Thanks to entrepreneur/impresario/engineer Nick Lloyd, Firehouse 12 is no longer New Haven’s best-kept secret

 

When Nick Lloyd was an undergrad at Yale in the mid-‘90s, he thought of the Ninth Square neighborhood as a no-man’s-land. Little did he know that he would build a career, and a life, there.

Lloyd was graduated from Yale College in 1997. After moving to Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he opened a recording studio, Lloyd in 2000 was planning to return to New Haven to pursue graduate studies in music theory at the Yale School of Music. Seeking a place to live, he happened upon a derelict firehouse at 45 Crown Street, half a block from where he had gigged as a keyboardist at Café Nine.

Opened in 1905 and vacant since 1961, the 7,000-square-foot brick structure “was in bad shape,” Lloyd recalls. “The roof leaked, there were squatters living in the basement, people were lighting fires to keep warm in the winter.” But one thing it had going for it was location, location, location — right in the heart of downtown, a stone’s throw from Yale and just a half-block from the (then) newly opened Residences at Ninth Square.

And, it was available. The city was seeking requests for proposals (RFPs) for the property, so Lloyd threw his hat into the ring. The building’s open floor plan was ideal for a recording studio, and the city wanted an owner/occupant who would put the building to a use that engaged the public and enhance pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood.

“So I did a proposal for a [recording] studio that doubled as a performance space,” Lloyd says. In August 2000 the city accepted his proposal and sold him 45 Crown Street for $110,000.

Lloyd spent considerably more than that rehabbing the building, working with the New Haven architecture firm Gray Organschi and general contractor Pat Love of Branford over two years to design the renovation (a 2009 New York Times profile described the former firehouse as “stylishly repurposed”), followed by another 18 months to execute it. A consultant on the recording facility was John Storyk, the famed acoustician and designer responsible for Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village.

Firehouse 12 opened for business in the spring of 2005, some nine months after Lloyd and his wife, artist and philosophy professor Megan Craig, moved into 45 Crown Street’s second-story loft..

Most know Firehouse 12 as a live jazz venue attracting some of the biggest names in the genre from all over the world, but in fact it hosts performances just once a week (two shows on Fridays) across half of the calendar year. While it is a spectacular listening room — seating just 80, with no seat more than 30 feet from the performers — Firehouse 12 is also a recording studio, eponymous record label and, in the basement, a bar.

One factor that has compelled Lloyd to be among the most creative of capitalists is the lack of an existing business on which to model his own. Unlike, say, a dry cleaner or convenience store, Firehouse 12’s four-legged revenue structure — live music venue, bar, recording studio and record label — is, for all practical purposes, unique.

Firehouse 12 Records is a partnership with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, whom Lloyd has known since they were children growing up in Brookline, Mass.

As partners they started big, even brashly, releasing a boxed set that chronicled a New York engagement by the saxophonist, composer and new-music legend Anthony Braxton. That set, 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, which included nine CDs and a DVD, retailed for more than $100. (Braxton was back at Firehouse 12 for a sold-out May 20 gig with a septet that included Bynum.)

Avant-garde jazz is a niche market, and most Firehouse 12 releases (with a few exceptions, such as the Braxton release or last year’s Saturn Sings by guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson) number 1,000 CDs. The margins are slender — Lloyd estimates that, after subtracting 100 CDs given away for promotional purposes, the label clears perhaps $7 per unit on the remaining 900 — a $6,300 gross.

Firehouse 12 may be the only live venue in Connecticut programming avant-garde jazz. “The market [for progressive jazz] is small,” Lloyd acknowledges, “but I think New Haven is the best place [in Connecticut] for a place like this because you have a higher percentage of people with the high level of intellectual curiosity” that this kind of music demands. “If you have an open-minded audience and a really great band — whatever style they’re playing in — that makes for a successful performance,” he explains. No food or beverages are allowed in the performance space — Firehouse 12 is a true listening room. “It’s like a mini-concert hall,” he says.

