Local Treasure: Club Passim
Before Anaïs Mitchell can take the stage, Matt Smith, manager of Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes the mic and starts talking about chairs. They’re uncomfortable, he says, and the 125 people crowded into the tiny basement room nod back in agreement. Comfier ones cost money, though, so a little later Matt passes the hat, reminding everyone, “We’re a nonprofit, not just a club that doesn’t make money.”
Outside, the feet of people walking through Harvard Square are visible through the narrow windows. A decade ago, Anaïs would peer through them and watch concerts she couldn’t afford to attend. Now she’s headlining. Years before her, Patty Larkin did the same thing, and before her, Joan Baez got her start at Passim’s first incarnation, Club 47 on Mount Auburn Street.
For all its tight quarters and stiff chairs, Passim is a legendary venue, and people still flock here to be a part of its history. Audiences enjoy the intimate concerts; artists love the quiet, attentive crowd that always seems to “get it.” The sense of community at the heart of folk music is thick in the room, and that community is the only reason the club survives.
During the club’s 50th anniversary year in 2008, Passim almost went under, loaded down with debt, with just $14 left in the bank by early 2009. But people decided it was worth saving. Donors and management stuck with it, the landlord (Harvard University) forgave two months’ rent, and the crowds kept coming. Passim has since trimmed down to a leaner business model, but its core is still intact. The music school that club management runs out of its office on Church Street is flourishing, and Passim still hosts around 400 concerts a year.
Dan Hogan, Passim’s executive director, sums up the club this way: “What we are is an intimate listening experience that’s part of a community.” The crowd seems to agree. By the time the hat makes it back to the stage, it’s filled with enough crumpled bills to replace at least one more chair, making the room that much comfier for the next generation of patrons and performers who’ll fill this basement with music.