Students revitalize Bob’s Underground as a space for creativity – The Scarlet and Black
By Ryleigh Hayworth
On a tight-knit campus like Grinnell, there are only so many places where you can relax. Bob’s Underground Café, the historic space for creativity, community, and campus life, was one such space. In 2017 the cafe closed and since the pandemic the space has not been used or maintained as it once was. This spring, Friends of Bob’s Underground is working to restore Bob to his former glory and has held several events over the past few weeks, including an open mic night and a painting study break.
“It’s nice to just have a dedicated creative space where people don’t necessarily have to do their homework,” said Alyson Won `25. “I see this part of institutional memory, of institutional culture being creatively reshaped.”
In March, Friends of Bob’s Underground was created to collect student thoughts on the future of this space. This group is currently overseen by SGA Vice President of Academic Affairs, Ashton Aveling `22, but the goal is for younger students to take charge of the revival of this space to create a sustainable environment. With the revival of Bob’s comes the revival of traditions such as open mic nights, where students come to share poetry, music, comedy and more.
“I think when you first met the 13 or 14 of us who were there, it was a bit difficult to see him [Bob’s] as a vibrant creative space, but seen during the open-mic night, it was basically standing room only,” Won said. “Having a student space on campus where you can express yourself creatively, like outside of academia, is really special and it feels like for a while that’s what was missing from the campus culture.
Since reopening this semester, Bob’s has hosted the weekly PubQuiz Q&A competition on Wednesday evenings. The average attendance at PubQuiz is around 40-50 students, competing in teams of six. One week, the event brought together 19 teams, or about 80 students. Before reopening Bob’s, they met this year in the CSSS multipurpose room.
“This [Bob’s] feels very Grinnell, just all about it. The multipurpose room is good, but it’s too beautiful. All tables are identical. All the chairs are the same,” said PubQuiz chief Isaac Throndson `23. “The ability to be in a space but see it differently each time is something really cool.”
Stand-up comedy has traditionally been a part of open-mic nights, and student comedy club leader EJ Schwartz `23 says Bob has been an important space for the band.
“Bob’s is just the best performance space there is, you know, for students. I use Bob’s because it’s the best for stand-up comedy, it’s the best intimate performance space,” a Schwartz said.
Bob’s walls and furniture are covered in student artwork spanning decades. When the space reopened, some walls had been repainted by FM. In addition to reviving the space with student life, Friends of Bob is reviving the space with new arts by hosting student painting events, the next of which will be on Wednesday, April 27.
Other renovations and purchases are underway, but budget approval is a slow process. The group wants to reintroduce food and drink but buying the necessary devices and materials can take time. Since Bob’s is designated as a substance-free space, one of Won’s ideas is to serve non-alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktails.
“[Bob’s] was just another space other than the Grill where there was food and creative things happening,” Won said. “It was a cafe where people had an espresso machine for coffee, avocado toast, smoothies and all that. So things that people like to consume.
Students appreciate Bob’s for being a space other than the academic buildings or the JRC where students can relax or be creative. In the past, Bob has held workshops on various topics. PubQuiz executives Evan Schultheis `23 and Tara Rawlings `23 recall a BDSM workshop held at Bob’s during their freshman year during the inter-campus Sex Week event in the spring semester.
“I think we need to bring food back to Bob and bring back workshops,” Schultheis said. “It shouldn’t just be another place for students to study because I feel like it’s so boring.”
PubQuiz for the past few years has been held at Lyle’s Pub, which is in the basement of the JRC and is another former student space not currently used by students.
“Anywhere you could go and hang out as a student, it’s kind of gone,” Rawlings said. “So it would be nice to have that [Bob’s] come back and run again.
The future of Bob’s Underground depends on the students of Grinnell, and the Friends of Bob’s are looking for creative ideas to reinvent the space. Bob’s may still be part of the Grinnell campus, but students have a creative freedom in this space that they don’t have in spaces like HSSC.
It’s nice to just have a dedicated creative space where people don’t necessarily have to do their homework. – Alyson won `25
“We are always accepting more feedback and especially now students can have a say in what happens to [Bob’s]”Won said. “I think it’s important for people to have a say in what’s going on with their environment.