By DAVE GUNTER
SANDPOINT — It all started a little more than 20 years ago, when a group of poets and prose writers first met at Bonnie Thompson’s groovy, but now gone, downtown coffee house, Jumpin’ Joe’s.
Initially called “Expresso Yourself,” the event hopped about for several years, landing, in turns, at Di Luna’s Café, Red Martin, Eichardt’s Pub, Monarch Mountain Coffee and Connie’s Café.
“That was the first eight years or so — 1997-2005,” said Tom Kramer, a founding partner in the literary gathering.
“We have bounced around, but this has been the best fit,” said co-founder Robens Napolitan, as she sat in the cozy confines of the Bodega Café in Foster’s Crossing.
With an eclectic assortment of dining tables and chairs strewn about the plank-floored space and an upright piano nudged against one wall, the room has been home to what eventually came to be known as “Five Minutes of Fame” for the past 13 years.
This Wed., April 18, the open mic session comes to an end. Attracting between roughly a dozen people to capacity crowds of close to 45 over the years, Five Minutes of Fame ramped up quickly in the café surrounding, pulling in a cross-generational audience that mixed young writers with their older, more experienced counterparts and benefiting both age groups in the process.
As time went on, many of the younger attendees “aged out,” according to Napolitan, and turnout began to lag.
“Part of the problem is that we weren’t able to attract the literary scene — if there is one — of people who are young,” she said.
In its prime, however, the monthly open mic night became a testing ground for writers of almost every stripe. It was a safe space for sharing the work and a place where newcomers and those who had never stood in front of a microphone in their lives found encouragement among other wordsmiths.
And while musicians, comedians and social commentators flowed through the café setting, spoken word performance was always the mainstay. More particularly, poetry was the chosen medium of most presenters, with music holding an occasional supporting role.
In recent years, music-focused open mic nights have been on the rise in Sandpoint, whereas poetry — sometimes close to the bone and often deeply moving — has proven to be less of a draw, Kramer noted.
“I would say it’s a harder sell,” he said. “Music is a slam dunk, in terms of popularity, compared with poetry.”
Kate and David Luers, owners of Foster’s Crossing, were believers from the beginning. In a way, they almost had to be, since Five Minutes of Fame already had moved into Café Bodega by the time the couple purchased the antique mall and restaurant.
“They kind of inherited us,” said Napolitan.
Based neither in philanthropy nor commerce, the Luers’ allegiance to the event straddled a love for poetry and the joy of watching the writers’ collective evolve as artists.
“Community building — that was the goal,” David Luers said. “The wisdom that comes out of this poetry is great.”
Does the end of this era leave a hole in the Foster’s Crossing business plan, he was asked?
“No, it ran its course well,” he said. “It was a good run and we’re leaving on a high note.”
The thing that allowed beginning poets to become seasoned versifiers — and to inspire some poets to become songwriters by setting their words to music — might have been the wide-open format for Five Minutes of Fame. Limited only by the eponymous timeframe for presentations, each performer was off the leash, as far as content.
“Everybody gets to say whatever they want for five minutes,” Napolitan explained. “At first, the premise was, ‘You can stand anything for five minutes.’”
Watching younger writers go through life phases and older poets develop confidence to explore new subjects has emboldened Napolitan and Kramer — both of whom are visual artists, as well as writers — to more deeply express themselves in their work. If there was a secret ingredient behind this magic, it could have been that the café and its patrons on those Wednesday nights created a safe space for presenters “to know it’s OK,” Napolitan pointed out.
“OK-ness is not prevalent in our society,” she added.
And if there is one thing that will be most missed when Five Minutes of Fame folds it tent this week, it might well be that open communication between people needing to share and those eager to listen as they do.
In that light, the end of what some might argue was a very specific event aimed at an even more specific audience, could be said to leave a void in our community discourse.
“I think it does,” said Kramer. “I remember having our event on Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after Sept. 11 — and people we’d never seen before came that night because they needed to communicate, to get something off their chest.”
As people learn about the final outing for the open mic night — even those who know the name but never attended — the response has been that something important has come to an end.
“That’s been happening a lot,” said Kate Luers.
Not discounting that Five Minutes of Fame could re-emerge with a new format or a different venue, the co-founders nonetheless feel ready to chalk up 20 years of good memories and move on with their lives.
“It’s time,” Napolitan said. “Tom and I are looking at a new chapter in our lives.”
It’s a chapter that no longer will include being responsible for virtually everything that led up to those enchanted Wednesday nights, from providing sound to handling publicity every month.
“Hauling a 50-pound amp around or doing a poster route in the ice?” Napolitan asked rhetorically. “We’re tired of that part.”
The final edition of Five Minutes of Fame will take place this Wednesday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m., in Café Bodega at Foster’s Crossing. The event is free and open to the public.