Ace of Cups changes hands

Joel Oliphint
joliphint@columbusalive.com
Marcy Mays and Conor Stratton

When Conor Stratton, a Yellow Springs native, came to Columbus in 2017, he made the move mostly because of Ace of Cups.

“I had been coming to Ace of Cups since I was 18 to see shows,” Stratton said. “I loved it here. It's the only reason why I'm even familiar with the Old North, and it's the only reason why, when I did move here, I was like, ‘I know where I want to live. I want to live somewhere near Ace of Cups.’ And that's exactly what I've done.”

Stratton, 28, got a degree in music management from Hocking College, then spent some time in Athens at Ohio University. He ran the Dayton Music Art and Film Festival before launching Springsfest, a Yellow Springs music festival that has featured headliners such as Guided by Voices, Deerhunter and more.

One day last fall, as Ace of Cups owner Marcy Mays worked to keep the venue afloat mid-pandemic alongside friends like Carmen Owens (Grass Skirt Tiki Room) and musician/promoter Kyle Sowash, Stratton was catching up with a friend on Ace’s patio, discussing their hopes and goals. “My dream is to one day run a place like Ace of Cups,” Stratton told his friend.

Owens happened to be listening nearby. “To overhear Conor — who’s known and loved and a regular face we would see twice a weekend — to have that sentence fall out of his mouth, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This could be the most perfect marriage,'” said Owens, who quickly disappeared inside to find Mays.

To say the last several months had been a challenge for Mays is an understatement. Even after incorporating to-go cocktails and socially distanced, outdoor patio shows, the future of the venue was hanging by a thread. “Everyone was like, ‘Is your landlord being cool about the rent?’ Well, yeah, but they're keeping track. And the reality was, they probably weren't going to let me sign the lease. That was the cold, hard fact of the situation,” said Mays, who also got a full-time job during the pandemic. “They had actually asked me, ‘Can we start letting other businesses look at this space?’ I've always had a good relationship with them, and I totally understand that that's what they had to do.”

Owens had been present when potential buyers walked through the space, hoping to turn it into a microbrewery, and she knew how important it was to Mays to keep Ace of Cups a music venue. So after overhearing Stratton, she cornered Mays inside the bar. “Carmen is always looking out for me,” said Mays, who previously co-owned Short North bar Surly Girl Saloon with Owens and Liz Lessner. “It's great to have friends who are like, ‘You've reached your limit, girl. … You need to face reality.’”

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Mays found Stratton and asked him if he wanted to buy Ace of Cups. Stratton stammered, not knowing for sure if Mays was serious, then enthusiastically agreed.

If it were up to the two of them, everything would have been settled right away, but the legalities of the lease and Mays’ financial situation turned the transfer into a months-long ordeal. “There were some really uphill battles that Marcy and I had to fight to make this happen,” Stratton said in an interview with Mays at Ace of Cups this week. “There was a day that we were supposed to sign a lease, and within 24 hours everything almost crashed. It almost didn't happen. And that was two weeks ago.”

Eventually, everything got worked out. Stratton, along with business partners he declined to name, will take over the Ace of Cups lease on March 1. “I’m not made of money. I have partners,” Stratton said. “[The partners] have to stay confidential now just for their own work purposes. … They were chosen and are involved almost explicitly because of their industry backgrounds in places like this. So although I might be the face of it and will largely be managing it, the people that I'm working with are extraordinarily experienced and very aware of what needs to happen. The idea is to never, ever let this place closing be something that's an option ever again.”

Mays said she couldn’t be happier to be passing the baton to an owner who will continue to prioritize music. “This place was started to give Columbus a venue that musicians would like to play at and a venue that, I hope, treated musicians well,” she said. “I've never really made any money here because I'm not a great capitalist. It's been almost an elaborate hobby — an expensive, elaborate hobby.”

Stratton plans to host a reopening weekend sometime in March, with a different local band performing each night. “We are planning to have shows inside, but they will be tabled and socially distant, much like other places like Natalie's [have done],” he said. “The fortunate thing about this space is that it's a much bigger room, so there is a lot more flexibility to actually keep everyone sufficiently away from each other.”

For shows, Stratton said Ace will continue to book new, exciting acts, with an emphasis on Ohio bands, and he’ll keep working with local promoters such as Archie Fox Live and BravoArtist. “Some of these things will be handled in-house, but that's not the end of those relationships,” he said. “I'm a believer in community, so I like to work with people. It's never going to be a spotlight on just us.”

As far as how the place is run day-to-day, Stratton said he doesn’t intend to make drastic changes. It will still look and feel like Ace of Cups. But Mays and Stratton also agreed it’s a good time to hit the reset button. (“Like, you can’t do a six-hour soundcheck,” Mays said.) Stratton plans for Ace to have regular hours and possibly trivia nights on certain weekdays, with other occasional events, like Bloody Mary bars similar to the ones Stratton frequented at Casa Nueva in Athens.

One of Stratton’s biggest plans is to repurpose a service window into a permanent bar serving outdoor patrons. “It'll make it really nice, especially in a time like this where, if you just want to stay outside the whole time, if that's your personal preference, then you can literally never come inside, and you've also got a huge glass window between you and the bartenders,” he said. “Or maybe you don't like the band, but you love Ace and you just feel like hanging out at Ace — you can go out there and still get drinks and hang out. … So much of our priority is inclusiveness.”

In that vein, Stratton also plans to incorporate security trained in de-escalation for the front and back of the bar to keep people safe during shows. “The last thing anyone wants is a space that is not secure for people who want to have a fun, peaceful, shared experience. It's just not something we're willing to risk,” he said.

In the summer, Ace will likely host a combination of indoor and outdoor shows. In the fall and winter, it’s possible Columbus will be ready for full-capacity club shows, but there’s no guarantee. “There's still a long way to go,” Mays said. “There's going to be digging out for a while to come.”

“For those who want to be able to call this place home in 2022, we’re going to need the support,” Stratton said. “We will need people to take that ride with us.”

For Mays, the sale conjures a mix of emotions, but the primary one right now is relief. “If I would have had to close this place, I probably would've felt like I had to move away. … I'm very relieved. I think if it was normal times, I'd be feeling a lot more sadness and weirdness because there'd be more face-to-face dealing with the emotions,” she said. “But it's a pandemic, so all of that feels a step or two removed, which, for me, is actually not a bad thing. I'd probably be an emotional basket case, and I will be at some point.”

Mays said she is eternally grateful to the people who have helped keep Ace of Cups afloat the last several months. “It's a miracle that it got this far with a couple of dozen regulars and some incredibly generous people that gave very generous donations with no strings attached: ‘Try to stay open another month.’ That went a huge distance. And it worked! We didn't close,” she said. “We kept going, and this place is going into the hands of someone who will care about it. That is the best solution that could possibly happen for me.”

Soon, after 10 years of running Ace of Cups, Marcy Mays will be on the other side of the bar. “I am so looking forward to being able to come here as a customer,” she said. “I think that’s going to be a glorious feeling.”

“Marcy drinks for free,” Stratton said. “Forever.”

Marcy Mays and Conor Stratton