Boulder's Penny Lane coffeehouse has always drawn a widely varied clientele--from expensively clad businessmen to grungy teenagers with ragged clothing and pierced nostrils. But over the past several months, a new breed has been added to the mix: real estate agents.

"They're coming in here all the time, showing people the place," says Isadore Million, the Lane's owner. "It's strange."
The agent invasion has occurred because Penny Lane's space, in a building located on the 1700 block of Pearl Street, is suddenly available. "We are in the market for other tenants," says Paul Eklund, the building's asset manager and spokesperson for Vail Commons Partnership, a collection of Vail and Boulder investors that owns the structure. "We have not closed the door on Mr. Million completely, but we are actively seeking proposals from other people."

If Penny Lane disappears, its passing may well cause a blow to the Boulder music scene on par with the shuttering of the Boulder Theater last year. Million opened the coffeehouse in 1981 after taking over the space from Eight Days a Week, a coffee shop and copy center (now at 921 Walnut in Boulder) that had operated in the same location for the previous six years. He was soon supplementing the Lane's funky ambience with music mainly derived from the folk tradition. Customer response was so strong that he expanded into adjacent space four years later.

When folksinger Deb Seymour first started performing at Penny Lane in 1987, the coffeehouse's reputation as both a cool place and a launching pad for music careers was already well established. "It seems like every musician in Boulder started at Penny Lane," says Seymour, whose 1992 album Martian Tangos and Other Strange Affairs has made a mark on the national folk circuit. "Three Fisted Lullabye, Chris and Maggie, Leftover Salmon--they all played here early on. And when they're back in town, they still do."

"Penny Lane is the only place in Boulder that has had music every weekend for the past five or six years," adds Danny Shafer, a member of Three Fisted Lullabye who also handles booking for the venue. "And we do practically everything, music-wise. We don't do hardcore anymore, but we have in the past, and we also book folk, rock, jazz, spoken word. I'll book people who don't even have demo tapes. It's a breaking-in spot."
This attracts to Penny Lane an eclectic crowd that sometimes includes Boulder's homeless. Million says he doesn't specifically cater to the homeless, but he does open the Lane for a few hours every Thanksgiving and Christmas to help those who have nowhere else to go. He's just as protective of the mostly young, often scroungy, defiantly alternative crowd that is generally associated with Penny Lane. "There's an alternative high school just two short blocks from here, and these kids dress outlandishly, you might say," Million concedes. "If you didn't know them, you'd think they were runaway hippies, but I assure you they're not. They're good kids."

That's a matter of opinion. Eklund says that over the past several years he has received complaints about Penny Lane's patrons from fourteen of the sixteen other tenants who share the Pearl Street building with the coffeehouse, as well as from nearby residents. "The customers' appearance is not the issue," Eklund insists. "The issue is that they're obstructing traffic, damaging property, and panhandling."

Several neighbors and a handful of managers of businesses in the building (all of whom requested anonymity) confirm problems with Penny Lane habitues. One says his customers have compared getting past people on the sidewalk and nearby street to "running a gauntlet."

A number of other employees in the building characterize these complaints as overstated, and spring to Penny Lane's defense. So have many musicians and customers, whose supportive letters are posted on the coffeehouse walls. Thus far, however, these efforts have come to naught. Million's lease expires at the end of April 1994, and although he's submitted what he feels is a generous proposal for renewal, Vail Commons Partnership has thus far not accepted it. Eklund says Million isn't officially out of the running, but he confirms that the landlords have been advertising the space, and notes that several other offers have already been received. A decision is expected by the end of February.

To Seymour, the odds that Penny Lane will survive look bleak--and so does the Boulder music scene that once seemed to her so full of promise. She notes that the live-music venue Brandon's Cafe has had financial difficulties (it was closed for several weeks, but recently reopened on a reduced schedule), and Atlantic Pearl, a Pearl Street eatery near Penny Lane that booked bands, has changed its name to the Barrel House and is now a sports bar. Million isn't bailing out yet. If Vail Partnership doesn't reconsider, he says, he will try to scrape up enough money to open Penny Lane again somewhere else. In the meantime, though, he has his hands full with other matters. "Excuse me," he tells a caller. "Here comes another real estate agent.


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