"I never intended Radio Bean to be a full-on music venue."
That statement from Radio Bean proprietor and local arts sparkplug Lee Anderson may come as a surprise — especially to those who know the tiny coffee shop on Burlington’s North Winooski Avenue as a music-centric, mostly free nightspot. Over the last 10 years, the Bean has become an uncommonly vibrant music venue. It’s a launching pad for new local acts, a refuge for misfit artists other venues won’t touch and a de facto home base for practically an entire music scene. That, however, was not the original plan.
“The idea was to create a place for revolutionary intellectual activity to happen, and for people to have a place to come up with social missions,” says Anderson, 32, who credits Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as the philosophical foundation for the café.
“I wanted to find the most disobedient thing I could do,” he continues, citing his growing disillusionment with an antagonistic political climate that’s rooted more in anger than ideas. “The best way I could think of to do that was to create a place where people could share ideas and be a community.”
Since opening its doors on November 4, 2000, the diminutive haunt has infused its ethos into the lifeblood of Burlington’s underground music scene, becoming the unlikely epicenter of the city’s artistic subcultures. If it’s not necessarily what Anderson had in mind, Radio Bean has nonetheless become exactly what he dreamed it could be. Therein lies the crux of Lee Anderson’s accidental genius.
Anderson grew up in Minnesota and moved to Vermont on a whim in 1996. Up late one night, shortly after graduating from high school, he was watching VH1 when revelation struck — in the form of a video for grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog’s song “Hunger Strike.”
“I was, like, ‘I gotta get the fuck out of Minnesota,’” says Anderson, describing his Eddie Vedder-induced epiphany.
He settled on Vermont, a state he had never visited and knew almost nothing about. “I had never been east of Wisconsin,” he says.
Anderson persuaded a friend to drop out of college and make the trip with him, packed up his few belongings, and headed east — after dialing 1-800-VERMONT to get the lowdown on his new home state.
He landed in Ludlow and started working odd jobs at Okemo Mountain Resort. Anderson spent two years living in Ludlow on and off, but he and the ski town never quite took to each other.
“People kept telling me I had to go to Burlington,” he recalls. But the Queen City proved elusive, at least at first.
“I would drive to Burlington on the weekends and get off I-89 and be dumped onto Shelburne Road,” Anderson says. He recalls driving up and down Route 7, never realizing the city he would soon call home was a mere mile to the north. He grew increasingly discouraged.
“I was, like, ‘Why would anyone tell me to move here? This place sucks,’” he remembers. “I was convinced that Burlington had nothing for me.”
Shortly thereafter, Anderson enrolled as a continuing-education student at the University of Vermont and finally “found” Burlington. Sort of.
“I still didn’t realize Church Street was right there,” he recalls. Though he often ate inexpensive dinners at Ruben James, mere steps away on Main Street, he never ventured past what was then Church’s paved lower block. “I’d eat veggie tacos, drink beer until I was drunk enough to go sleep in my car, and had still never been up the street.”
Needing a dwelling — ideally, one without wheels — Anderson began apartment hunting. He found a cute, crayon-drawn flyer advertising a room on a UVM message board. After making plans to meet his prospective roommate, local songwriter Caroline O’Connor, at a party that night, Anderson ran all over campus tearing down the other flyers.
“She never got another call about the room,” he says, grinning.
Anderson and O’Connor hit it off immediately. They dated for the next four years, most of that time living together in a small apartment above what eventually became Radio Bean.
When Anderson was about to start his third semester at UVM, the school informed him he would need to begin paying the considerably higher out-of-state tuition. Having lived in Vermont for three years, Anderson appealed the decision. A few days later, he got a letter announcing his appeal had been denied.
Anderson had no intention of going into debt to pay for college. Walking home that afternoon from the post office, letter from UVM in hand, he noticed a “For Rent” sign in the window of 8 North Winooski Avenue, formerly home to café Java Love.
Anderson stopped to look in the window and daydreamed about possibilities. The next day he called the landlord. He signed a lease a month later.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he confesses now.
With no credit history or collateral, Anderson was unable to secure a loan. So he applied for dozens of credit cards at once and maxed them out to buy equipment, $45,000 in total. “But nine months and two days from the time I first said, ‘Radio Bean,’ I opened the doors,” he says.
Audrey Ryan was his first customer; the first dollar she spent still hangs in a frame above the bar. Writing from Ireland, where she’s on tour, Ryan, a successful singer-songwriter now based in Boston, recalls thinking Anderson was completely nuts.
“Muddy Waters and Uncommon Grounds and the other places in town seemed to have cornered what market we thought there was,” she writes. “But he had a vision.”
He did. Even if it wasn’t especially clear at the start, least of all to Anderson himself. The two customers who followed Ryan came away from their Radio Bean experiences unimpressed.
“You’re never gonna make it,” Anderson recalls one patron saying. When he asked why, Anderson was told his café was too “segmented,” and “people want to come to places where they can meet people.”
“That was obviously the opposite of what I was going for,” Anderson quips, chuckling.
