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Ed Said:
Ramblings About Music, Arts, and Entertainment

The Wire’s Demise:
Selling a Community Piece By Piece

by Ed Yashinsky

Thursday, July 20, was a rough day in New Cumberland — especially for Jim Howie. As the owner of The Wire, Howie had to endure the repeated selling of his soul for nickels on the dollar. It was just as tough on numerous people who showed up to offer support to, help with, or participate in the auction of The Wire — since many in attendance were regular customers of the little coffeehouse that could.

But sometime after 7:20 p.m. the final nail was put in the coffin of The Wire. The writing was on the wall of The Wire for months (Howie had publicly searched in vain for an investor), but in the early evening hours on a cool summer evening it all came to a screeching halt.

Arriving around 5:30 p.m., I picked around a few boxes, but purposely avoided Howie. I’d always loved talking music with him and writing about the great shows he would bring into town, but what do you say on a day like this? "Hey Jim, how’s it going?" just doesn’t fly when everything is being sold out from under someone. And this was about much more than losing a pile of crappy furniture, speaker cabinets, spotlights and some coffee machines.

So I plopped down in a seat (just about the same place I sat to watch Freedy Johnston in the Spring of 1999), and watched Howie’s heart get ripped out. The shabby space now inhabited by piles of boxes was identical to the shabby space where I watched dozens of shows, but The Wire was no longer breathing.

Truth be told, The Wire had an uphill fight from the day its doors opened. Going out in Central Pennsylvania (at least for those of age) is associated with drinking. The Wire did not offer alcohol, so that was strike one. The second strike involved The Wire’s initial audience — high school students. While the students relished a place to hang out other than the mall, a lot of older patrons avoided the scene because of the kids. And when The Wire regularly started offering top-flight shows that would attract an older audience, many stayed away because of the room’s early reputation. The third strike came from the Central Pennsylvania music scene at large. Local bands were happy to play The Wire, but rarely did these same musicians frequent The Wire when they weren’t performing.

However, through those long odds, at least for a while, The Wire thrived, landing on their own some great bands (like The Nields), and siphoning numerous performers — Freedy Johnston, Dan Bern, Jonatha Brooke, Iris Dement, Patty Griffin — from WXPN and their appearances in Philadelphia. But as the achievements continued to mount for The Wire, the crowds did not sustain the smaller shows. Perhaps The Wire could have helped itself more with a more active mailing list and a bit more self-promotion, but in the end, the cool little coffeehouse on Fourth Street just ran out of steam and went into a long hiatus until the July 20 sale.

While Howie has lost The Wire, he continues to book shows at Whitaker Center and Pete’s Café. But those venues will not fill The Wire’s void. Whitaker Center will be able to bring in high-profile acts like Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, and others, but there are tons of other great bands that will never be able to fill that space; The Wire was made for these bands and the 50-75 hardcore fans that always showed up for love of music more than love of booze.

The Wire has already been leased, and The Groove (The Wire’s sister business specializing in CDs and Records) space is already operating with a quick-print office — neither of which will serve a social role in the community.

Howie one time jokingly told me that New Cumberland was the Georgetown of Harrisburg. Even though he laughed after he said it, in his mind he wanted The Wire to become the cornerstone of a thriving scene that would attract people of all ages to bars, restaurants, shops, and music clubs. He wanted to look back ten years from now and see a nice little stretch where people came to spend the evening, enjoying funky little shops, neighborhood bars and great original music clubs.

On July 20, that all came to an end.

God speed, Jim Howie, and good luck with your future endeavors.

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