GLOUCESTER – Three years ago, Jay Hutchins saw a dilapidated old gas station next to his family’s flower shop being transformed into a performing arts venue.
Hutchins, a drummer in high school and a theater major in college, soon came to enjoy Sunday afternoon jam sessions with the building’s owner, Ray Friend, a guitarist. He eventually joined the board of Friend’s nonprofit arts organization, Flat Iron Crossroads, and embraced its mission to provide diverse cultural performances and educational workshops.
When Friend decided to retire this year for family reasons, he offered to sell the two-acre property to Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a nearby flower bulb company and garden store in Gloucester County. Hutchins is a longtime general manager at the local business.
“We started thinking, ‘What if whoever buys it doesn’t have the same vision?'” Hutchins recalls. “We like the neighbor we have now. We wanted Flat Iron to continue to have a home and continue to bring people into our community, which benefits all of us.”
So in early August, Brent and Becky’s took ownership of the property, including its indoor and outdoor stages, green room, and sound and lighting equipment. Flat Iron’s volunteer staff will continue to rent the space and run it as an intimate entertainment venue.
“It’s almost like going back in time,” said Dia Lawless, general manager of Flat Iron, which books performers. “You feel like you’re part of the show, not just watching it from afar from a large crowd or on a video screen. It’s a homey place.”
The Flat Iron is located across the road from Brent and Becky’s, a few miles from the center of Gloucester. Hutchins remembers it as a garage where he took his car for easy inspections as a teenager.
Friend completely renovated the crumbling gray structure, which dates back nearly 100 years, decorating it with paintings of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia. He also hung sound-absorbing acoustic panels, musical instruments and lights on the walls.
The site opened in October 2019, but had to close the following March during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of giving up, Friend built a 20-by-40-foot outdoor stage surrounded by trees, grass, and a pond; he also started streaming events and launched YouTube and radio shows.
Flat Iron has attracted musicians from Virginia and beyond, featuring genres including jazz, blues, folk, rock and reggae. The venue is also designed to host performances, poetry readings and events such as jazz decades and receptions, with a capacity of around 150 indoors and 400 outdoors and a wooden bar serving beer, wine and soda.
International guests have included singers and drummers from the Central American country of Belize and dancers from Ghana. African performers who auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” held a workshop for children and invited them on stage during an evening performance.
Brent and Becky’s, formerly known as The Daffodil Mart, has been a local institution since 1900. Hutchins and his wife, Denise, are the fourth generation of their family to work there, following his mother and stepfather, Brent and Becky Heath.
The store, which began as a laurel farm, sells bulbs for all seasons plus gardening supplies, gloves and books with planting tips.
Hutchins describes his family as music and theater lovers who hope to partner with Flat Iron Crossroads on joint events such as festivals and weddings. He also expects fans of particular bands to follow them to Gloucester, even from out of state.
“In terms of tourism, our objectives match,” he noted. “People who come to each of us will stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and just enjoy our area.”
Musicians who have played at Flat Iron Crossroads were happy to learn it will stay open. Brian Eubanks, bassist for the Bobby Blackhat Band and leader of a second band, Fade to Blue, considers it one of the best live music venues in the state.
“It’s a real treasure,” Eubanks said, pointing to the cozy indoor atmosphere, large outdoor stage, unique artwork and quality sound system. “To play there is a performer’s dream.”
As a non-profit organization, Flat Iron channels additional revenue into a fund to support arts education efforts. The money could go to a student for a class, for example, or to the organizer of a workshop or community mentoring program.
“It’s really a special place,” Hutchins said. “We think this is going to be a great partnership.”
For a calendar of shows and events at Flat Iron Crossroads, visit flatironcrossroads.com. The address is 7709 Flat Iron Road in Gloucester.
Alison, Johnson, [email protected]