Perry Fowler may be an enthusiastic owner of Petra's now, but when he first visited the Plaza Midwood hangout in 2009 he was underwhelmed.
"It wasn't the coolest night, to be honest," Fowler says. "I paid a cover to get in, and somebody was just going through YouTube videos on a projector. They were just funny videos — blooper reels and cat fails." It was very odd to Fowler. A year later, when he and Mark Baran had started playing together as Sinners & Saints, then-Charlotte singer-songwriter Jon Lindsay invited the duo to perform a show that he was putting together at Petra's.
"When I saw what it was like playing a show here, and making music here, I thought, 'It's a really cool place.'"
The bar's late owner, Jerry Brown, kept bringing the duo back. "He was a wonderful guy," says Baran. Both credit Brown, who died last August at 62, with beginning Petra's transition from a quirky hideaway to a warm and welcoming music and arts venue that's a home away from home for neighborhood patrons and newcomers alike.
Fowler talked with me about how he's continued to shift Petra's focus to live music, building a sound system from scratch, while also preserving the venue's fun and funky vibe.
Creative Loafing: When and why did you start working here?
Fowler: I started working here about three years ago because I wanted to be a part of something cool, and I felt they just needed a little push in the right direction. I worked the door. Three months later I started bartending. Four months after that I became bar manager, and four months after that I was an owner. It all happened so fast. Jerry Brown just asked me one day if I wanted some skin in the game. I asked, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Yeah, I feel good about it."
Who were the owners when you stared and who are the owners now?
It was Jerry Brown, Dean Freeman and Curtis Tutt. Then it was Jerry, Dean, Curtis, me and my wife Marta (Suarez del Real). Now that Jerry has passed, it's just us four.
What's the vibe now versus then?
We were having these events here that were so off the cuff that they were turning people away. I decided to do music as much as we can, and not worry about these weekly dance parties and art parties that locked us into doing the same thing every week. Now the feeling is completely open. You don't feel like you're forced into any theme. I hope I've succeeded in creating a welcoming vibe that encompasses everybody. I think booking more live music helped accomplish that. The vibe changes depending on what's going on. It's a different clientele each night. Tonight is karaoke and open mic night. It's a totally different crowd from who comes to Potions & Pixels, which is a monthly video game and board game night. It just depends on what's going on. It's cool like that. You get a variety of people.
How did Jerry Brown react to the changes?
He was OK with them. When I asked Jerry to let me take over booking for the venue, he was relieved. He hated booking the bands, and only did it because he had to do it. Jerry also really loved our band. The problem was he would find maybe four or five bands and that was all he ever booked. He was just looking for things to stick on the calendar. Just rotate them through and not think about it. We had to tell him that we didn't want to play here every month. When I would put on a show here that didn't draw a crowd, Jerry would say that people don't want to come here to see bands because it's a gay bar. I told him that we just had to keep doing it. There are going to be off nights. You can't judge what you're doing based on this one thing. Judge it over the span of a few months and see what happens. I think it's been working out. It seems like it's been working out.