Lloyd acknowledges that the source of Firehouse 12’s public visibility — live performances — is a “loss leader” subsidized by the recording studio, record label and, above all, the bar. The performance space is surprisingly intimate, seating just 80. With two sets each Friday at an average ticket price of $15, the most Lloyd can gross is $2,400 before factoring in overhead — or of course paying the artists.

At the foundation of Firehouse 12, literally and figuratively, is the bar, which is open five nights weekly and generates something like half of the venue’s revenues. It is the only component of Firehouse 12 that was not in the original plan (Lloyd had to secure a zoning variance before he could open it) but provides a welcome revenue cushion.

While Lloyd says Firehouse 12 is keeping its head above water financially, he allows, “This is not a major money-making operation. It’s really about trying to break even and have it be a positive location in the city and contribute to the cultural vibrancy of New Haven. But it’s not about getting rich. At all.”

 

 A publisher overcomes tragedy to keep her fledgling book company on track

 

 

As “maestra” of Tell Me Press, Lisa Clyde Nielsen views her role as  “sort of the orchestrator.

“I’m pretty good at that in my life and in general at making things happen,” says Nielsen, who in 2006 started the New Haven book publishing company with her late husband, Ian Nielsen.

Formed with the goal of “creating smart, thoughtful and fun books” about music, culture, lifestyle, health and well-being, Tell Me Press has released five titles to date. Another half dozen are slated for publication by the end of 2011 or early 2012, and around a dozen more are in development. 

The venture grew out of the couple’s collective expertise in publishing. Lisa had been a freelance writer and editor since the early 1980s and Ian worked for Little Brown & Co. and the Dushkin Publishing Group, which is where Lisa met him while working on a global studies series.

By 2005, the Nielsens were providing consulting services to people who wanted to publish books, and thinking about starting their own publishing company.

 

“I wanted to make the editorial quality and design quality the best I could, do whatever book I wanted to do and go after books that would sell comfortably that they would cover their costs,” Lisa says.

The couple formed Tell Me Press with several hundred thousand dollars of their own money and a $150,000 bank loan. Ian became publisher, along with managing editor Paula Brisco, art director Linda Loiewski, business manager (“navigator”) Jeff S. Breuler and Jeff Eyrich (“architect”), who is in charge of marketing.

Their first book, Before the Scalpel: What Everyone Should Know about Anesthesia, started to take shape in 2006, when Lisa met Panchali Dhar, a board-certified anesthesiologist and internist, at a Super  Bowl party in New York.

“We edited and helped her with the writing, which took months and months, and developed a layout to try to make it appealing,” recounts Lisa. The book became “very complicated, she adds, with clip art, illustrations and “lots of sidebars.”

Published in January 2009, Before the Scalpel drew praise from health-care professionals, whose comments are posted on the Tell Me Press website (tellmepress.com/index.php).

Meanwhile, more “good ideas” were morphing into books as the fledgling company found a printer, distributor and e-book facilitator and developed its publishing style.

“I would have liked it to be like clockwork, but it was more like a home renovation job,” Lisa says. “We made a lot of missteps.” The pair “wasted a lot of money” figuring out what their website should look like and learned, by trial and error, which marketing tools worked.

Ads in publications such as New York magazine and the Village Voice produced less traction than author interviews on local Connecticut radio programs like The Faith Middleton Show on WNPR radio.

Printing fancy brochures proved costly but ineffectual, so the Nielsens began sending e-mail notifications to specific book buyers and tried to attract the attention of an ever dwindling number of book reviewers with tactics such as sending review copies of a Christine Lavin memoir titled Cold Pizza for Breakfast in pizza boxes.

“We’ve reached that stage where after going though all this research we’re finding different ways to advertise, market and ship the books,” Lisa says. “We’re just getting more streamlined now.

