Visitors to MamaBuzzCafe.com will receive an arresting surprise this week: some random placeholder ads and the message "This domain has expired." Unfortunately it's not an error. After almost ten years in business, even longer if you count its predecessor, Papa Buzz, the cafe is facing closure. And unless matters improve, it'll have to shut its doors on January 1.
Nestled beside the Stork Club and amid the flock of other galleries near the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street, Mama Buzz has always taken care of its own. It's been a hub for Oakland's youngest adults: in-the-know Berkeley undergrads, art school experimenters, self-employed writers and thinkers, and new musicians of all inclinations. Once a month, it served as an anchor for Art Murmur, which showcases the work of many of those individuals.
Despite reports to the contrary, Mama Buzz Cafe has not been sold. But it may lose its current home. According to owner Jade Benetatos, a few months ago the site's landlord, Haig Mardikian, told her that he wanted to "reconfigure" the space, and would not renew the lease. Benetatos was considering passing the torch to a new owner, but now, she says, that might not be an option. She's been waiting for Mardikian to meet with her so that they can reach some sort of agreement.
"I've literally never even met the guy," she said. "I'd just like to try and appeal to his sense of community, and help him understand that Mama Buzz is an artistic cornerstone. ... It needs to survive."
A quirky, low-budget commercial posted on YouTube a few years ago boasted alliteratively of "action-packed acoustic music, future-rustic furniture, a pimped-out patio, a myriad of mico-brews, titillating t-shirts, and a whole heap of hipsters!" The ad is a bit tacky, but nonetheless represents the place well, winking at its own alternative, DIY aesthetic while still communicating the warm and friendly ethos for which Mama Buzz was known. Plus, as an all-ages, donations-only venue to hear music three, four, or even five nights a week (and one that still served beer), Mama Buzz has been a unique Uptown Oakland fixture.
Rechristened "Mama Buzz" in 2003 and purchased by Benetatos in 2007, the cafe planted itself at the root of a burgeoning art scene. Galleries in the vicinity include Rock Paper Scissors Collective, Krowswork, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, and those along 25th Street as well as West Grand Avenue, many of which were founded in the intervening years. The scene is always waxing and waning, though, and Mama Buzz has warily watched new enterprises grow and die. Maintaining a mixed-use space in Oakland has proven immensely difficult, as evidenced by last year's futile battle to save gallery and performance space 21 Grand.
It seems that Mama Buzz has been in danger for some time now, and the arts community that it caters to has tried to support the cafe through its economic hardship. Take the well-intentioned Stork Club benefit in January. It was a packed local bill, with proceeds going to spruce up Mama Buzz's facade and keep the building from falling further into disrepair. More than a year earlier, Benetatos informed Oakland North that she'd gone several months without paying herself.
Brian Moss, a teacher who has booked Mama Buzz for four years and worked behind the counter for two, expressed concern and frustration that live music might not continue in the space. "It's a pretty sad deal," he said. "I've been booking the spot for years and am currently hating having to watch yet another low-key, all-ages spot eat shit." Benetatos is holding out hope, though; there's currently a petition posted at Mama Buzz that patrons can sign in support of the cafe's continued existence.
On Sunday afternoon, Mama Buzz was closed. A sign on the door read "Sorry ... 1/2 the power is out." The surrounding businesses didn't seem affected.
With its future still up in the air, Mama Buzz is spending the month of December reluctantly wrapping things up and celebrating nearly a decade of local culture. A final art show was held on December 2. Shannon Shaw, a local musician and artist whose work was featured in the show, remembered the close ties she's had with Mama Buzz: "I mean, my brother works there, and I've been going there for many years to go draw in that backyard."
Two final live shows are set for December 16 and 17. Friday's event features a new Oakland band called Faust Arp. One of the band's members, Trevor Moore, is new in town, and said he's never been to the cafe but is honored to be a part of the final weekend.
The bill for the final show is about as egalitarian as always, just bigger. "All of the bands other than Company, who is touring from Oregon, are local punk bands," said Moss, "with members who have played the cafe multiple times and patronized the spot." Street Eaters, with members hailing from such established groups as Fleshies and Wild Assumptions, should be the main attraction. Heist is a brand new hardcore act. For Know Your Saints, the event will be a CD release party. And appropriately, Moss' new band Great Apes will support.
The event also has an added philanthropic element. In an attempt to strike a charitable chord with the DIY community, the show on December 17 will include a canned-food drive to benefit the Alameda County Food Bank. Each can or boxed-food item will count as a dollar off the $5 suggested donation.
That seems apropos of the Mama Buzz ethos. It started out as a scrappy eatery and became a veritable institution, without letting go of its roots. It will surely be mourned and missed.