Gregory Prout was looking nervous. The Ché Café was having a busy Tuesday night—more than 150 people showed up to see Weatherbox, Snuffaluffagus and other indie-rock bands, and the venue was seriously understaffed. Another volunteer was supposed to show up but got sick and canceled, leaving Prout to run the place by himself.
But Prout, a reserved 26-year-old who's among the Ché's core volunteers, has gotten used to this sort of thing. When a handful of concertgoers showed up early and offered to help, he set a few of them up at the table at the entrance to take tickets. The other two he dispatched to the kitchen to run the coffee machine.
“When I get volunteers, it's very hit-and-miss whether or not I have them,” he said later. “During the holiday season, people kind of take off.”
Scraping by on a shoestring budget, the Ché Café Collective, the all-volunteer group that runs the venue, is struggling to raise $12,000 for insurance fees. If it can't come up with the money by March, the beloved all-ages venue will have to stop hosting shows.
Friends of the Ché have raised more than $6,000, Prout says, mostly through benefit shows and the website checafe benefit.tumblr.com. This weekend, the Ché will host the I Promise Fest, a three-day benefit featuring 23 bands, including L.A. noise-rock acts No Age and Health. Prout, who manages the venue's finances, hopes to raise enough money to pull the Ché out of its financial lurch.
“I really don't want to have to keep doing this at all,” he says. “I hate essentially begging for money from people.”
Located in a grove of eucalyptus trees on the UCSD campus, the Ché has been a haunt for vegan anarchists, hardcore punks and underage music fans for more than 30 years. Billy Corgan and Bon Iver have performed there, but so have countless obscure indie bands playing live for the first time. David Barclay, a former volunteer who recently moved out of the state, first heard about the Ché as a high-school student in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
“Up here, all-ages shows happened at rental spaces,” he says. “It sucks because you have to finish by 11, because of noise. You have to pay for the space, you have to rent a sound system—all this stuff. And people would always talk about this place in San Diego, the Ché... how rad it was.”
Opened as a student co-op in 1980, the Ché has faced the threat of closure before, partly over conflicts with university administrators who've been hostile to its radical politics (the venue is named after Ché Guevara, though the name also means “Cheap, Healthy Eats”). But a revolving crew of volunteers has kept the venue afloat. Today, a core group of about half a dozen runs the events, maintains the property and safeguards its anti-corporate, do-it-yourself principles.
The Ché's current troubles date back to 2005 and 2006, when many collective members moved to new cities or otherwise stopped volunteering. The few remaining volunteers didn't have much experience, Prout and Barclay say, and the venue's insurance provider eventually dropped it for delinquent payments. In 2008, the Ché closed down for several months while Barclay searched for a new insurance provider. The plan he got, from an out-of-state company, had higher rates and required fees in one lump sum, instead of in multiple payments.
Volunteers have kept the Ché running partly by fronting money to cover the costs of fees and supplies, but it's suffered several major setbacks. About $5,000 in equipment was stolen from the venue in 2009. Its UCSD-hosted website crashed last year, contributing to low turnouts at shows.
Also, some worry that 21-and-up concertgoers have lost interest in the Ché, since it's a relatively long drive to the UCSD campus and alcohol is prohibited.
“I think it got to the point where maybe it got taken for granted,” says Cory Stier, a promoter and musician. “All the kids that went here five years ago probably aren't going here anymore. They grew up; they moved to bars.”
At the show on Tuesday night, though, it was clear that the Ché's many friends will fight to keep the venue alive. Most of the bands onstage had been playing there for years, and some of their members have been integral to the fund-raising efforts. At the ticket table, the newly deputized doormen—also regulars at the venue—were happy to do their part.
“It's just the most beautiful physical representation of DIY ethos that there is,” said one of them, Dan Faughnder, a young musician who's making a book of poetry and testimonials about the Ché for the fund-raiser. “We just showed up early, on accident, and then we started doing tickets. It doesn't get any more do-it-yourself-y than that.”