"I never intended Radio Bean to be a full-on music venue."
That statement from Radio Bean proprietor and local arts sparkplug Lee Anderson may come as a surprise — especially to those who know the tiny coffee shop on Burlington’s North Winooski Avenue as a music-centric, mostly free nightspot. Over the last 10 years, the Bean has become an uncommonly vibrant music venue. It’s a launching pad for new local acts, a refuge for misfit artists other venues won’t touch and a de facto home base for practically an entire music scene. That, however, was not the original plan.
“The idea was to create a place for revolutionary intellectual activity to happen, and for people to have a place to come up with social missions,” says Anderson, 32, who credits Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as the philosophical foundation for the café.
“I wanted to find the most disobedient thing I could do,” he continues, citing his growing disillusionment with an antagonistic political climate that’s rooted more in anger than ideas. “The best way I could think of to do that was to create a place where people could share ideas and be a community.”
Since opening its doors on November 4, 2000, the diminutive haunt has infused its ethos into the lifeblood of Burlington’s underground music scene, becoming the unlikely epicenter of the city’s artistic subcultures. If it’s not necessarily what Anderson had in mind, Radio Bean has nonetheless become exactly what he dreamed it could be. Therein lies the crux of Lee Anderson’s accidental genius.
Anderson grew up in Minnesota and moved to Vermont on a whim in 1996. Up late one night, shortly after graduating from high school, he was watching VH1 when revelation struck — in the form of a video for grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog’s song “Hunger Strike.”
“I was, like, ‘I gotta get the fuck out of Minnesota,’” says Anderson, describing his Eddie Vedder-induced epiphany.
He settled on Vermont, a state he had never visited and knew almost nothing about. “I had never been east of Wisconsin,” he says.
Anderson persuaded a friend to drop out of college and make the trip with him, packed up his few belongings, and headed east — after dialing 1-800-VERMONT to get the lowdown on his new home state.
He landed in Ludlow and started working odd jobs at Okemo Mountain Resort. Anderson spent two years living in Ludlow on and off, but he and the ski town never quite took to each other.
“People kept telling me I had to go to Burlington,” he recalls. But the Queen City proved elusive, at least at first.
“I would drive to Burlington on the weekends and get off I-89 and be dumped onto Shelburne Road,” Anderson says. He recalls driving up and down Route 7, never realizing the city he would soon call home was a mere mile to the north. He grew increasingly discouraged.
“I was, like, ‘Why would anyone tell me to move here? This place sucks,’” he remembers. “I was convinced that Burlington had nothing for me.”
Shortly thereafter, Anderson enrolled as a continuing-education student at the University of Vermont and finally “found” Burlington. Sort of.
“I still didn’t realize Church Street was right there,” he recalls. Though he often ate inexpensive dinners at Ruben James, mere steps away on Main Street, he never ventured past what was then Church’s paved lower block. “I’d eat veggie tacos, drink beer until I was drunk enough to go sleep in my car, and had still never been up the street.”
Needing a dwelling — ideally, one without wheels — Anderson began apartment hunting. He found a cute, crayon-drawn flyer advertising a room on a UVM message board. After making plans to meet his prospective roommate, local songwriter Caroline O’Connor, at a party that night, Anderson ran all over campus tearing down the other flyers.
“She never got another call about the room,” he says, grinning.
Anderson and O’Connor hit it off immediately. They dated for the next four years, most of that time living together in a small apartment above what eventually became Radio Bean.
When Anderson was about to start his third semester at UVM, the school informed him he would need to begin paying the considerably higher out-of-state tuition. Having lived in Vermont for three years, Anderson appealed the decision. A few days later, he got a letter announcing his appeal had been denied.
Anderson had no intention of going into debt to pay for college. Walking home that afternoon from the post office, letter from UVM in hand, he noticed a “For Rent” sign in the window of 8 North Winooski Avenue, formerly home to café Java Love.
Anderson stopped to look in the window and daydreamed about possibilities. The next day he called the landlord. He signed a lease a month later.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he confesses now.
With no credit history or collateral, Anderson was unable to secure a loan. So he applied for dozens of credit cards at once and maxed them out to buy equipment, $45,000 in total. “But nine months and two days from the time I first said, ‘Radio Bean,’ I opened the doors,” he says.
