Live Wire celebrates anniversary in traditional indie style
By Morgan M. Hurley | SDUN Assistant Editor
As the owners of Live Wire in North Park prepare to celebrate 20 years in business, patrons and past barkeeps – 38 to be exact – are making travel plans for an anniversary weekend that will be “off the hook,” Live Wire-style.
Named for the KCR college radio station at San Diego State University where Live Wire’s two owners worked some 25 years ago, this scary-on-the-outside but warm-on-the-inside place at the corner of Alabama Street and El Cajon Boulevard is one of the hippest dive bars in town.
Since day one, its juke box has been turning out the same indie rock that owners Sam Chammas and Joe Austin lovingly spun on KCR, music you would be hard-pressed to find on other juke boxes around town. The beer that flows from their 24 taps is just, well, divine.
Where craft beer is now commonplace and most beer pubs in the area tout long lists of new and local brews on tap, Live Wire was one of the first to do so.
“We decided to open up a different kind of bar, a bar that really embraced the beers that were turning us on and all the beers that were kinda new,” Chammas said. “We went full force into all the best imports and micro-brewed beer at that time.”
Unheard of in 1992, they opened Live Wire with 10 taps. Since then, the two college friends have helped launch dozens of tasty beers, with 25 percent of the brews being local at all times.
The bar also served not only as a respite for local band members before and after their late-night gigs, but also as a place for them to market their music, as new CDs always found their way into the juke box.
“If you like beer and music, this is where you wanted to be spending your time,” Austin said.
There was even a five-year period when local bands were allowed to pound away for Live Wire crowds from the back of the bar, until the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control decided otherwise.
The location’s seedy past and the sordidness that defined El Cajon Boulevard in 1992 presented the young new entrepreneurs with some early challenges. One of the first things they did was remove a bank of payphones just outside the door, a move that was not very popular with some of the local street life.
“Safety was a big issue, but when you’re in your 20s, it’s funny how much we’ll put our life on the line just to have a good time,” Chammas said. “One thing the seedy element doesn’t like is foot traffic, and we were crazy busy in the early ’90s. It helped push that element along.”
The deep red, box-style stucco exterior and its signature rusty-looking bike rack – which is actually a custom-made iron art installation of a bicycle that appears to be melting into the sidewalk – at once belies, but in some ways matches what awaits inside.
Once patrons’ eyes adjust to the low lights, it quickly becomes clear this place has personality. There is a long bar adorned with perfectly spaced stools bolted to the polished, wooden floors, several deep red faux-leather booths, and a couple of “shrines,” one that Austin said reminds him of a refrigerator with dozens of odd mementos accumulated over time.
There are also stacks of well-lit metal shelves that house every type of alcohol imaginable and that encapsulate the 24 quality taps, with two long, sleek wooden counters behind the bar made from actual bowling lanes extracted from the demolished Aztec Bowl nearby.
This is just one example of how important area history is to these native San Diegans. Consider the fact Chammas and Austin also took the reigns for 10 years of Golden Hill’s long-abandoned Turf Supper Club, breathing life back into it before handing it back to its previous owner.
While Austin is off managing his day job, and Chammas is busy running their other joint projects, – The Riviera Supper Club in La Mesa and Krakatoa Coffee in Golden Hill – as well as his own restaurants The Whistle Stop and The Station in South Park, they both say it is Manager Thaddeus Robles that keeps Live Wire on track.
“He is the heart and soul of this place; he gets it,” Chammas said. “He used to stand outside and talk to friends while listening to the bands from outside the door [because he was underage]. Then he started [working] at the door ten years ago.” Six years later, Robles was promoted to manager.
In the 1990s, long before the internet, Live Wire served the community as the weekly bulletin board for the local indie scene, promoting bands, events and even their competition. The stash of flyers posted every Thursday in advance of the weekend drew a hefty crowd.
Then, they pioneered the weekly email blast and sent their newsletter that way for 15 years. Today, they have 4,000 followers on their Facebook page, keeping contact with people who still pop in as well as those who have moved away.
“There is something at Live Wire that people keep coming back for,” Chammas said.
Celebrate with Sam and Joe
Located at 2103 El Cajon Blvd., Live Wire’s 20th anniversary party will be held the weekend of Oct. 19 – 20. Friday night will be bartender alumni night, where they “roll back the prices to 1992” by offering $3 draughts for anyone showing up in a Live Wire anniversary T-shirt, which you can also buy this year.
Saturday night, indie bands aMiniature and No Knife will reunite for a sold-out party held at the Mississippi Room of the Lafayette Hotel, two blocks away. Also Saturday, MIHO Gastrotruck will be bringing a custom taco cart, and other events will be happening up and down the street between the Lafayette Hotel and Live Wire.