Column 235: Smoke-free turns 1; Sweet Pea, Boy Noises, Honey/Darling tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:26 pm August 26, 2009

Along with spotting the first robin, another sign of spring is when O’Leaver’s disassembles its smoking hut (while its construction, sadly, symbolizes the onset of the long winter ahead).

Column 235: Smoke and Mirrors
You won’t smell me later…

It dawned on me as I was driving home from the Box Elders show or the Eagle*Seagull show or the Matt Whipkey show or any of the other 200 or so shows that I’ve seen since last summer that I don’t miss all that smoke in the bars.

I don’t miss coming home smelling like a wet cat dunked into a wine barrel filled with nicotine. I don’t miss having to strip off my clothes and place them in a smoldering pile on the bathroom floor, the smoke residue nearly visible like anger lines coming off a comic-book character’s forehead. I don’t miss having to wear my “smoking coat” to the club in the wintertime — an old brown parka specifically dedicated to nights out, segregated from my other coats and clothes as to prevent infecting them with cig-stink.

I’ve thrown out the smoking parka. I don’t need it anymore.

It’s been over a year since the smoking ban went into effect in Omaha. When the hammer dropped in mid-June 2008, a gnashing of teeth was heard from the smokers along with a wave of warnings that the ban would result in systematically shutting down bars throughout the city.

They said that smokers would stay home and drink in their kitchens in front of their black-and-white TV sets, a mountain of butts ever-growing in their Bakelite ashtrays.

But a year has passed and all the smoking bars that were open back then still are today. People still file out of The Waiting Room between bands, cluttering up the sidewalk along Maple Street like halftime at a Philip Morris convention. And while it’s true that the crowds at shows seem smaller these days, it may have more to do with our 21st Century Great Depression than a smoking restriction.

Marc Leibowitz, who runs The Waiting Room with business partner Jim Johnson, said it’s hard to tell if the smoking ban affected their business. “I think it affects business, but not as (much) as it does non-music venues,” he said.

For clubs like O’Leaver’s, the solution was to create outdoor “beer gardens” that are little more than smoking porches. Drive by O’Leaver’s on a show night and you’ll see them packed into the wrought-iron enclosure like a herd of smoking cattle.

As winter began to encroach last year, the carpentry staff at O’Leaver’s built a hand-made Quonset hut out of plywood that had about as much charm as a cooler in a Nazi prison camp. Inside, people huddled like weary GIs around a tall chrome space heater, the butts shivering between their lips.

The Sydney in Benson followed O’Leaver’s lead and just finished building its own “beer garden” behind the bar. They’re waiting for the city to give the final OK before it can open. The ban was in full effect when The Sydney opened for business this past January, said bar owner Jamie Massey, so he couldn’t say if it impacted his business. “I think if people are going to smoke, going outside isn’t a deal breaker if you want to get a drink,” he said.

So, was all the doom talk about the ban crippling the bar business nothing more than smoke and mirrors? Not so, said Trey Lalley, the owner/operator of Omaha’s best non-live-music rock bar, The Brother’s Lounge at 38th and Farnam. “I know business is down everywhere and that there are bigger factors in play,” he said. “but as far as my business goes, the smoking ban has impacted it.”

Lalley said when the ban first went into effect, people didn’t mind going outside for a smoke. “Now they’re going other places,” he said. “They’re not coming here. I’ve had people tell me they’re going where there’s a beer garden.”

Like The Waiting Room, The Brothers doesn’t have anywhere to build a beer garden. “The only thing we could do is float a hot-air balloon above the bar,” Lalley said.

But it’s more than just fewer patrons. On a busy night, Lalley said 35 to 40 people are standing outside The Brothers smoking… without a drink in their hands. “Those people used to be inside, drinking,” he said. “So we may be as busy, but they’re not spending as much.”

Trey said he won’t know the ban’s true impact for a few more years. “We just have to embrace the people we still have,” he said. “It’s not devastating, it’s just a little hiccup. We just have to work through it.”

As for the ban’s benefit: “I feel great,” he said. “I’m going to live longer, but I’m going to have to work all those extra years to make up for the lost business.”

Playing tonight at O’Leaver’s is some of the best and brightest new talent on the Omaha indie-rock scene: Sweet Pea, Boy Noises and Honey & Darling. This had been rumored to be Boy Noises’ last show ever, but I see that the band is scheduled to play at The Waiting Room Sept. 12, opening for Broken Spindles and Pharmacy Spirits. Go ahead and check them out tonight for only $5. Show starts at 9:30 p.m.

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