After hosting roughly 5,000 musical events over 22 years of operation, Cyber Cafe West closed its doors on June 28 — but it leaves behind a long legacy as a Binghamton mainstay for music, food and culture.
Opened by Binghamton University alum Jeff Kahn, ‘84, and Mimi Rietsch, his business partner, in 1997 as an internet cafe, Cyber Cafe West, located at 176 Main St., has adopted many roles. Before it became Cyber Cafe West, the building served as The Turf Exchange, a 1920’s speakeasy. When Khan and Rietsch purchased the building, they envisioned the cafe as a space for music programming. Rietsch left the cafe in 2003, but over the years, the business became known for bringing eclectic musicians and bands to the Binghamton area.
Gabe Steinberg, a senior majoring in computer science, played the venue as a member of former student band The Landshark Committee. He said the cafe’s diverse range of performances brought people together.
“It was immediately a hangout spot once there was someone playing there,” he said. “Some big bands would come and it was nice to see that we were playing in the same venue as some bigger bands from out of town.”
Despite the cafe’s multifaceted history, its potential to draw loyal patrons eventually surpassed its potential to turn a profit. According to Kahn, there had been financial issues from the beginning of his endeavor, and the money situation took a turn for the worse in recent years.
“Even as I felt we were getting better in many ways, business was going down,” he said. “My people aged out; I didn’t replace them with young people. I can’t tell you what’s popular now, and I think I might have been punished a little for that.”
Still, the relationship between Cyber Cafe West and BU is a legacy in itself. Students living on the West Side might know the cafe as a study spot by day and a music venue by night, with organizations flocking there for fundraising events and student bands frequently taking the stage. The cafe has hosted benefit concerts in conjunction with Mu Phi Epsilon, a professional music fraternity, and WHRW 90.5 FM, BU’s campus radio station. In May, members of BU’s Slam Poetry Club organized a meetup at the cafe’s monthly open mic.
Although Kahn attributes Cyber Cafe West’s struggle to the lack of interest from younger generations, Steinberg said the cafe fulfilled his desire for a unique venue that functioned as a gathering place.
“I feel like music venues just shouldn’t be closing,” he said. “I had this dream of going to college and starting a venue with my friends … and making it into a hangout spot, but then I realized there were already great places that we just [had] to book performances at and it [would] be exactly what I wanted.”
After announcing its closure on Facebook, the cafe held a farewell concert for its final evening of business. Kahn’s band, Monkey’s Typing, reunited after six years of retirement for one last gig.
“It was the best week ever — going out of business was great for business,” Kahn said. “If I thought of this four years ago, it would have been ‘Cyber Cafe, going out of business since 2015.’ The last night, it was just insane. There was no beer left. We had 27 kegs when I announced the closure.”
Hannah Sprout, 22, of Endwell, grew up across the street from the cafe and described it as “a safe haven” and “a second home.”
“I really never thought the day would come, so it’s extremely shocking to me,” she said. “It just wasn’t like a corporate place — you know, it wasn’t like every other cafe. It was so old-school and grassroots with such an open environment. I kind of hoped the community would come together and not let it go away. This place has been open for so long and has so much history.”
Patrons will have to wait to find out what’s coming next. Kahn said he is currently in negotiations with a potential buyer, and plans to keep the community alive by hosting trivia on Tuesday nights at the Lost Dog Cafe.
“This person has something interesting that I think they’re gonna do; it’s not what I did,” he said. “I think that Cyber Cafe as it was is history. But the building has its history prior to me that was pretty interesting, and hopefully it’ll be interesting after.”
Kahn said he hopes the cafe will be remembered fondly by past patrons as a labor of love and a hub for Binghamton arts.
“I always hoped to have an influence in the community, and on my better days I want to say I did something that was helpful,” he said. “A lot of bands got their start, and a lot of people had memories from it. I think we exist in memories.”