Of course, that prickly observation proved groundless: Radio Bean is now a social and cultural hub. “Segmented” or not, it was flexible enough to undergo several physical evolutions, beginning with the construction of a stage that was soon filled nightly with an unpredictable assortment of artists. More recently, Anderson expanded Radio Bean into an adjoining space and opened a sister restaurant, ¡Duino! (Duende).
A number of satellite endeavors have orbited the Bean, as well, including Anderson’s short-lived alternative performance theater Gezellig and, most notably, low-power FM community radio station the Radiator. The latter was part of Anderson’s original concept for Radio Bean — hence the name. He’d planned for it to broadcast from the shop itself, not its current home in the Big Heavy World office on College Street.
But the most significant changes in the Bean have been more subtle and less tangible. It was a philosophical shift in Anderson’s own mind that allowed the coffee shop to assume its current place in the Burlington arts community, he says.
“Opening myself up to being less judgmental and giving people a shot was really important,” Anderson explains. While he had a loose idea of what he wanted the Bean’s identity to be, he was more certain about the things he didn’t want it to become. Early on, Anderson says, he guarded against those tendencies fiercely, sometimes to the detriment of the business. Indeed, the café still fights a perception as a haven for hipper-than-thou snobbery, which Anderson blames himself for fostering, albeit not intentionally.
“I look at my old journals and shake my head,” he says. “How could I have been such a dick?”
Several years ago, Anderson had a transformative moment following a violent altercation outside the café in which he was involved, stemming from a love feud. After throwing a punch at a good friend, Anderson turned and walked away. In a subsequent dream, he was led back to the scene and relived the entire incident.
“It radiated through me in the dream that that moment was Pandora’s box,” he says. “But it wasn’t when I punched him in the face that opened the box; it was when I turned and walked away.”
Anderson points to that revelation as the moment when both he and Radio Bean changed, and the café blossomed into its present shape. He notes that business increased significantly, and that people who’d previously felt uncomfortable with the Bean’s elitist vibe began returning.
“Radio Bean took a huge turn at that point,” he says. “We’re still accused of being cliquey. But, in my opinion, that’s radically changed from what it was those first five years.”
Amanda Gustafson is the keyboardist and vocalist for Burlington rock band Swale. That band played its first show at Radio Bean nine years ago, even though, Gustafson concedes, they “really weren’t ready.”
“The Radio Bean is a work in progress,” she says. “It’s authentically growing and changing all the time. And that kind of creative spirit is very welcoming and inviting to everyone that goes there, not just musicians.”
Keyboardist Shane Hardiman has played a weekly jazz session at Radio Bean every Thursday night for the past seven years and worked there as a barista for the past three. He’s experienced that growth on both sides of the stage, and both sides of the bar.
“There are new faces all the time,” he says. “But it’s the kind of place that, when people do feel comfortable, they choose to spend a lot of their time here.”
“Half of the great things that have happened in my life happened because Lee is here,” says Gustafson, who met her husband, Swale guitarist Eric Olsen, at defunct Burlington venue Club Toast. But Radio Bean, she says, “is where we found each other.”
“Lee has an ethic,” Gustafson says. “But it’s an anti-ethic. His vibe is to let things be and happen in the natural way they’re supposed to be. Things grow. Things break. People are awesome. People suck. We move on. Anyone that’s been doing any creative venture knows that that’s the deal.
“You’re not awesome forever, and you don’t just keep getting better,” Gustafson says. “It’s a bumpy road. But you keep doing it, and that’s where you find that vitality. Radio Bean is a living metaphor for that creative process.”
The Radio Bean Birthday Bash is Saturday, November 6, and, as always, music will be playing from 8 a.m. to closing. Free.
More than exposed bricks and eclectic décor, Radio Bean is about the community that surrounds it. To convey what it means to that community, here’s a selection of thoughts, musings and stories from people who call or have called it home.
Graham Keegan, Formerly of Tick Tick
A revelation poured over me while hearing, seeing, smelling and feeling the presence of the sardined Radio Bean crowd going absolutely apeshit to Joey Pizza Slice’s second performance of “Complex Man” in one set. He was doubled over, screaming, “I’m just a commmplex maaaaan, don’t try to figgure me oooout!” — newly returned from his rehabilitation in New Jersey after being hit by a truck. I realized this: Like Joey, life is complex; don’t try to figure it out, just love it now, while you can. And great music makes that easy.
Jonny Adler, co-owner of the Skinny Pancake, Burlington and Montpelier
I met my girlfriend of three-plus years there because we were crammed into the same booth at Honky Tonk Tuesday. I have not forgiven Lee for heartlessly removing the booth to make room for ¡Duino! (Duende). But the point is, it might be intimidating from the outside, but once you get in there on a crowded night, you will make friends.
Where else can you be surprised on a Tuesday night when someone like Eugene Hütz, Mike Gordon, Béla Fleck or Grace Potter sits in, playing honky-tonk music with local legends that sound good enough to hardly need people like that, anyway? Lee started the Bean entirely on a credit card and bootstrapped the recent expansion with help from friends. There is perhaps no restaurant, coffee shop or bar in Burlington that has made so much out of so little.