Audrey Ryan was his first customer; the first dollar she spent still hangs in a frame above the bar. Writing from Ireland, where she’s on tour, Ryan, a successful singer-songwriter now based in Boston, recalls thinking Anderson was completely nuts.
“Muddy Waters and Uncommon Grounds and the other places in town seemed to have cornered what market we thought there was,” she writes. “But he had a vision.”
He did. Even if it wasn’t especially clear at the start, least of all to Anderson himself. The two customers who followed Ryan came away from their Radio Bean experiences unimpressed.
“You’re never gonna make it,” Anderson recalls one patron saying. When he asked why, Anderson was told his café was too “segmented,” and “people want to come to places where they can meet people.”
“That was obviously the opposite of what I was going for,” Anderson quips, chuckling.
Of course, that prickly observation proved groundless: Radio Bean is now a social and cultural hub. “Segmented” or not, it was flexible enough to undergo several physical evolutions, beginning with the construction of a stage that was soon filled nightly with an unpredictable assortment of artists. More recently, Anderson expanded Radio Bean into an adjoining space and opened a sister restaurant, ¡Duino! (Duende).
A number of satellite endeavors have orbited the Bean, as well, including Anderson’s short-lived alternative performance theater Gezellig and, most notably, low-power FM community radio station the Radiator. The latter was part of Anderson’s original concept for Radio Bean — hence the name. He’d planned for it to broadcast from the shop itself, not its current home in the Big Heavy World office on College Street.
But the most significant changes in the Bean have been more subtle and less tangible. It was a philosophical shift in Anderson’s own mind that allowed the coffee shop to assume its current place in the Burlington arts community, he says.
“Opening myself up to being less judgmental and giving people a shot was really important,” Anderson explains. While he had a loose idea of what he wanted the Bean’s identity to be, he was more certain about the things he didn’t want it to become. Early on, Anderson says, he guarded against those tendencies fiercely, sometimes to the detriment of the business. Indeed, the café still fights a perception as a haven for hipper-than-thou snobbery, which Anderson blames himself for fostering, albeit not intentionally.
“I look at my old journals and shake my head,” he says. “How could I have been such a dick?”
Several years ago, Anderson had a transformative moment following a violent altercation outside the café in which he was involved, stemming from a love feud. After throwing a punch at a good friend, Anderson turned and walked away. In a subsequent dream, he was led back to the scene and relived the entire incident.
“It radiated through me in the dream that that moment was Pandora’s box,” he says. “But it wasn’t when I punched him in the face that opened the box; it was when I turned and walked away.”
Anderson points to that revelation as the moment when both he and Radio Bean changed, and the café blossomed into its present shape. He notes that business increased significantly, and that people who’d previously felt uncomfortable with the Bean’s elitist vibe began returning.
“Radio Bean took a huge turn at that point,” he says. “We’re still accused of being cliquey. But, in my opinion, that’s radically changed from what it was those first five years.”
Amanda Gustafson is the keyboardist and vocalist for Burlington rock band Swale. That band played its first show at Radio Bean nine years ago, even though, Gustafson concedes, they “really weren’t ready.”
“The Radio Bean is a work in progress,” she says. “It’s authentically growing and changing all the time. And that kind of creative spirit is very welcoming and inviting to everyone that goes there, not just musicians.”
Keyboardist Shane Hardiman has played a weekly jazz session at Radio Bean every Thursday night for the past seven years and worked there as a barista for the past three. He’s experienced that growth on both sides of the stage, and both sides of the bar.
“There are new faces all the time,” he says. “But it’s the kind of place that, when people do feel comfortable, they choose to spend a lot of their time here.”
“Half of the great things that have happened in my life happened because Lee is here,” says Gustafson, who met her husband, Swale guitarist Eric Olsen, at defunct Burlington venue Club Toast. But Radio Bean, she says, “is where we found each other.”
“Lee has an ethic,” Gustafson says. “But it’s an anti-ethic. His vibe is to let things be and happen in the natural way they’re supposed to be. Things grow. Things break. People are awesome. People suck. We move on. Anyone that’s been doing any creative venture knows that that’s the deal.
“You’re not awesome forever, and you don’t just keep getting better,” Gustafson says. “It’s a bumpy road. But you keep doing it, and that’s where you find that vitality. Radio Bean is a living metaphor for that creative process.”