When John Bryan and his fellow musicians were in their nascent adulthood in the late ‘90s, it didn’t take long to realize the small house they were renting didn’t work as practice space. They needed bigger. They needed vacant.
They found it in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse on the eastern edge of downtown Winston-Salem, where giant motors were stored by the owners of an old electric motor business who’d seen the times pass their business by. With financing from the owners, who allowed them to clean out the building to obtain the space (the former owners also by agreement took the scrap metal money resulting from the cleanup) Bryan and his friends bought the joint. They christened it The Werehouse and opened it to artists, mostly musicians, to perform.
Some of the group lived upstairs, even as city officials chased after and eventually worked with Bryan and company to get the place up to code for business and living.
What was striking to Bryan at the time was the emptiness of downtown.
“It was just tumbleweeds and police traffic from the jail.’’
Today, Bryan’s home (he still lives upstairs) is Krankies, the coffeehouse and space of avant-garde artists and several small arts- and technology-related businesses.
Bryan has a natural affinity for Innovation Quarter as it has arisen around him for more than a decade. For one thing, both Krankies and Innovation Quarter represent evolving models, with the principals never being discouraged by slow growth, bumps along the way or change.
Rather, Bryan says, he embraced the idea of collaboration and change, two concepts that are key as well, for Innovation Quarter. After a few years, Bryan and his friends tried a non-profit model, renaming their place PS 211 and expanding to more visual artists as well as musicians. But the only thing that made money from that venture was the concession stand, Krankies.
So after a few years, Bryan says, he and his partners decided they wanted “more of a bizarre business hybrid’’ and a metamorphosis began again. The partners bought a coffee roasting business and Krankies became the lifeblood and name of the latest incarnation, which continues to attract artists and businesses, who rent some of the funky interior spaces of the building.
Today, besides the home base and an operation run out of an old Airstream on Reynolda Road, Krankies markets its coffee to numerous businesses.
It also is home to a software development company, a graphic design and print shop; guitar and violin teachers offer studio lessons and other artists rent studios to do their work. There’s a gallery and a performance stage, as well as rehearsal space.
Bryan says the ability to be multidisciplinary and collaborative is a big part of artistic endeavors, and one of the reasons he thinks Innovation Quarter is well on the way to success. Bryan has been a part of brainstorming sessions with Innovation Quarter leaders such as Wexford Science & Technology LLC, which developed Wake Forest Biotech Place and is renovating other old tobacco warehouse buildings that are being converted to offices and lab space.
Bryan says he’s been inspired by guests brought in to the brainstorming sessions, such as officials with the Cambridge Innovation Center, a technology and life science start-up hub in Massachusetts.
“One of their pieces of advice is that … people want to be close to one another, a design group next to a biologist next to a video game maker next to someone who’s preparing a really great organic coffee,’’ Bryan says. “Creative people especially gravitate toward density. People feed on each other’s energy.’’
He says he likes the way Innovation Quarter is opening itself up to the community around it. He’s been in on planning for events at Bailey Park, once the work there is complete. Events could include yoga classes, performances, a film series, the kinds of stuff that bring people together.
And just as Krankies has a solid foundation now in every way, Bryan says it’s exciting to see Innovation Quarter evolving.
“The restoration of the tobacco buildings is unbelievable, fantastic. Wexford is a tremendous company not just developing bricks and mortar but bringing the right ideas to the neighborhood,’’ he says, “in the spirit of collaboration and experimentation.
“There are innovation hubs in other places in the country and world. We’ve got the right pieces here. It can happen in a smaller tobacco town. It is happening. And we’ll keep ‘em all in coffee and beer and art.’’