The crowds at the 9:30 are always SRO.

That's because you can't sit down: There are no chairs or tables in the main stage area of the vanguard new-music club that celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a special series of free concerts. In that time, more than 2,000 bands have loaded in their equipment through the same alley that John Wilkes Booth made good his escape from Ford's Theatre around the corner after shooting Abraham Lincoln. From rock to reggae and rap to rhythm and blues, the club has served up the innovative, the hopeful, the inept and occasionally the brilliant.

Back in 1980, the 9:30 was a good idea waiting to be developed by a community of like-minded cultural adventurers convinced that Washington was ready to step into the present and even to edge toward the future.

"There was a scene trying to happen here and elsewhere for such a long time that by the time it happened, all we had to be was receptive," says Dody Bowers, the heart, soul and manager of the club for its first six years. "It was very easy in the beginning."

That observation, made 10 years down the line, probably would have been less easily offered at the early meetings among Bowers; her husband, Jon; Bill Warrell; John Page; and Mark Holmes. Jon Bowers was an arts-oriented real estate developer who had recently bought the 90-year-old Atlantis building at 930 F Street. Warrell headed District Curators, which had opened the art loft-club d.c. space a few years before and produced jazz and avant-concerts around town, while Page and Holmes were the mainstays of Interzone, which produced experimental concerts and video programs.

All were interested in having a regular space for new music, performance art, videos and other forward-looking art. Locating it in a decimated downtown whose night life was still muted as a consequence of the 1968 riots was a gamble, and Jon Bowers remembers that some fellow real estate developers "thought it crazy to buy the property, much less do a club."

In fact, there was already the shell of a club in place: the Atlantis, a two-level venue that had booked some local and national acts (one night the Police and the New York Dolls were playing at the same time) but whose management policies led to a boycott by customers and musicians.

In 1980, however, a new spirit and attitude were emerging downtown in the form of d.c. space, Zenith Gallery and the Washington Project for the Arts. Enter Dody Bowers, who had studied in Paris and New York and planned a career in theater, only to be sucked into the new possibilities on F Street. "It was an organic moment," she says. "The reason it was so immediately successful is that there was such a need -- opening the club was opening the dam. The timing was perfect."

That was true not only in Washington, but in the music industry as well. Punk had sprung up in the late '70s with an anti-corporate rock attitude and egalitarian politics, soon followed by "new wave," an all-inclusive term for new music (much of it from England) with slight, but familiar, commercial prospects. It was the kind of music that got played on college radio stations and could be found only in the import bins at record stores.

"There was a reluctance around the country to book {new music} bands," says Steve Ferguson of FBI (Frontier Booking International), one of the first agencies to champion them.

"The agents had all these new English acts they wanted to bring over, but most clubs had never even heard of them and weren't willing to take a chance," says Rich Heineke. "The new-music scene was just breaking, and we were there at the crest of the wave."

"We" was IMP, concert producers Seth Hurwitz and Heineke. Before IMP became involved at the 9:30 in late 1980, Dody Bowers was booking mostly local acts, and Interzone and District Curators occasionally brought in national ones. Page admits that "when Seth stepped in, it was probably better for the club because I only booked acts I liked, which was not the best way to go about these things."

Again, the timing was fortuitous. Hurwitz, a Churchill High grad with a lifelong interest in music outside the mainstream ("when my high school friends were all going to see the Eagles, I was seeing the Tubes"), had apprenticed with veteran Washington impresario Sam L'Hommedieu and did his first concerts while managing the Ontario Theater.

The 9:30 quickly established itself as the place to hear new music and the place to hang out. It became a home for not only a variety of subcultures -- from straight-edge punks and skateboarders to black-bedecked neo-Goths and postmoderns -- but a focus for adventurous video programming (the club is cluttered with monitors) and cutting-edge deejay battles. For all the scene-and-be-seen spirit, it's music that makes the club and in 10 years, thousands of bands have played there. While Hurwitz says the 9:30 loses money, "it gives us a chance to work with bands on {the club} level. I realized early on this is where the agents really need you -- doing a band when they're small. Then you can do them when they're bigger."

