Charleston Pour House: 20 Years Down
The Charleston Pour House is one of Charleston’s most cherished musical establishments, and this month they celebrate their 20th anniversary. Over the past 20 years the venue has grown to become a key music hub for the Southeast, with a reputation for providing a quality experience for artists, fans, and staff every single time.
For ownership duo Alex and Vanessa Harris, reaching this point has been all about teamwork and figuring things out as they went along.
Back in 2002, then 23-year old Alex Harris took over The Pour House Restaurant and Pub located at 1750 Savannah Highway (where Hunley’s is now). As Alex explains, he never had a vision of owning a music venue, nor did he and Vanessa have any idea how to run a music venue. He wanted to play music, but it wasn’t working out and he wasn’t sure what to do next.
“It was actually my Dad’s idea,” he recalls. “We were hanging out with the guy who owned the Pub. I was unhappy and depressed ’cause my band had ended and he said, ‘why don’t we buy this place and you can turn it into a music venue?'”
With some help from his Dad, who co-signed the loan, Alex was able to purchase the Pour House Restaurant and Pub. Vanessa started working in the kitchen shortly after, and keeping the place open became a dual effort right from the jump.
“The struggle was real, because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” Alex recalls. “I didn’t have any idea what to do with the kitchen and the food. Vanessa and I were friends. I say I didn’t really hire her – I had to have her help.”
“He does the booking, and I did everything else,” Vanessa adds. “That was literally how it happened.”
“It would have been closed a long time ago if it wasn’t both of us,” Alex says.
The Old Pour House
In the early days, the Charleston Pour House was far from successful. Some of this was due to the learning curve of running a business, especially one as complex as a music venue, and some of it may have been self-inflicted.
“He would take kegs home and have parties with like, product,” Vanessa recalls.
“That was a good idea…” Alex laughs, continuing, “It was a loss. We weren’t really making any money over there. We had to not make money to figure out how to make money. All the shows were free. It’s just we slowly figured out, you can’t do certain things, or you don’t survive. You just close. Can’t give away everything.”
While finding a way to survive was key in the beginning, there were also some moments that speak to the spirit of the Charleston Pour House and the venue that it has grown into today. In those days, bars didn’t have to close at 2am, so they would often stay open until the wee hours of the morning.
Sometimes, they would even have bands playing past 2-3am, with Alex remembering one night in particular when they hosted an aftershow for the North Mississippi All-Stars at the Music Farm, featuring blues-rockers Tishamingo. The show started at 2am, and Tishamingo played until almost 6am.
“They were nuts to do that,” Alex says, “and we were nuts to do it, too.”
Speaking even more to the spirit of the Pour House — that show, which took place on November 22nd, 2002, was recorded in its entirety and is available on archive.org.
Another special evening included Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell (then of Drive-By Truckers), along with Shonna Tucker, Isbell’s first wife.
“That was the Sunday night, April 6th, 2003, Alex recalls. “Handmade poster by them. It was the night after their first show ever in Charleston. They played at the Music Farm on the Saturday. And it was free.”
“We put ’em up at that Motel 6 right down by the McDonald’s,” Vanessa laughs.
Even with what must have been a less-than-favorable experience at the Motel 6, that night sparked a relationship that had Hood and Isbell, both separately and together, returning to the Pour House time and time again, especially after the move to their current location.
Isbell today is playing amphitheaters, but he played at the Pour House several times a year all the way up until his career exploded with the release of Southeastern in 2013. He performed in the Maybank location for the first time in December of 2005, not long after the place opened.
Local americana duo Shovels & Rope are another act that developed a strong relationship with the Charleston Pour House early in their career, starting out performing free shows on the deck every Monday night as early as 2008. This continued until their career took off, and later returning to perform on the main stage and in the back lot, with the most recent show being in the lot in June of 2021.
Move to Current Location
Despite not being profitable the first few years, Alex and Vanessa were able to keep things rolling, and in 2005 they stumbled upon their current James Island location at 1977 Maybank Highway. This was again with a co-sign on the loan from Alex’s father, to whom he gives a lot of credit for what the venue has become.
“He helped us here a lot, to be able to borrow money to buy this place and do what we’ve done,” Alex says. “He took some pretty big chances — but, it’s worked out.”
At the time of their purchase, the Charleston Pour House was a run-down old building that had formerly been Vito’s Italian Restaurant, Ann’s Restaurant before that, and most popularly, the second location of West Ashley seafood spot, Easterby’s Family Grille.
Originally, the building was a 7-Eleven convenience store, and in 1985 the building underwent a substantial renovation that added the restaurant side, or Kwei Fei side.
“And they put this facade on it, that is around the sidewalk that makes it look like a strip club,” Alex says.
When they first got there Alex, Vanessa, family, friends and employees all worked together to gut the building, which was carpeted and still had the original 7-Eleven walk-in fridge inside. They took much of it down to bare bones, keeping only a few things, including the original tiled kitchen floor in the area that is now the Pour House bar.
Today’s beloved back deck was not yet there, either. The venue was initially opened with just the main stage, and they constructed an early version of the deck the following year.
“We just built it. We didn’t ask for permits, and then we had to tear it down.” Vannessa laughs.
