As night falls over West Mobile, a faith-based study group rearranges chairs in order to gather for their weekly coffee house meeting.
“We can’t go in there,” one of them, a young woman, seemingly in charge, mutters, pointing to a back room. “It looks like they’re about to have something in there.”
Looking up at a cork board near the register, she reads aloud each poster on the business’ de facto event calendar. “It says they are having a … ‘Mix Tape Meet-Up’ and a concert tonight, too,” she tells her friends in a confused tone. “We’re here every Tuesday night. They never have anything like this. It’s usually pretty quiet,” she says.
In the back room where she points, Satori Coffee House’s newly minted co-owner Neil Byrne is setting up turntables, amps and other audio equipment for what will be his first official music event in the space. For the last two decades, the building has served as a quaint meeting house, just nearby the University of South Alabama, where students can study and chat. For Neil, his brother Chuck Byrne, and many other longtime fans of hardcore music genres like garage, punk and grunge, Satori will always be what it was in their formative years: a haven for angsty, indie rock in a town that never truly understood it.
“Before the internet, it was ‘word of mouth’. There were only a handful of places you could find underground music. And this was one of those spots,” Neil says of Satori’s heyday.
Before the business was converted into a coffee shop, it was Satori Sound Records, a store operated by Chuck Cox. Cox serviced curious, young Mobilians hard-to-find vinyl and cassettes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cox, who continues to work at Satori, aiding the Byrne brothers through their transition into owners, admits he wasn’t crazy about the music much of his clientele relied on him to obtain.
“The most hardcore stuff I really liked might have been the Ramones,” Cox says.
“We did a lot of special ordering,” Cox says, rattling off a list of artists fans enjoyed most during Satori’s golden years.
The list includes bygone local talent like The Vomit Spots, and better-known names like Olympia, Washington, outfit Bikini Kill – an entry which caused barista Michelle Showers to lift her head from behind the counter and nod in a display of nostalgic approval.
Neil notes he vividly remembers his favorite records from the good ol’ days of Satori Sound, but he chooses not to share, as the titles might be too controversial to publish.
“The two (titles) I’m thinking of, I can’t mention,” he says, snickering, before settling on safer selection to mention. “All my Iron Maiden came from here and all my Loretta Lynn records came from here.”
But, there were also in-store appearances.
“I saw XBXRX here, before they got big and left Mobile to go to California. There was Neil Hamburger, Conecuh Workshop. There were a lot of good, edgy shows here, back in the day,” Neil says.
Alongside Satori, there were two other coveted strongholds for Mobile’s hardcore scene. In midtown, there was Four Strong Winds Coffee House. “Every Friday and Saturday night for a good while, there’d be a 100 to 200 kids packed into that place – all ages. Filled with smoke burning your eyes,” Neil remembers.
The other vital piece was WTOH, a college radio station which kept the insider music in heavy rotation at a time Neil and Chuck say Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC were still too heavy for most audiences in South Alabama. To keep the station afloat, the staff would often book their favorite bands for benefit concerts. Chuck says he still recalls the feeling of watching his older brother run off to go enjoy the music while he had to stay behind.
But, as times changed tastes among the youth of Mobile they took those two entities along with it, and Satori became the focal point of the scene. Before long, it too, seemed to be on the chopping block.
“By ’99 you started to see just about every housewife in America had a CD burner. At that time, people were downloading music for free,” Chuck Cox says. “Things flipped on us like crazy, because all the college kids had CD burners – so, what they’d do is, they’d just burn their CDs and trade their CDs in, so no one was really buying anything.”
Being right by the University of South Alabama, Cox decided to turn the front of the store into a coffee shop, selling albums in the back of the store. By 2001, however, Satori went full-on coffee shop – leaving its past a musical hub behind.
That doesn’t mean Satori lost all its original clientele, though.
“For years, whenever someone would come to town, it’d be our place to come back to and hash out whatever that’s new going on in your life,” Chuck Byrne says. “We’d catch up and relive old stories. It’s a foundation of that for me. A point of reference.”
It’s remained that way, with Cox at the helm, until he decided to begin looking to sell last fall. Neil, between jobs as a downtown bar manager, pulled into his old stomping grounds for a late-night coffee, before a weekly DJ gig. Cox discretely passed him a postcard – on it were figures for the sale of the shop.
“I thought somebody like Neil would be the best kind of person to buy it and kinda liven things up a bit at night,” Cox says.
Neil didn’t agree.
He showed the postcard to a couple downtown bar owners before eventually showing his brother.
Chuck Byrne slept on the numbers before convincing Neil it was the perfect opportunity.
Now fully in charge, the Byrnes are committed to embracing Satori’s current structure, while implementing the nuances of the cultural experimentation they experienced in the shop as teenagers.
“It’s a neighborhood coffee shop,” Neil says. “As much as it is a center for us, it’s a center for multiculturalism. We don’t wanna change that. I wanna keep it somewhat edgy. I want it to be deep in the arts – all types of music and culture, so everybody can learn from everybody. Then, we can enjoy and love and appreciate everyone’s uniqueness,” Neil says.
“Sounds very hippie, Neil,” Chuck jokes.
This time, Neil agrees.
From left, Ally Brooke, Normani Kordei, Lauren Jauregui and Dinah Jane of Fifth Harmony perform at Y100’s Jingle Ball at the BB&T Center on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Sunrise, Fla. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)