Chapel Hill loses another institution. The Cave is closing.

From left, Tony Raver and Brandon Herndon, the Twilighters, perform at the Cave in 2009.
From left, Tony Raver and Brandon Herndon, the Twilighters, perform at the Cave in 2009.

To the best anyone can remember, someone named Lefty opened The Cave in June of 1968 — an origin as dank and murky as the bar itself.

Subterranean with low ceilings and no windows, Chapel Hill's oldest bar could sometimes generate enough cigarette smoke to penetrate the T-shirts sold in a shop upstairs.

But anybody whoever plugged in a sticker-covered guitar or sang their heart into a well-worn microphone found an audience there on what could generously be described as a stage. Nobody ever went to The Cave casually. You expected, and got, an experience.

"I came down the steps to The Cave to get a pack of cigarettes," Michelle Ceremuga, a bar manager, told The News & Observer in 2008. "I opened the door and went, 'Oh my god, this is home.' "

The Cave's owners announced Thursday that the bar will close April 30, passing into Franklin Street folklore along with The Rathskeller and Spanky's, which closed in March.

In a Facebook post, the bar's owners explained a six-month search for a buyer came up without any takers and that the building's owner would likely not lease the space to another group wanting to continue as The Cave.

"The hardest part of this," the post said, "is the feeling that we are letting you, our community, down — that we are failing everyone who loves the place as much as you do. ... We hope you are able to make it in prior to closing and share a moment with us one last time."

Its owners couldn't be reached for further comment.

The Cave rarely drew the big names that graced its big-brother stage at the Cat's Cradle, now in Carrboro. But over its long stretch, it built a noble reputation as the first place a band would play — sometimes as a step toward wider fame. Among the alumni: Tift Merritt, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Flat Duo Jets, R.E.M., Two Dollar Pistols, Red Clay Ramblers and The Avett Brothers.

Lyle Lovett graced The Cave in his pre-fame 1980s. The crowd left him money, but he donated it to the bartenders.

Singer Sarah Shook, who recently wowed critics at the 2018 SXSW Music Festival, both played and bartended there until last week. She wrote a farewell to The Cave last week before heading off for touring, saying, "This job has truly changed the course of my life for the better in ways bigger than words can say."

Upon learning of The Cave's closing, she posted Thursday on Facebook that she is "totally devastated." "There's a hole in my heart forever," she wrote.

Unlike many of its night-owl neighbors, it did not cater to students. Showtimes started as early as 5:30 p.m. It was assumed that patrons had to be up for work in the morning.

Another long-standing custom barred performers from playing cover songs. The Cave gave a haven to songwriters. Jesse James DeConto, singer and guitarist with The Pinkerton Raid, recalled what happened when he began noodling on a Beatles song.

Former owner "Mouse (Mock) came flying out of the back room with a crazed look in his eyes, waving his arms to shut down," he said in an interview. "You could never play covers in The Cave."

From its earliest days, the bar catered to people who craved intimacy and dive-bar charm more than personal space or decor. In the 1970s, a black mastiff sat on the barroom floor, eyes even with the air hockey table. The ceilings hung low enough that taller patrons bent their necks to the side.

"There were intimate nights that felt like you and a few friends were in a singer/songwriter's apartment listening to her croon just for you," said Billy Warden, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and public relations professional. "And there were nights, especially with a young Dex Romweber playing, when it felt like a packed house party."

In the Facebook post, owners invited its faithful for one last show.

"If your band wants to play between now and April 30," the post said, "please get in touch & we will do all we can to add you to a show or to create one for you. If you have a show scheduled May 1 or after, Mark will be doing all he can to find another space for it & will be reaching out to you shortly to discuss this.

"Mostly, thank you. It’s been great and we won’t soon forget the good times we’ve had and the people we’ve met along the way."

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
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