The Mother of Invention

Counter culture: Cynesthesia's proprietor Cynthia Kelly in her Lyn-Lake store
Craig Bares

After moving for the third time in six years, Cynesthesia still feels as you'd expect a rave music and clothing boutique to feel: young. Inside the high-ceilinged store at the edge of Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Aubrey Welch answers the phone, speaking to her customer in a fast, excitable voice over the bassy din of Shy FX's "Bambaataa," last year's biggest jungle hit. She wears the same raver wardrobe staple as the teenage boys leaning idly on the glass counter nearby--those cartoonishly large trousers called phat pants--and hers rest below the navel, while her tee hangs just above it. When a beloved house-music spinner named Boogie strides in, he gets a Cheers-style welcome: "Boogie!" everyone yells. But the woman he makes a beeline for is well more than twice Welch's age, and she talks to the DJ about his new mix tape in an indulgent, motherly tone.

Techno may still be the purview of the young, but Cynesthesia's owner, manager, and namesake, Cynthia Kelly, is clearly at home selling its wares. With her long, layered chestnut hair, glasses, and flowing black dress, the 40ish entrepreneur doesn't exactly look the part of the one local woman teen ravers most identify with their culture. But Kelly has a youthful chattiness about her, and she's almost giddy as she shows off the new digs to patrons who've just managed to track down the address, located north of Lake Street between Pillsbury and Pleasant avenues. (Like the raves Cynesthesia helps promote, the new store is difficult to find.)

"Let me show you what's back here," she says, leading one young customer out a side door into the bright hallway of the newly remodeled building. She points to a skylight flooding the smooth stone floor with orange evening sunlight, then gestures to a neighboring coffee stand crowded with smartly dressed Somali émigrés. "Isn't this great?" she says, beaming. "It's so much better than the last place. It's perfect."

In the six years since she started Cynesthesia and turned it into a clothier and information center for the then-nascent Twin Cities rave community, Kelly has settled into the unusual role of godparent to the scene. She assumed the mantle by taking the music and its participants seriously, and by lending ravers some adult legitimacy at a time when most raves still took place in unlicensed, illegal warehouse spaces. By the time the shop opened its doors on Lake Street near Lyndale Avenue in November of 1993, a few years had passed since all-night, all-ages dance parties spread from the coasts to the industrial spaces of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it's difficult to imagine how local raving would have evolved further here without her influence. From its inception, Cynesthesia has sold tickets and distributed maps for scores of parties both in and out of town, many of them organized by its employees. And the shop was among the first local outlets to hawk house music and techno on vinyl alongside sunburst-orange tees, glittering see-through rings, and oversized everything.

Moving from one spot to another around the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, Cynesthesia is a hangout for the community's younger set, and its name has become inextricable from Kelly's. This is, after all, a woman who refers to Cynesthesia as "me," saying, for example, "I see me as the unique spot where it all comes together," or, "I get calls from all over the country, and I'm the hotline if people want to know what's happening." She also routinely refers to the shop's clientele, with its median age of 18, as "my kids," assuming a role that she takes quite seriously.

"She really watches over the scene," says Welch from behind the counter when Kelly is out of earshot. Welch is a rave organizer with the local production company Soul Theology and has worked at Cynesthesia for the past year. "If Cynthia hears about ravers she particularly cares about screwing up their lives--like, if she finds out they're dealing or using drugs--she basically sits them down and tells them what's what."


Still, not even Cynesthesia's employees know every story that might illuminate the experience their boss brings to bear. They may not even know that Kelly is her maiden name--her legal surname will remain Abdul until her current and fourth divorce is finalized. It's not that the store owner is cryptic about her past, but you get the distinct impression that this mother-turned-community mother has lived hard and fast enough that her impulse to relocate and overhaul her own identity was ingrained long before the opening (and subsequent reopenings) of the shop.

Kelly was born into a large Minneapolis family and raised in Bloomington, "before it became prestigious," she says. The youngest of ten children, she lived on welfare for much of her childhood. When she was 15, her father died, followed a year later by her mother, and she learned early on to fend for herself: She says she nearly quit high school, and she ended up paying her own room and board to finish. Kelly married at 19--an age that would probably seem strange to her teen employees. "It was a hectic marriage, like most of them," she laughs. Together, she and her new husband opened a sheet-metal shop, her first taste of running her own business. But when the operation became successful, she says, he didn't need her anymore and the marriage dissolved.  

