Nothing in Commonspace

A two-year cultural experiment comes to an end

For its swan song, the Commonspace featured an installment of "Free Candy," an untelevised pseudo-talk show. While twenty audience members sucked on Sugar Daddies, co-hosts Julia Smillie and Amanda Doyle debated who was the bigger dork in high school.

"I don't know what the theme of my senior prom was," Doyle bragged. "I didn't attend because it was the same weekend as the state yearbook convention."

"I was in the French Club because we got to go out to a French restaurant once a year," countered Smillie.

By a show of applause the audience opined that the 32-year-old Doyle was in fact the bigger dork. Her prize? Nothing, just a round of applause and the admiration of her peers.

Which, come to think of it, was about as much thanks as she got for co-founding the Commonspace with her husband, Brian Marston, two years ago.

A 2,100-square-foot haunt on North Grand Boulevard just off Washington that served as, at varying times, a concert hall, a breakdancing floor and a meeting place for a swingers' club, the Commonspace was a two-year cultural experiment.

"It's been sort of our gift to St. Louis for the last few years," says Marston, who's 31. "It was a really hard decision, but it's nice to go out on a high note. We've had a nice run here at the end. We still love doing it; we haven't gotten bitter about it. We're just ready to focus on doing some other things."

Though Doyle and Marston plan to continue sponsoring occasional events at other locations, they're looking to focus their energies on, the nearly four-year-old virtual space that spawned the shorter-lived literal space. They also want to have kids, and to renovate their house in Tower Grove Heights.

Still, had their collaboration with People's Coffee worked out, the Commonspace might have lasted longer.

In May 2003, the locally owned coffee shop, which also operates a branch in the Carnahan Courthouse on Market Street downtown, opened a stand inside the Commonspace, agreeing to share rent and expenses. In August the shop closed.

"They weren't making it financially," says Marston. "We were their landlords, basically, and they owed us over $5,000. They still owe us $4,300. It was best for both of us for them to move on, so they could cut their losses, and we could look for other vendors."

Lynn Josse, who co-owns People's Coffee along with her brother Scott Josse, doesn't dispute the debt. But she recalls the circumstances of their parting with the Commonspace differently.

Marston and Doyle, she says, made unrealistic demands on the coffee house's operating hours: "We wanted to cut out the unprofitable evening hours -- that was the only way we could stay open and continue to pay them back. They asked us to leave instead."

After People's Coffee was gone, Marston contacted a number of other potential vendors, with no success. So he and Doyle decided to throw in the towel.

Besides the coffee shop's monthly ante and a few sizable donations from outside sources, the Commonspace generated revenue via a membership program. In exchange for $52 a year, 150 or so members received a discount on admission to events, plus posting privileges on the online forum. The Commonspace also kept a 30 percent cut from art openings it hosted. For the most part, however, Marston and Doyle bankrolled the venture, aided by a deal for discounted rent from the nonprofit development organization Grand Center. (At $1,000 per month, rent on the Commonspace was perhaps half the going rate in the neighborhood.) Vincent Schoemehl Jr., Grand Center's president, did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.

Doyle works as associate editor of Where Magazine, the couple owns rental property and Marston does some freelance Internet-programming work. The couple's Commonspace nest egg also drew on savings Marston set aside while working as a web developer for in 2001 and '02. But hosting two or three events a week -- from Bad Movie Night and author appearances to hip-hop events -- took a toll. "It takes an awful lot of time to plan an event, promote it and be there for the setup and the breakdown," Marston notes.

Other local venues that operate on a shoestring budget -- Fort Gondo and the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in south St. Louis, for example -- subsist on a combination of committed volunteers and sheer will. The Commonspace never quite managed to pull that off, though.

"You need a lot of time and people who want to manage grant-getting," Doyle explains. "And we thought about it. But it wasn't something we ever felt like devoting a lot of time to. We had a few core volunteers that helped us out with things, but I guess the blessing and the curse of wanting to do something yourself and having a pretty strong vision about it is that it's just easier to keep that within your control."

For those who bemoan the death of the Commonspace's space, Marston has one piece of advice: Don't cry.

"I think in St. Louis, more so than other communities, people seem to have a really hard time letting go of things. It goes beyond a healthy sense of tenacity to this desperate clinging to the past, out of this fear that nothing better will come along. I hate to see it go, but I'm not worried that this will be the last good thing I do for St. Louis. There will be things that come after us. I have a million different things I want to try out."