When the city saw the deck that they had built on their own accord, they were not exactly pleased with the way that it was constructed, as it did not conform with fire code. Thus the crew had to go back and rebuild it with a special type of treated lumber that is meant to be fire retardant.
Through all of these initial challenges, the Charleston Pour House prevailed, and opened for business on Maybank Highway in August of 2005. There was still a lot to learn, but the beast had been awakened.
Taming the Beast
Every day, the goal for the Charleston Pour House was simply to open the doors and get the band on the stage. For Alex and Vanessa, this meant working around-the-clock, because in the beginning they couldn’t afford to hire enough people, and many of the people they did hire ended up not working out.
Vanessa would often cook in the restaurant all day, and then head over to the venue side and bartend until closing time. Alex became quite the handyman, making use of duct tape and other materials they had lying around to fix things and keep the train from running off the tracks.
“You gotta open the doors,” Vanessa says.
“One time I had to remove a toilet because there was a five hour energy bottle at the very bottom, sideways where the toilet attached to the floor,” Alex says. “We had a jalapeño pepper clogging the urinal one time.”
Alex remembers one night when he was bartending with longtime former employee Kim. They finished up a busy shift around four in the morning, and the final task was to take out the trash, because at the time James Island was handling their trash pickup.
“At the end, that was what we were doing at four in the morning,” Alex recalls. “And she looked at me, and we weren’t even talking, and she said ‘This place is a beast’. I said, ‘you’re goddamn right it is.’”
Even with the staffing challenges, the music was playing, and people in town were becoming hip to what was going on at the Pour House. There was a crowd of regulars developing that continues to grow to this day, many of whom have become Pour House employees themselves.
This is how the staffing challenge was eventually solved, with regulars becoming long-term employees because they like the place and want to help out. Alex and Vanessa give a lot of credit to their staff and regulars for helping the venue to survive in the beginning, and for making it successful today.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have been here for a long time,” Alex says. “We’ve had tons of people that cared and wanted to see this place make it.”
“We love them,” Vanessa says. “My kids know them. They come, they’ll go play basketball. Talk crap about sports with them.”
“And the regulars and people will tell us if somebody’s doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or if someone is a problem that’s making other people uncomfortable,” Alex says. “They help. If we have something bad happen that the staff has to deal with, there’s a good chance some regular customers will be there to support and make sure things aren’t getting out of control.”
In this way, the Charleston Pour House has started a family, with everyone doing their part to make it the special place that it is today.
“It’s not like a family, it’s definitely a family,” Vanessa says.
The Charleston Pour House Today
Today, things are going well at the Charleston Pour House as they celebrate 20 years. They have a full-time team that is stronger than it’s ever been, and people are showing up weekly to enjoy live music on both stages.
According to Alex and Vanessa, it took around 10 to 15 years of operating the venue to finally reach a point where they feel like they mostly have a handle on things.
“For a long time we were always unsure, each year,” Alex says.
“Things are good, Vanessa says. “There’s more people in the city than ever. So we’re pretty consistently busy.”
“The way we’ve done it has been slowly,” Alex says. “Improving, changing things here and there when we had enough money. We dealt with a leaky roof for 8 years.”
“Buckets everywhere,” Vanessa says.
COVID presented a new set of challenges for the team, and they were successfully able to pivot during that time to provide a safe environment for live music, with socially-distanced shows on the deck. This also led to the very first back parking lot concert, which is something that they have continued to occasionally do on the other side of the pandemic.
“I think it’s a cool environment back there,” Alex says. “I’ve stood back there and thought about it. I kind of feel like it scratches the festival itch, back there.”
Still, Alex and Vanessa do not plan on doing a ton of the parking lot shows, as they want to remain focused on what they do on a daily basis, which is maintaining and operating the Charleston Pour House.
“There’s always ideas,” Vanessa says. “There’s always improvements. That’s what it’s always been. There’s never gonna be another venue, that’s not it. It’s just improving this. Making this the best it can be.”
“We have tons of ideas,” Alex says. “I can’t stop having ideas of how to make the experience better for the people that work here, the bands, and the crowd.”
“All we want is for people to be happy when they come here,” Vanessa says. Whether it be to work or to experience a show. It’s kind of beyond even being successful — it’s all we know how to do.”
“At this point it’s intertwined with who we are,” Alex says.
20th Anniversary Celebration
To celebrate 20 years of live music, the Charleston Pour House has put together a stellar lineup of shows running two weeks straight, with both locals and touring acts stopping through to join in the party. The official celebration begins on Thursday, August 25th, with two week’s worth of live music culminating on Labor Day Weekend.
See the full calendar at charlestonpourhouse.com, and see what they’ve got planned for the anniversary below:
8.25 – Dogs In A Pile (Main)
8.26 – Sol Driven Train (Main) + Dr. Bacon (Deck)
8.27 – Easy Honey w/ Tennis Courts (Main) + Night Market (Deck)
8.28 – Cody Canada and the Departed (Main) + Motown Throwdown (Deck) 130pm -430pm ($5)
9.1 – Yarn (Main) + Gritty Flyright (Deck)
9.2 – Everyone Orchestra (Main) + Larry Keel (Deck)
9.3 – Everyone Orchestra (Main) + Everyone’s Dead & Reckoning (Deck)
9.4 Dangermuffin (Deck) + Lureto (Main)