Bruce Holland likes to say he never has to travel again. He can just stay in Tampa and the countries come to him.
"In a week, I'll have people coming in from five or six different countries," says Holland, who runs Gram's Place, Tampa's only hostel, tucked into a Tampa Heights neighborhood. "We get travelers from Germany, France, England, New Zealand, Australia, all over."
In the first few minutes of arriving at Gram's Place, I know what he means. As I round a corner toward my room, a young Russian traveler greets me. His name is Andrew, he's 22, and he's lodged here since June.
"I love this place because I meet different people," he tells me in heavily accented English. "It's a very good experience for me as an exchange student to hear the different stories of people."
We have something in common then; I'm here for some stories, too. But I also want to escape Tampa for a night inside this funky hostel and pretend I'm somewhere else. I find it's not hard to do.
As a group of musicians set up instruments in the hostel courtyard -- Thursday nights are jam sessions, I'm told -- Bruce Holland leads me up wooden stairs to the Crow's Nest, a little patio overlooking the two tin-roofed cottages that make up Gram's Place. Oak and fig trees hide us from the neighbors. It almost feels like I'm in the mountains of North Carolina.
Bruce helped find this property at Ola Avenue and Plymouth Street for his brother, Mark Holland, back in the mid-'70s. It took them three months to get the Outlaws motorcycle gang members out of the house, then a few more months to clean up the mess.
Mark lived here with his girlfriend Brenda McClintock, sometimes renting out a room or two to college students. An avid Gram Parsons fan, he turned his garage into a makeshift museum for the country rock legend and created a foundation in his name.
During a trip to Amsterdam in 1989 for a ceremony honoring Parsons, Mark stayed in a hostel for the first time. The experience was inspirational.
When he returned to Tampa, he decided to recreate the experience but with a musical twist. He outfitted his rooms with bunk beds, concert memorabilia and instruments, and gave them musical themes: the folk room, country room, blues room. Later, as travelers poured in, he added on more dormitories: the Train Room with rounded ceilings like a boxcar and the treehouse-like Adventure Room. He had a stage built, installed a Jacuzzi and a tiki-style BYOB bar.
Gram's Place became a funky mix of Key West kitsch, music appreciation and European attitude.
Thousands of travelers passed through the wooden gate during the first few years. Mark helped chase gang members from the park across the street, and some Tampa Heights residents credit him for helping turn the neighborhood around. Even when code enforcement officials tried to shut Gram's Place down, Mark had amassed enough community support to win favor with the Tampa City Council, and his fines were erased.
But last November, on Gram Parsons' birthday, Mark Holland committed suicide. His family considered closing Gram's Place. It had been losing money for several months.
But Bruce, a real estate agent out of work since the housing bust, decided to give it a try. And over the last eight months, he's begun to understand why his brother poured his heart into the place.
"I never want to sell it," he tells me. "It's become a landmark."
The rooms at Gram's Place are clean, but not at all fancy. Most are small, with a few bunk beds and a shared small bathroom (private rooms are available). There are few amenities other than WiFi and free coffee -- no continental breakfast, shuttles or alarm clocks. But travelers don't come to Gram's Place to stay in their rooms; they're here for nights like the Thursday open jams, when even neighbors and local musicians come out to play or listen.
In the Little Amsterdam courtyard, red lights cast a glow on a mix of hostel guests and visitors surrounding the stage, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers. (Bruce provides beers for a $2 donation, or you can BYOB.)
There's Marilyn, who lives three blocks away and, in her exuberance, talks through most of the songs. Sitting nearby is Tyrene, a young brunette wrapped up in a blanket, who has been here a week and a half. She left Miami earlier in the month after a breakup with her boyfriend, touring the Southeastern U.S. until she happened upon Gram's Place. Now, she's thinking of starting school here in the fall. On the other side of the courtyard is Johnny, a bearded fellow who breaks his silence only to greet newcomers with "Bonjour!"
On stage, Johnny Hendrix strums a Rolling Stones tune. When Hendrix first came to Gram's Place a few years ago, homeless and broke, Mark put him up until he found an apartment. Now he repays the favor by playing guitar every Thursday night.
The jam lasts until well after 1 a.m., with the guests in a semicircle, laughing and grooving. Andrew (the Russian) taps a keyboard and sings an original song. At this moment, despite the oppressive humidity, mosquitoes and the palm trees overhead, Gram's place could be a smoky Montreal bar or a tiny hostel in Amsterdam.
Then Bruce brings us back: "Hey everyone, I think it's time for some grits."
Gram's Place, 3109 N. Ola Ave., Tampa. Rooms start at $23.
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