WALLA WALLA — Angel Magdaleno was walking downtown when he happened to pass by a nondescript white building on Colville Street. Written in the window was the name Be’n Towne, and a sign in the window identified the space as a venue for local artists and musicians.
“We were a band trying to find a place to play,” the 17-year old student said of his folk-punk group, The Comrades.
Magdaleno got in touch and organized a show at Be’n Towne, which has been putting on music and arts-focued events since April.
“The audience gets really into it,” said Magdaleno. “The audience starts singing along, clapping ... we get a really good vibe from this place.”
Be’n Towne is the vision of co-founder Polly Bingham, who began leasing the former Helpline office last September. Her goal is to create a space for local artists which celebrates individuals, encourages person-to-person connection and provides opportunities for learning and growth. The name Be’n Towne, she explained, was meant to suggest a space where human beings can just be.
The inside of Be’n Towne provides ample room for creativity, with a white counter, wall and ceiling identified in black text as “The Guestbook” — a space for volunteers and visitors to paint or write their names, and just about anything else that pops into their heads. An eclectic assortment of furniture, some purchased, some donated and some rescued from neighborhood dumpsters, lines the front of the space, with a wall separating a larger floor area where bands can perform.
An assortment of people spend their time here, too. Many look like high school students, but several older adults are around. People gather in pairs or groups, strumming guitar and discussing music, politics and whatever else is on their minds.
“A big part of this is the holistic atmosphere. I want to plant seeds and have a lot of different thought processes here,” said Bingham.
In addition to having space for musicians to perform, Be’n Towne also has a display case full of jewelry from a local artist, and Bingham hopes to attract more vendors soon. A side wall of the front room is home to an art installation called “Disposable Poetry,” an interactive piece by Sara Ybarra Lopez, which recreates poetry that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have written on styrofoam cups.
Currently, Be’n Towne is a bit of a shoestring operation, funded by donations and revenue from shows. It opens for events, which occur just about every weekend, and when volunteers are working on finishing the space, the front door is open to anyone who wants to wander in.
But Bingham’s goal is to open Be’n Towne to the public, with regular hours, in late July. To make this happen, several volunteers are working to start a coffee-selling cooperative, which will operate in the front of Be’n Towne and provide proceeds to support its operations. They’re fundraising start-up money on the crowdfunding website IndieGogo, and plan to start serving when Be’n Towne opens its doors.
Jade Fenton, one of the volunteers working on the coffee cooperative, said Be’n Towne fills a gap in the existing art and entertainment scene.
“Walla Walla already has a focus on art and music, but that tends to be for people who can afford it,” she said. “There needs to be a space for people to come and have access to these things for free.”
Bingham agreed, adding that Walla Walla’s music scene mostly takes place at bars, which automatically excludes people younger than 21. She hopes the space can bring youths and older adults together, something which has already happened with its volunteers. While she’s never actively recruited help, Bingham said people have found their way to Be’n Towne when they were most needed.
“I knew that the right people were going to walk through this door just because of what it was,” she said.
After performing a few times, Magdaleno has bcome a regular volunteer, coordinating most of the shows for Be’n Towne.
“It’s a great place for kids to have. It’s really changed the vibe of the town. Kids have really come out to support the place,” he said.
For more information about Be’n Towne, including upcoming shows, events, and the fundraiser for coffee supplies, visit facebook.com/ben.towne2.
Rachel Alexander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8363.