By George Basler
Sandwiches, wraps, beverages and desserts are on the menu at the Cyber Café West on Binghamton’s West Side. So is an eclectic mix of music from blues and bluegrass to urban and rock.
Located at 176 Main St., the café is marking its 16th anniversary as one of the prime venues for live music in the area. On July 3, the café will host the country/rock stalwarts The New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Two days later, on the actual anniversary of the café’s opening, the special guest will be Super Bad Brad, a street performer out of New York City who has made a career out of performing R&B classics with the help of a boombox.
The shows illustrate the wide range of acts that have played the Cyber Café West over the years, owner Jeff Kahn said. He estimates the café has booked 4,000 shows in its history.
Some of the performers have national, and even international, followings. For example, the New York City-based fusion band Matulo, which has played all over the world, recently made a stop. Other acts have included Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, Greg Matlock of the Sex Pistols and singer/songwriter Rachael Sage.
But many of the performers are aspiring local or regional acts looking to get a toehold in the competitive music business.
“Bands like to play here because we treat them well. We have the best sound system in the area, and they like finding a listening audience,” Kahn said.
Keeping the café open is almost a labor of love for the 51-year-old owner who came to Binghamton in 1981 as a student at Binghamton University after growing up on Long Island. He’s managed to stay open even as other small music venues have shut their doors because of changing economic factors.
“Not many places like this have survived,” Kahn said. “I have given up everything to keep this place open.”
While Kahn has never considered himself a restaurateur, the food business accounts for three-quarters of the Cyber Café West’s revenue and basically supports the music end. While the café charges admission for the bigger acts (tickets for New Riders of the Purple Sage are $25 in advance; $30 day of show), the music is free on many nights, with no cover or admission charges, and acts depending on donations to tip jars.
The atmosphere of the café is casual and cozy, with the slightly run down appearance adding to the funky charm. The audience ranges in age and backgrounds, Kahn said. The food is natural and fresh, not processed.
Still, as a business model, the Cyber Café West doesn’t make a lot of sense, Kahn acknowledged. Opening the café was “a stupid thing to do financially, and it’s still to this day a stupid thing to do,” he said, with a laugh.
What keeps him going is a love of music and the feeling that the Cyber Café West is an important spot in the community. Also, the café gives him a place to play every Thursday night with his own bands, the now-defunct Monkeys Typing and current group InnerMission. “If I didn’t get to play every Thursday night, I wouldn’t keep the place open,” he said jokingly.
Not that keeping the doors open is an easy task. The café added beer and wine to its menu to help pay the bills. Even so, the café operates close to the vest financially, to put it mildly. One sign of this is the unpaved parking lot that stays that way because the café lacks the money to pave it, Kahn said.
Moreover, the Cyber Café doesn’t have a marketing or promotion budget. As a result, it can be difficult attracting audiences for groups whose music most people have never heard.
The café is a remnant of an earlier time and almost a throw back to a “mom and pop” store, Kahn said. At the same time, “I’ve been the recipient of a lot more good will than most businesses,” he said.
“I love this. I love the people,” he said. “I feel almost compelled to keep this open,”
IF YOU GO: The New Riders of the Purple Sage will perform at 8 p.m. July 3. Advance tickets can be purchased by stopping by the café or calling 723-2456. The 16th anniversary celebration, featuring Super Bad Brad, will take place July 5. Kahn’s band will play.