over here it [the Caledonia] was a terrible place, and there’s a lot of people in the immediate community who have said thank god they don’t have to cross over the road and walk past it any more. They don’t necessarily come in here but it’s nice for them to feel safe and have somewhere to go if they feel that they want to.”
Of course, one of the most important roles both places play is as part of Liverpool’s music scene, with the quality of local bands improving as a direct result of having supportive venues to play in. “It’s like a little incubatory nest,” says Powers-del Arco. “There’s this platform that says you can do this and get paid for it.”
“I think where other venues have perhaps failed and closed it’s because they don’t care, they’re just there to make money,” adds King. By contrast, the Caledonia has built a solid reputation promoting genres which traditionally shy away from the mainstream, such as jazz, Americana and folk. “Because everything’s free, it creates accessibility and you get the opportunity to listen to so many things that you wouldn’t normally consider. I certainly know from our customer base that it’s made people a lot more broadminded.”
It’s a testament to the inclusivity of this scene that neither woman feels her gender is much of a consideration in the admittedly male-dominated world of music. “We just get on with it,” says Powers-del Arco, “as does everyone else.”
“It has its implications sometimes, certain people do take me less seriously but I just tell them to fuck off,” says King. “It’s hard to change history: there are less women in business because there are less women in business, and the only way to change that is over time, and by us being in the position where we don’t even consider it.”
While both women are obviously competitive in a business sense, it is also clear that they are not necessarily competing with each other, as Powers-del Arco points out: “There’s a little network and a community; there are obviously different venues but while we’re different our ethos might be quite similar, which I think is really strong.”
“We’re all rooting for each other because we all know we’re unique so we don’t have to fight for customers, we share them,” says King. “I think having multiple venues with the same ethos makes us busier and better.”
With the Caledonia saved and the good folk of MelloMello vowing to push forward regardless, both women’s plans for the future are now looking surprisingly bright.
“I think for Mello it’s about securing a bit of longevity in some respect that can then strengthen the whole locality in terms of a real, serious and respected alternative scene,” says Powers-del Arco. “The thing that gives us a little bit of optimism is that when we first started it was literally just the little coffee bar, bring your own booze, and a couple of very weird, experimental jazz nights and from there it’s grown into its building. And you think, well, if we’ve done it once maybe we could do it again.”
“I hope to be here for a long time to come,” says King. “The business is at a great point now where we can push forward even further. In the distant future I might do another venue as well, but for now it’s just picking up all the bits that have been chucked up in the air over the past couple of months.”
Looking back to those couple of months, what have they both learned from their recent trials?
“Have security,” replies King immediately. “I wasn’t protected. Now I am and I wouldn’t have learned that if it wasn’t for this. I think the things we’re going through are going to highlight that city-wide.”
“I guess being a bit fearless and taking risks,” says Powers-del Arco. “Yeah, be confident in your own ability,” adds King. “You might be young, you might be a girl, but you’ve got a brain in your head and that’s how you ended up in this position.”
And with that bit of encouragement the interview is over, and the two Lauras are busy inspecting a jukebox from 1975 that King is renovating herself. It seems that if there’s one lesson to be gained from the hardships suffered by the Caledonia and MelloMello, it’s that the passionate and hard-working people behind our favourite venues are slowly getting the recognition they deserve, and that we can become involved not only by showing our loyalty before they desperately need it, but by going out and doing something similar to benefit the community at a grassroots level, in the true spirit of DIY. In the wise words of Laura King: “Just get on with it!”