Jonn Paul was on his way to find a game of pool when he wandered past the Night Sky Cafe two years ago.
His curiosity piqued by the fledgling business, he decided to step in for a look. Several hours later, he left the small Union Street pub and eatery as a regular and with a new group of friends.
“From that point on, I haven’t left,” said Paul, who made a point of visiting the cafe almost every day since. “This is the only place you can walk in and walk out two hours later knowing half the people.”
Likewise, Nathan Davis and Sarah Lentz were looking for something new when they were drawn to the Night Sky and decided to stop in for a drink. Inside, they found an eclectic group of people, good conversation and place that almost seemed like home.
“You can do anything here,” said Lentz, as the friendly beat of Celtic music filled the small corner shop.
Behind the bar stood owner Cathie Russell, a cup of joe in hand, a gentle smile on her face and a glimmer in her eyes.
Two years ago, she was placing the finishing touches on her first foray into the cutthroat restaurant business; two years later, she and a jovial gang of regulars were bidding their beloved cafe adieu.
“It’s been a glorious two years,” beamed Russell. “I’ve met the best people in the world, and that was exactly what I set out to do.”
Following months of dwindling business and with her debt mounting, Russell announced what many of her regulars had quietly feared: the Night Sky would go dark at the end of March.
The business took a turn for the worse over the fall and into winter after achieving a modest profit in August, a trend Russell attributed to the overall dip in the Capital Region’s economy.
“People that used to come in for three or four beers and a pizza were coming in for two and a pretzel,” she said Friday during the cafe’s last night in business.
The 54-year-old former physical therapist’s assistant had always intended to start a bar in retirement.
But after her marriage ended, Russell decided starting the business might be just what she needed to get through some hard times.
She initially sought a location near the arcade by Proctors, but settled for one a bit farther off the beaten path.
She had hoped the location would draw music lovers, live acts and a crowd not satisfied with the louder bars and pubs around Schenectady; and for the most part, it did.
The cafe proved to be a haven for the people Russell loosely calls “misfits” — a cultured crowd ranging from their early 20s to their early 60s, who never seemed to find their social niche in downtown Schenectady.
Those with a taste for live jazz and lively conversation seemed innately drawn to the Night Sky and were quickly adopted into its growing family of regulars.
Russell’s patrons formed a sort of bond not common to the standard lunch spot or corner.
Regulars would even meet up outside the cafe for trips around the Capital Region. They went to a wine tasting once and the Great Escape on another occasion.
For two years, Russell toiled at the business with her lone employee, her son Ben Gidley.
Together, they worked furiously to keep cups filled, fare moving from the kitchen and the free exchange of ideas through the dinning room.
Despite their efforts, the cafe never seemed to find its rightful place among the city’s bar and restaurant businesses.
The Night Sky never attracted students from Union College or the after-theater crowd from Proctors, and its lunch business never took off.
Because of her location in a historic district, Russell wasn’t permitted to use a neon sign on her storefront, so few knew she served beer and wine.
Before long, she was placing a hand-drawn sign on the front door announcing a “bon voyage party” and inviting anyone outside to “come sink with the ship.”
“It’s going to be hard finding another place like this,” lamented regular patron Andrei Squires.
“It’s not going to be hard,” answered his friend Jessica Daniels. “It’s going to be impossible.”
But Russell disagreed. Eventually, she said her displaced regulars will find a new spot to call their own.
“You can always find a Night Sky when you’re wondering about life,” she said. “It’s always here.”