Jim Lockridge, Big Heavy World
Lee and the Bean have always had an outlook toward life that I wish everyone had — encompassing expression in all its forms, respectful of what’s real, gentle in spirit, and aggressive in inquisitiveness and acceptance and, best of all, inviting the human spirit to be at its fullest in the home he built for it.
Rebecca Kopycinski, Nuda Veritas
I played my first show ever at Radio Bean. It was August 27, 2006. I remember meditating before, thinking, I have done all I can to prepare for this show. I’m gonna let it fly, and either people will like it or they won’t. I completely and totally blocked out the room. At the end of the set, I opened my eyes, looked around the room and found that it was packed with people, all staring at me with mouths slightly agape. I guess I played OK. My boyfriend at the time told me that people walking by were stopping dead in their tracks and coming in to see what was going on. Since then, I’ve played at Radio Bean countless times. I’ve always appreciated it as a place where people actually stop and listen. A fine place to play music, though I wish they would bring back the whole drink-free-while-you-play thing — some of us can drink way more than a drink or two.
Peg Tassey, the Kissing Circle
I had stopped playing music for a few years after my daughter was born. And then came a divorce from my Velvet Ovum bandmate/husband in 2000. I was a little afraid to venture out alone, just me and my guitar, fearing that people wouldn’t like my music without the big rock-band sound that my band had been known for. I saw a hand-drawn ad for the Radio Bean in Seven Days that (presumably) someone had drawn on a napkin while at the Bean. I knew nothing of the place, but loved the feeling behind the different “napkin ads” I’d seen. Just torn and photocopied. I looked up the phone number and asked Lee if I could do a “secret show,” no poster, no newspaper ad or listing. No pressure. I found the place, set up two chairs to stand on in the window in order to be seen and heard above the heads of the full-house crowd. Much to my surprise and gratitude, they listened. They clapped, and they listened to me and my acoustic guitar and my naked songs. That night I met “red-headed Gerry.” He introduced me to David Symons of esteemed Burlington accordion fame, and the Kissing Circle was born. The cellist from that band, Indigo Ruth-Davis, and I are now raising my daughter happily together and living on a pond in our house in Calais! That night really did change my life.
Joshua Panda, the Joshua Panda Band
In my experience, the Radio Bean has proven to be the hub for musicians in Vermont. Almost every musician I’ve met and currently play with, I met there first. Given the eclectic vibe of the place, I imagine that the Radio Bean is what it looks like inside Lee Anderson’s heart.
Sharon Deitz Caroli, owner of the Bee’s Knees, Morrisville
Before I opened The Bee’s Knees, I went and chatted with Lee to get an idea about some things to think about and, you know, the basic I’ve-never-done-this-before-but-we’re-kind-of-imagining-a-Radio-Bean-thing-in-a-smaller-community-environment. Lee was great and inspiring and open to answering even the most basic questions. I’ve always thought of Lee to be much cooler and hipper than me — and his space reflects that. He is a visionary.
Tiffany Pfeiffer, Tiffany Pfeiffer and the Discarnate Band
Assorted boomboxes hanging from the ceiling, people sitting on the floor or standing shoulder to shoulder for the love of music and coffee — when I first happened upon Radio Bean, I was taken back to teenage life in Omaha. Coffee shops were replete with mismatched chairs, card games and live jazz. Lee’s done an amazing job at providing that authentic creative space, devoid of cultural norms. It’s that other-dimensional feeling that Burlington and every city needs.
Ari Diaconis, local musician
Geza Carr, who used to play with Nick Cassarino and Anthony Santor every Thursday, was out of town one week. Santor asked me to fill in. My three congas were going to replace Carr’s entire drum set — not to mention Carr’s talent. I’m sure everyone was anticipating a weak performance; I certainly was. But 15 minutes into the thing, there was a 20-person line out the door; the place was dripping sweat from the ceiling. Cassarino said it was one of the best gigs he’d ever played at the Bean — and he’d played hundreds. I’ve since played shows for thousands of people; I’ve played spots like the Blue Note Jazz Club, I’ve recorded albums, etc. Nothing has ever been better than that night at the Bean. That night represents a feeling I’m always trying to get back. It was complete abandonment: abandonment of musical formality and structure, abandonment of my girlfriend, my aspirations, my future, my cigarette habit, my other habits, rent; abandonment of everything except the moment. It wasn’t my skill as a musician that made that night at the Bean what it was. It wasn’t Santor’s skill, either, nor was it Cassarino’s — well, maybe Cassarino’s … It was the inherent drive of that place; it was the chance at excellence that the Bean offers.
Brett Hughes, host of Radio Bean’s Honky Tonk Tuesday
Radio Bean has, from the start, been a uniquely creative incubator, and the cradle of Burlington’s alternative music scene. There are no other venues in town that support such an incredible diversity of performances and performers, and most of those venues wouldn’t touch some of the oddball offerings that have played on the Bean’s stage.