Ten years ago, David Taylor walked into a sparse building on the 1500 block of Church Street. With his business partner, Keith Blaydes, in tow, he strode through the vacant, warehouse-like structure to size up their investment in what Taylor describes as an "empty shell" located on the western cusp of downtown Nashville.
To hear Taylor, 48, reminisce, there wasn't much within the building or without that would hint at how this former Rent-A-Center would one day transform into Tribe, Nashville's premiere gay bar. Indeed, despite its initially humble environs, Tribe has become a veritable anchor for the emergent LGBT-friendly businesses now populating the city's de facto gay district a mere decade later.
But way back in 2002, the space — now the home of Tribe as well as successful spin-offs like the dance-centric Play and chef Arnold Myint's Asian-fusion restaurant Suzy Wong's House of Yum — bore more similarities to neighboring parcels of aging light industry than the nexus for Music City's alternative nightlife scene it would ultimately become. Taylor, a former managerial consultant for colleges and universities, and Blaydes, a textile purchaser for clothier Vanity Fair Brands, had virtually no experience running the kind of business they intended to open.
"We really didn't have the hospitality experience, and that really is only important in the [construction] build-out because I think we built out the place at a higher level than we probably would have," says Taylor, whose partner, Michael Ward of Allard Ward Architects LLC, helmed the Rent-A-Center's conversion. "It worked with our numbers, and the result is that, 10 years later, the bones of the place are still in pretty good shape."
With the ink still drying on its first liquor license, Tribe opened amid what co-founder Taylor calls "healthy chaos."
"The back bar hadn't been built, that was a week late, and so we had all of our liquor on a card table," Taylor says, laughing. "It was almost ready, but not quite."
Taylor recalls that shortly after their not-so-soft opening, Out & About newspaper dubbed Tribe's 'hood as "Nashville's Gay District" — a designation that both surprised and pleased them.
"There was a gay bar, and a bookstore, and then when we came along as the second [gay bar], then they said three make a district," Taylor says.
A couple years into operation, Tribe hired Todd Roman and Joe Brown, both of pioneering Music City dance bar The Connection Nashville, to augment the hospitality angle, thus rounding out Tribe's core brain trust.
In time, the culture of Nashville's gay district — and the city's attitude toward such a district — began to change. Prior to Tribe, gay bars on Church Street and beyond were little-advertised watering holes known only by their numbered address or a nickname rarely found in the local Yellow Pages. Even The World's End — a now-defunct Church Street gay bar that Taylor and company credit as an inspiration — suffered from a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of its own.
"We have 75 feet of glass storefront. The World's End up the street had 25 feet of glass storefront, but it was all painted black. You couldn't see in," Taylor says. "Every other gay bar in town was identified by a number, a street number, or it was just so far off the beaten track you just wouldn't know what it was. It was just kind of old-school. And not to disparage that; it's just what you had to do. I've said before that if it wasn't for those places, we would have never, ever, ever had the opportunity. So I'm very grateful for them.
"But it was time to take it to another level, and we did."
Even Tribe offers a back-door entrance next to its parking lot for patrons who don't wish to be seen frequenting an openly gay establishment. But as the years pass, Roman and Taylor say, it gets used less and less for that purpose.
"That's evolved with, I think, kind of the climate of the culture, of society now," Roman says, "as being gay is more accepted and kind of morphed into something much different than it was years ago, where [gay] bars were kind off the beaten path, you know, dark and kind of in the shadows. It was kind of a closed, you-didn't-talk-about-it kind of thing. That's not the case now. Play has been voted No. 1 dance bar for years.
"Not gay bar," he emphasizes, "but dance bar."
As the city has grown more accepting, so the clientele of Tribe, Play and Suzy Wong's has diversified. And as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients have come to shake their collective moneymakers, the anchor of Nashville's gay district has made Church Street a beacon for partiers of every persuasion — an attraction whose popularity is its biggest safeguard against segregation, ghettoization or pigeonholing by sexual orientation.
"We had a tagline for when we first opened — not formally in our advertising, but we said it in our conversations — that '[Tribe is] a place you'd be proud enough to take your mom but probably never would,' " Taylor says. "And after two weeks of being open, people brought their parents, because they were so hungry for a place to show off and be proud. And that was 10 years ago.
"What we've learned is that we compete with all the clubs now. We used to be the only game in town for our customers, but now we're not. People are much more accepting across the board, so we know we have to be well-invested and offer fun. ... We don't take anything for granted, and we certainly know we owe our business to our customers, and that is what we try to focus on."
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