San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop, celebrating its 15th anniversary with a series of concerts this week, has seen a lot over the years.
Owner Christopher White recalls the time a fan of the band Bleached broke into the club and then tried to get into the green room to meet the band by climbing through the air conditioning ducts. He got stuck. At another show, Israeli post-punk band Monotonix had a rider request that White and his team remove everything either breakable or made of glass from the reach of the band and crowd. At the show, the singer ended up on the bar, and a man in a wheelchair crowd-surfed for 12 minutes.
“We had a party for Thrasher Magazine, where [hardcore band] Trash Talk played,” White said last night, shortly after stepping off a plane. “If you can imagine, 350 kids all showing up, and the one thing I didn’t think about is that every one of them would bring a skateboard. I didn’t have any ideas what to do with all those skateboards, and all those kids in the street. … Later on, I was like, ‘Yeah, I should have thought of that.'”
White and his friend Waldo Williams founded the club in 2003 in a former TV studio used for filming commercials. White came from the bike touring business and Williams from the bike messengering business. They originally planned to name it “Rickshaw” before deciding that it needed to sound more like a place. The rickshaws they imported from Vietnam to decorate it are still there. The space, on Fell Street, a couple of blocks from city hall, had been vacant. At the time, that part of Hayes Valley hadn’t prospered financially.
“Me and Waldo built the whole club by hand by ourselves,” White said. “We didn’t have an enormous clue what we were doing. We built the bar. We built the stage … We threw open the doors and threw caution to the wind. I taught myself how to bartend, and Waldo taught himself how to do sound.”
The duo started by hosting dance parties. They soon hired Dan Strachota to be the talent booker, and the focus began to turn to live music—which now comprises most of the entertainment. That includes both local and national acts. Many international performers are booked primarily by radio station Alt-105.3 music director Aaron Axelsen, who runs the weekly concert Popscene. Axelsen migrated his popular club from another location to Rickshaw Stop in 2013 following a shooting that took place outside.
White’s club has also had a close call or two.
“A number of years ago we threw a party that got out of control, and there were a whole bunch of women outside in the street waving guns in the air. … I’ve had to smooth things over with the San Francisco Entertainment Commission … with the fire department … with the police department. If you’re in the nightlife industry … you need to make nice with people. … If you don’t do that, it’s really easy to blame nightclub folks for bad things that go on.”
White (Williams stopped being involved in the club in 2010) has also had to navigate a tricky landscape—the San Francisco music scene, which has seen many clubs shuttered in recent years.
“The key is good relationships,” he said. “I’ve partnered with Popscene, I’ve partnered with the folks at Another Planet on a number of shows, I’ve partnered with GoldenVoice. But we’re still an independently run, owned and operated club. It is very expensive to run this kind of thing on very slim margins. There is something to be said about this whole tiered consolidation of live acts. But I’m old. I think about what was available when I was young, in terms of music to listen to and music to see. Right now there is so much more breadth of things you can do and see. We are still in a position where we have to fight for all this stuff—us and Bottom of the Hill and [Cafe] Du Nord—but it’s still available to us, and people still want to go out to small venues.”
Strachota said Rickshaw Stop has stuck around by focusing on the experience, not just for the audience but for the performers.
“We want everyone to have a good time,” he said. “That’s how we booked it when we were just getting started: a band would enjoy themselves and tell their friends, and the friends wanted to play there too.”
He said he tries to book not only bands that are a big draw now, but those with the talent to be a big draw in the future.
“Sometimes a really great band may sell 100 tickets the first time, but then when they come back it’s a sellout,” he said. “If they’re good, and the experience is good, people tell their friends.”
Following that same blueprint, he and White personally selected the acts for the anniversary shows. The performers, like local heroes John Vanderslice and Sean Hayes, or national success stories like Capital Cities, are either friends of the club or have played memorable shows there in the past.
As for what’s coming next, Strachota said there are plans to upgrade the building. All he would reveal for now is that they plan to improve the air conditioning. But most importantly, in an era when venues are moving out of town or shutting down altogether, that’s all they plan on changing. White said he is constantly looking six months ahead.
“It will be more of the same; whatever cool stuff we can figure out is what we’ll do,” he said.