Case in point: R.E.M., which first played the 9:30 as a $50 opening act for the Unnecessaries and now plays Capital Centre -- still for IMP. 10,000 Maniacs played the 9:30 18 times before catapulting to DAR and the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Simple Minds, the Bangles, Billy Idol, Public Enemy, Dwight Yoakam, Cyndi Lauper and dozens of others got kick-starts at the 9:30, and most of the concert acts presented these days by IMP started out there. The very first act Hurwitz booked at the 9:30 was New York's Fleshtones. Since then, the group has come back three or four times a year, a virtual residency (they'll be at the club Saturday).

The very first band to actually play the 9:30 was a local one, Tiny Desk Unit, which opened for the Lounge Lizards on June 1, 1980. TDU will reunite on Friday, the first time they've played together in more than nine years (though lead singer Susan Mumford is something of a permanent fixture working in the club's box office). "We started rehearsing last week and it's been fun," says synthesizer player Bob Boilen, now director of NPR's "All Things Considered."

"The 9:30 was the first place a new-music band didn't have to carry its own PA system to," he recalls. Boilen notes that TDU "also helped build the club: I know for a fact our name is spray-painted under the stage."

The L-shaped club is hardly the latest thing in creature comforts (some lovingly refer to it as "dirty:30"). Not long ago, rappers D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince showed up and refused to play there, calling it a dump. FBI's Ferguson admits that "some bands hope they never have to play there again, and others love playing there. It's hardest on those who are big in England or elsewhere and end up opening their tours there after playing big halls at home: Their first impression of America is the 9:30 club!"

Although there are nooks and crannies and window ledges, and even some tables in the back bar area, the most immediate reality about the 9:30 is that there's no seating in the main room, reflecting its roots as not just a live music club, but as a rock disco.

"We took that from the New York clubs {like Danceteria}," says Warrell. "That's part of its appeal and also why a lot of people stay away, Washington being a very 'comfortable' kind of city."

Adds Hurwitz, "The place is small and seats would just get in the way. And people stay after the bands go off in order to dance, which is the sign of a good club. Anyways, the majority would rather stand and get close, dance and groove -- nothing will change that."

Or as Fleshtones guitarist Peter Zaremba says, "they can move to the music, if the music moves them."

Before Hurwitz and Heineke bought the club in 1987, Dody Bowers was seen as a Perle Mesta for the avant-arts, subsidizing shows, encouraging and championing the adventurous, even giving bands free rehearsal space. Mark Holmes, who died of AIDS this year, "had the creative freedom to shape the image of the club," Boilen adds, "and he let the people create the atmosphere, instead of the club pressing the atmosphere." It was Holmes, who also deejayed, who created the club's graphic identity in its advertising and posters.

After a while, says Dody Bowers, "I realized people came pretty much because of who was playing." She assumed ownership of the club in 1985 when she separated from Jon Bowers; two years later she sold the club to IMP. Recently remarried and living in New York, she'll be back for this week's anniversary celebrations, which kick off with a private "come as you were" party Wednesday and a Black Market Baby reunion Thursday, followed by the Tiny Desk Unit and Fleshtones shows on the weekend.

Through the years, the club has championed the local "harDCore" scene, with its aggressive music, slam dancing, stage diving and all-age-no-alcohol matinees, and welcomed go-go -- Hurwitz, an occasional drummer, is a big fan of the percussion-rooted music -- but sometimes seemed less receptive to local rock bands, a situation that's changing after the success of its three-bands-for-$3 shows. The focus, however, remains on cutting-edge national and international acts. "Any band in new music that becomes a bigger thing is going to play there at one point or another," says Zaremba.

Bands move on, up and out, and somewhere down the line the 9:30 club itself will have to move out. It's currently the only inhabited spot in the Atlantis building, which was bought several years ago by the Clover Corp. Once the downtown real estate market stabilizes, the building will be demolished and a new one put up; during that time, the 9:30 will have to find a temporary home elsewhere. Clover, Hurwitz says, "has made it clear they intend to have us back."

Meanwhile, it's business unusual.

"The thing that's great about the club is that while you can lose money on a given show, how much are you going to lose {overall}?" says Hurwitz. "Anyways, it's important to take chances. We have to make people feel we're trying something new all the time.

"We're on the edge -- it's our forte. It's what's going to save us, it's what's kept us going all along. Basically, we're nonconformists. Our basic credo is we refuse to be boring."