Opening day had been a long time coming for Club Verse.
The new LGBTQ+ bar opened on Thursday, Oct. 27 — only a day and a half after Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services’ commissioners granted a full bar license to the location at 609 S. State St. in Salt Lake City, something the owners had been seeking for four months.
Owner Michael Repp said people were ready to visit the bar, and some 1,600 supportive patrons, anxious for a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ customers, checked it out.
“It was chaotic, fun and stressful,” Repp said of opening night. “It was something that we had forgotten about the nightlife scene since we hadn’t been in it for 10 months. But now, it ignited again: Why we do what we do for the queer community here in Salt Lake is really important.”
A number of those patrons, Repp said, were regular visitors to The Sun Trapp, the landmark LGBTQ+ bar that he and his husband, Riley Richter, used to manage. Their tenure ended at the start of the year, with a bitter ownership dispute and lawsuit that left the bar’s patrons and 13 employees in limbo. When Verse opened, seven of those 13 were working at the new bar.
That history made Verse’s opening night an emotional one, said Lynn Katoa, Verse’s bar manager. Verse is a separate venture from The Sun Trapp — which is operated by Repp’s and Richter’s former business partner — and Katoa stressed that there are “no hard feelings between anybody in the community. … Everybody has their designated safe space. We’re not trying to take that away from nobody.”
Repp doesn’t say much about The Sun Trapp these days, but in an interview in May, he said Verse was born like a “phoenix out of the flames of an extremely emotional and bad situation.” An idea formed in his living room, he said then, “over tears” and those “13 people’s needs to still be tied to our community.”
As a sign of the community’s support, Repp and Katoa noted that Verse, while still under construction and before it got its liquor license, threw a “midtown Pride block party” in June, during Pride month, and some 6,000 people showed up.
Work still to be done
The opening was joyous, Repp and Katoa said, but the bar is still chipping away at finishing touches. And Repp, Katoa and the staff have some big dreams: A rooftop patio, a “mocktail” bar and coffee shop, and a massive foundation wall. They aim to make the front part of the business accessible to people under 21, so they have to bring in “covers” for the liquor, to satisfy the DABS. Repp said there’s $40,000 of plywood on the walls alone.
That’s a far cry better than what the space looked like in May, when there were cracked overhead windows, a lot of confetti on the floor from a music video filming there and a stray pigeon or two hiding in the rafters.
Preparing the space to get Verse up and running, Repp said, has been “the most stressful thing I’ve ever done.”
“There’s so many components behind the scenes that have to take place in Utah,” he said. Though he said the bar had a good experience with the DABS, he details working with “14 different departments” to get the rest done.
“This is everything from public utilities to zoning and planning,” Repp said. “The city implements all of these rules in all of these departments, but all of these departments don’t speak inter-departmentally.”
Another frustration was the time spent waiting through the process “when you have thousands of people that depend on you for a safe space,” Repp said. “It was an experience of where do we house people? What do we do, how can we still be relevant in this construction? … Those setbacks alone were so frustrating and emotional because all you see is that your goal was going away. The safe space is going away, your friends are struggling.”
There was no choice, Repp said, but to just dig in and keep going.
What makes a safe space?
Making Verse into a safe space for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community isn’t easy, Repp said.
In the club’s bathroom plan, for example, Repp said they wanted gender-neutral restrooms. But one city agency came in, he said, and told them “we don’t like your bathrooms not having doors.”
“Salt Lake City has not adopted the 2021 building code for [gender-neutral] restrooms,” Repp said. “We’re operating on a 2019 business code, which says you have to have occupancy by gender.”
Repp said he will have a group of transgender patrons knock down the wall in front of where the restrooms are located, and commissioning Utah artist Geri Cordova to create an art installation to “gender release” that space.
Categorizing a venue as a safe space is one thing, but actively ensuring that safety is another.
Among the safety precautions: Having “tough conversations about mental health” in their community; having “condom covers” on glasses, so nobody can slip something into a drink; working with the University of Utah’s HIV Prep Clinic, the Utah AIDS Foundation; and making the bar itself wider, so bartenders have to physically hand drinks to patrons.
The bar is also beefing up its security. Part of the reason is because it’s opening on State Street and seeing an increase in traffic in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. The other reason is concerns about being targeted because it’s an LGBTQ+ space.
Verse plans to have a wall space dedicated to the 49 people killed in the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ+ club during Pride month. For a time, it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
The memorial, Repp said, is a reminder that people in Utah think about what happened in Florida every day. “Not the tragedy, but the lesson learned — and that’s that we have to be ever present, no matter what,” he said.
“The only way you can create a safe space is to actually listen to your community at large about what they need,” Repp said, adding that the club is putting together a “community panel,” of a half-dozen or so people from “all brackets of our community.” The panel will discuss what the community needs and how Verse, as a bar, can help.
Ultimately, they hope the success of Verse lies within the core meaning of its name.
The word “verse,” Repp said, “is a lyrical rhyme and a mathematical journey to poetry. I think the word ‘verse’ is utilitarian and it can mean so many things, at the end of the day, it’s wrapped with compassion and empathy for people who are still growing.”
It’s reflected in the overhead lighting choices they have at Verse, which everyone sees right as they walk in: Four Celtic symbols for compassion, empathy, honesty and trust — things to promote a stable environment, Repp says, and a reminder of what the club is all about.
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