“The difficulty is you have to estimate costs or forecast sales. You of course are hopeful for the best, but it’s a lot of guesswork.”

For each book Tell Me Press assembles a small team including an art director, managing editor, business manager and PR person.

Working mostly on their own and linked by technology, they sometimes meet face-to-face for a meal and brainstorming session.  Authors are an integral part of the process. They don’t get advances but receive “exceptionally good royalties,” according to Lisa, who declines to elaborate.

Lisa also is the “final arbiter” when it come to deciding when a book is finished.

“I rely a lot on advice,” she says. “At the end of the day it is what pleases me and suits the market we’re going for.” 

The launch of Tell Me Press coincided with continued consolidation in the publishing industry and the growing popularity of e-books. “Everything was so much in flux, we were flailing along, just like the big publishers,” Lisa says. On the plus side, printing costs are down because of the recession and printers are more willing to extend credit. 

Over the last two years, the company has released tomes such as Café Tempest: Adventures on a Small Greek Island, a fictional memoir by Barbara Bonfigli; The Smile at the Heart of Things: Essays and Life Stories, by photographer and arts administrator Brian H. Peterson; Cold Pizza for Breakfast: a Mem-wha??, in which folk singer-songwriter Christine Lavin chronicles her life in the music business; and How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This?: Reclaim Your Health with Humor, Creativity and Grit, a collection of essays by singer/songwriter Carla Ulbrich. 

Books in production include New Haven Eats, a look at the Elm City dining scene by J. Scott, and Curiosity with a Capital S, a children’s title by Tonya Trimble with drawings by Ted Enik, an illustrator known for his work on “Eloise” as well as the “Magic School Bus” and “Fancy Nancy” series.

The start-up was beset by tragedy when Ian Nielsen died suddenly on May 28, 2010. 

“I’m lucky enough to have pulled together a great team that kept the company going when I was completely dysfunctional,” Lisa recalls. “Ian loved shepherding authors to book shows and taking care of business stuff that is not my strong suit.”

In his absence, “Jeff [Breuler], Paula and Linda just quietly took things over,” Lisa adds, “and they cared enough about the company to pick up the slack whenever they could and they accepted a lot of responsibility.”

By fall 2010, Lisa says, “I started coming a little bit more alive and at least able to concentrate on more than a paragraph, and could go back to reviewing manuscripts. I knew Paula would be selecting the best editors and Linda would be coming up with the best images, and we would be getting publicity for our authors. I don’t feel like there’s a crushing weight on my shoulders.”

In recent months, more money is “coming into the bank account than leaving,” according to Lisa.

“Now I’m starting to see signs that it might pay off financially,” she says. “That would be nice. I’ve already felt a lot of creative pride in our books. It’s takes a long time to get books into the hands of our intended audience, and the competition is fierce.” 

The biggest challenge, Lisa says, is “keeping the faith, personally. I’ve selected a ceiling for both how much time and money to invest in it. Certainly we will give it our all and see how the next year or two will go.

“A lot of people have a dream about having their own publishing company. It’s the executing that matters. Even if I end up failing, God knows I tried.  I gave it my all.”

 Foundry Music’s Jay Stevens is at the hub of the Elm City’s classical music community

 

 

 Jay Stevens might describe a visit to his Audubon Street business as an excursion through music of the heart.

“Everybody who has been involved in this store, including the staff, have been musicians. We help musicians find what they want,” says Stevens, owner of the Foundry Music Co. The business, he says, is “very rewarding. It’s a great product.”

Located in New Haven’s Audubon arts district, Foundry Music is situated on the second floor of 102 Audubon Street. A steep stair climb is required to get there. It doesn’t matter. Customers — many arriving solo, a few as duets, and even some trios — determinedly mount each step for the opportunity to see and feel the sheet music, books, strings, instructive children‘s games and tuneful knickknacks for which the store is renowned.

“It’s very much like a music library that has all the best music ever written, ever composed, in stock,” said Stevens, who took over the family business in 1990. This is its 36th year of operation.

