by: Solomon Burnette
It’s Friday night, it’s cold as fuck and hundreds of women in LBDs are flooding into their sorority’s party on Main Street. The DJ keeps playing that song, the libations keep flowing, and if the talent and beauty in the place are the proof, The Social Game Room and Tap aka “The Social” is one of the most poppin’ spots in Durham. It’s been this way ever since I came home to Durham and all my friends were playing music at The Social’s live open mic Tuesdays. I quickly found out that they played 90s Hip-Hop on the non-open mic nights and that that The Social was the watering hole, not only for musicians and artists, but comic book fans, as well as Wu-Tang Clan addicts.
Visiting The Social is nostalgic for me. I performed there regularly when it was under the previous ownership and management as The Casbah. The Bull City Hip Hop Festival and our very own DJ Shazad hosted regular events at The Casbah.
The space has since been drastically rearranged. A thirty foot bar has been added, pool tables, and classic arcade games line the right hand wall, shuffle board and foosball tables take up what was formerly the audience space in the middle of the room. The stage is in the same place and the owner, Mark Cromwell, has since added the best patio in the city to the venue.
Mark is an anomaly. He’s 6’3”, 325lbs. He’s an avid rugby player and graduate of Carolina Friend’s School. He’s a thinker, a talker, and a doer. He’s also a Durham native who owns a bar on Main Street. This position gives him a unique perspective on the economy, politics, and entrepreneurship, gentrification, and development in Durham.
I sat down and chopped it up with Mark at Madhatter and was surprised to know that he used to manage the local bakery staple. His Durham Main Street roots run deep and our chat was a priceless to peek into his mind.
S: For the record, what’s your name?
M: Mark Cromwell. I’m the owner and proprietor of Social Games and Brews.
S: How long have y’all been in business at the Social?
M: Almost three years St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
S: How’d you settle on arcading as the theme for your bar?
M: I kind of grew up as a gamer and I went up to Brooklyn and visited Barcade. We were looking for a concept where I didn’t necessarily want to do food because your risk factor would go up and I wanted to find something that would draw some people in and create an ambiance. The games are decoration in addition to being usable.
S: As the only native Durham bar owner on Main Street, how do you feel about the changes going on in downtown?
M: I went to Carolina Friends School. My Ma was a teacher there and I lived in Finley Forest in a $90,000 condo growing up.
It’s pretty amazing seeing the change. Seeing established business being pushed out that were early adopters of downtown. The revitalization is good in some ways and not good in others. Do we really need three boutique motels downtown?
S: Hotels are obviously here to cater to a migrant clientele of sorts. How do you feel about this orientation of local business?
M: DPAC is really the anchor for these hotels. A lot of people are going downtown for these shows. There’s a dearth of hotel rooms in Durham. Especially during graduation season.
S: That being said, you seem to have an excellent mix of local and migrant clientele. How do you go about achieving this balance? Is it conscious business practice?
M: Part of my whole business model was me wanting to be a service industry bar. And I wanted to feel like everyone could relax and come there. We’ve thrown two undergraduate parties in the past week though, as a bar, we don’t typically do underage parties.
If I want to focus towards the Duke community, I tend to focus toward the grad school. We also regularly host events for The Eno River Women’s Rugby Club and we do a lot of fundraising for The League of Upper Extremity Wrestling Women of Durham (LUEWWD), which is the premier local women’s arm wrestling club.
S: I came to The Social as a musician. How does entertainment and cultural curation play into your business model?
M: I’m more into the music for the cultural aspect more so than a business aspect. The Casbah wasn’t sustainable. It’s pretty easy to eat your shirt bringing in semi-local acts. We do music selectively and we’ll try do more music events in the future. The Skewers open mic is pretty amazing and the back and forth benefits our little bit of Main Street.
Elle Johnson was running the open mic on Tuesdays and Dave decided that he wanted to do an open mic and as far as the cross pollination, We’re [me– Justin and Darryl, the owners of Skewers] good neighbors.
S: The current political climate has people antsy. How do you see today’s politics affecting business? Have politics affected your business?
M: We’re in a political environment where the middle is disappearing. I’ve voted Democrat my whole life, but I would consider myself very socially liberal, but physically, I’m more in the middle.
A lot of people want to do fundraisers and events and I’ve to choose who to work with. The Green Party wanted to do a fundraiser at The Social and I’d to respectfully decline. Part of that is based off my personal belief The Green Party mismanages their purpose and intent. In Americorp NCCC I’ve worked at Coney Island in public schools, lived in public housing, worked in The Oakland Park and in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. with AmeriCorps. We always get into the arguments over necessary evils. While in AmeriCorps, we had to pass a boot camp physical exam and my MEP (military entrance physical we were required to take) a fellow corp member in line was a Green Party representative. I remember his screaming at me about the lesser of two evils and I felt that his vision was particularly shortsighted.
The question for me remains, how do you change the system and bring more parties into it. You have the parties and folks who are perceived as the normal base. You have the “Hillaries” who are the base and you have Bernie Sanders who was actually independent running under the Democratic banner, so it’s already a multiparty system. It s just question of shedding the practice of letting one candidate run for president from one party.
S: So you’ve kind of collapsed the independents into what I’ll call “Democradicals”. How do you feel about Senator Sanders self-identification as a socialist and his incorporation of socialist ideals into mainstream American politics?
M: I think there are some great concepts and it’s some peoples first exposure to new ideas and I don’t think a lot of people vetted his ideas and how feasible some of them were. I’m a big proponent of universal health care and as a small business owner, a $15/hr minimum wage, I feel that it’s too low, but I work to figure out where that $15/hr comes from.
S: That’s a really heavy illusion. Are you positing the possibility of government subsidization of a minimum wage increase or Public – Private partnership in the raising of minimum wage?
M: I feel like it puts the ball in the court of people making $150 mil a year. It’s easy in a place like Durham where you can up your prices to supplement the increased wages as opposed to certain rural spaces where, if you up the minimum wage, you’ll run some folks out of business. These are observations I gained working in The Health Inequalities Program at Duke studying HIV epidemics in the rural south. There I saw how different policies affect urban areas versus rural areas.
The problem with big business is that these companies that are making record profits can afford to pay $15-$20 an hour, versus a mom and pops store in Reedsville, NC. How do you balance the economies of the ultra-rich versus the needs of a small business, especially in rural communities?
State and federal supplementation of minimum wage increases for rural entrepreneurs? Multi-candidate possibilities in a two-party system? Does it mean further incorporation of radical actors, policies, and practices into our existant party matrix? Or do we reject the lesser and greater evils in the interest of manifesting delimited political possibilities? How does one curate and maintain an entertainment space while ensuring that the bottom line stays black?
These questions are besetting entrepreneurs, artists, politicos, and citizens alike. It’s especially enlightening that they’re considerations that we can see illustrated best in business practices.
The Clarion Content has been following Solomon Burnette since his 2011 City Council campaign. A Durham native son made good, he is a graduate of North Carolina Central University with BA in European History.