Following her divorce, she traveled to Mankato to visit friends and wound up moving there after meeting an aspiring folk-rock guitarist who would become her second husband. Following the Easy Rider zeitgeist, they hit the road together. "I call the next six years of my life the sociological observation years," she says. "I could move anywhere, anytime, with only two hours to pack. I don't even remember all the places we moved--Florida, Texas, Colorado, California." While her husband chased his muse, Kelly supported him by taking work in factories and retail outlets wherever they lived. But being around a musician soon whetted her own appetite for playing, and she bought a Farfisa organ to begin tinkering with. "Now you'd say it sounded like what Cabaret Voltaire used to do," she says. "But at the time people were like, 'You're fucking crazy. This isn't gonna fly.' And I'd say, 'Someday, all you're gonna get out of music is electronic sounds.'"

When the couple returned to St. Paul in the late Seventies, Kelly set aside music to carve out a career in electronics, earning a two-year degree at Normandale Community College before landing a job at Control Data. At the same time, Kelly was tiring of the reefer use in her social set. "One day, I was mad at everyone I knew. So I knew how to get rid of them all: I quit smoking dope."

Still, after her second divorce, Kelly became depressed and began drinking heavily, eventually seeking treatment in 1981, an experience that informed her current stance against substance use. She got clean, though, and soon married a third time, becoming a mom to a son and daughter whom she raised by working alternating shifts at Honeywell with her husband. A back injury in 1990 derailed that work arrangement. "I realized I couldn't keep living like this," she says. "It was too stressful working opposite shifts. Instead of growing together, we grew apart, and I found it kind of lonely."

Kelly's first departure from her "house in the suburbs, two kids, two Ramblers" lifestyle came with a pair of complimentary tickets to a live show by the British guitar-pop band Inspiral Carpets at First Avenue. She was so awed, she says, that she wrote the band a long letter. And, surprisingly, the band's secretary wrote her back, beginning a pen-pal correspondence that culminated in Kelly being invited to stay in Manchester and visit the group. Kelly had also sent for literature from a new-age healing retreat in south London called the White Eagle Lodge. In 1992 she purchased a plane ticket to England to take a break from work stress and family life.

Remarkably, she remained oblivious to the then-booming Manchester rave scene, but it was the London leg of her trip that proved more fateful. Her eyes sparkle when she describes Kensington Market, a three-floor marketplace run by immigrants from Kenya, Tanzania, Israel, and Pakistan. It was here that she first spied the mix tapes and body jewelry of Europe's well-established rave culture. She wrote in her journal: "I have to open a store. I know it has something to do with music. Minneapolis hasn't seen it before. It's something for the young people there. It's global. And it has to be in an urban mall."

Soon after her return, she began scouting locations and getting in touch with clothing distributors, though her husband was less than enthusiastic about the idea, and their marriage crumbled as the project progressed. Hesitant to leave Honeywell, she found financial backing from a co-worker and opened Cynesthesia at 617 W. Lake St. in a long narrow space underneath the Hair Police salon. Originally conceived as a funky general boutique, Kelly's store quickly adopted a raver-oriented bent, thanks to the tastes of Kelly's youthful employees. Among them was Tim Bramer, a teenage neighbor who shared her enthusiasm for Britpop and hipped her to the burgeoning Minneapolis rave scene. "Tim used to tell me, 'If you build it, they will come,'" Kelly laughs. Another early employee, Sheri Hendrickson, was busy chronicling the Midwest scene in her fanzine Expositor, and was eager to aid the store's transformation.  

Kelly soon discovered that her niche wasn't with the older club crowd, but with their younger siblings who couldn't go clubbing and preferred their dance music raw and abstract. As an old hater of disco--Kelly considered it plastic--she was sympathetic to the oddly utopian idealism and nonconformity of her customers. "Ravers aren't phony," she says. "There's a connection between ravers and club kids, but there's also a definite line."

Three relocations later, the store is finally housed in the kind of room rave promoters would give their eyeteeth to throw a party in--and they may yet. Though Kelly's business has had a few brushes with controversy, including repeated visits early on from police to search for drugs (they found none), the worst to come of such harassment was a segment on WCCO-TV (Channel 4) in 1995 about the (legal) sale of herbal Ecstasy in local storefronts. Cynesthesia has since become part of the "Ravers' Uptown" in south Minneapolis, an imagined district encompassing the Cyber X café (on the corner of Lyndale and Lake), Bassment Records (3017 Lyndale Ave. S.) and the Lava Lounge clothing shop (3037 Lyndale Ave. S.). But in a diffuse youth culture with roving events and transient scenesters, it seems fitting that someone who found settling down so hard herself could became the community's bedrock.

"Without Cynthia, there'd be no meeting ground for ravers," remarks one customer, who has just spent the past half-hour trying to find the new place. "She helps keep us unified."


Cynesthesia is located at 203 Elroy Ave. S. in Minneapolis; (612) 824-7126.

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