Its appeal extends beyond the store’s carried items. Red brick walls and a carpeted floor mute outside intrusions, creating a space where customers can blissfully mull over music.

“The brick, windows, natural light make it very nice,” says Stevens. “It’s quiet, too. We don’t blast music. Musicians have the music in their heads.”

A pianist and guitarist, Stevens earned a Yale undergraduate degree in music in 1968, then spent time playing in pop bands in the New England and Los Angeles areas. He also worked as an advertising freelancer before taking over the family business.

“It seemed,” says Stevens, “like a very nice way to make a living.”

Stevens’ mother, Marcia Ennis Stevens, opened Foundry Music in 1975. At that time, the Audubon arts district was in its beginning stages. Having a music store in the district where purchases can be made is “the thing that’s so fantastic” about Foundry, says Alderwoman Frances T. (Bitsie) Clark (D-7), a longtime Arts Council of Greater New Haven executive director.

“It’s located next to Neighborhood Music School. It’s also walking distance to Hendrie Hall [where Yale music students rehearse]. So not only did you have little kids buying piano and violin music, but Yale students bought their music here, too,” notes Clark. “This place existed on sheet music, and that’s remarkable. And, it’s on the second floor.”

“We’re kind of tucked away,” says Stevens. “A lot of times people pass by us and don’t even know we’re here. It would be difficult for us to survive if not for our location [in the arts district]."

The store’s homey atmosphere evokes a visit to a well-kept attic, where rows of timeless classical pieces and the latest pop music anthologies snuggle together in the intimate, 1,000-square-foot space. Interspersed are Broadway, jazz, choral and other works conveniently arranged according to composer. Textbooks for Yale music courses also are available, as are composer biographies and specialty music, such as folk, Latin American and Civil War songs.

And if customers don’t see what they want, they can just ask for it, says Stevens. The store has access to computer software that can locate out-of-stock and hard-to-find items.

Stevens credits the store’s computer system with helping usher Foundry Music into the 21st century and keeping it viable as a market niche.

“We’re a very old-fashioned business these days,” says Stevens, whose first order of business after taking over the company was computer logging every item of the inventory.

“I knew that we had to computerize our inventory. That was a big job. We had 30,000 items,” he says. “It was hard. It took close to two years — but it was worth it.”

So now, when a customer like Hamden resident Kathrin Lassila comes in looking to purchase a book on Bach, but can’t quite remember the title, Foundry Music staff member Ron Baldwin (one of three employees) can type in a few descriptive words and figure out exactly what she’s looking for and determine if it’s in stock.

“The database shows all the things that are being published. We kind of pride ourselves on being able to get anything published within a week’s time,” said Stevens. The store has always been customer-friendly, but the trait is especially valued in an era when customers can make purchases via the Internet.

“We give total service. We also have extra respect for customers because they’re musicians,” said Stevens, adding, “It’s a challenge to keep us going. We’re not making huge amounts of money, but we’re staying afloat. We want to continue to survive.”

Many walk-in sheet music stores — New York City’s venerable Joseph Patelson Music House among them — have closed, bowing out to the growing trend of online purchases. But for those who want to browse through music, compare editions or discover an unknown gem, Foundry Music still offers that special brand of hands-on service.

“People appreciate local stores, but sometimes forget the local stores need their business in order to survive. It’s so easy to use us and get the same product you get from the Internet,” says Stevens. “We’re very interested and very appreciative of school business because the big orders are what keep us going. On the other hand, we work just as hard for a $2 sale.”

“I love the store. My whole family takes lessons at Neighborhood Music School,” says Lassila, a violinist who likes not only the music and books, but also the “attractive musical accessories” the store offers.

Georgia Chu of Madison routinely purchases strings for her cello, among other items. She patronizes the store, she says, because “the people here are wonderful. They’re nice, and very helpful.”