Charlottesville may not have a gay bar, but it’s about to get a pretty gay store.
The Beautiful Idea, which will sell queer-friendly arts and anti-fascist books out of its rainbow flag-bedecked “safe space” on the Downtown Mall, is the brainchild of four business owners, all transgender.
With plans for multiple vendors in one spot, the interior resembles something of an antiques mall, except instead of dusty lamps and armoires there are slightly more subversive wares for sale: T-shirts displaying “sassy” and “ungovernable” woodland creatures next to multiple biographies of Marxist political activist Angela Davis.
“Antifascist bookstore, queer market + radical community hub,” reads a hand-scrawled sign on the door at 411 E. Main St. “A safe space, a welcome respite, an education, a rallying cry.”
“We all want in different ways to have something that is a community space, especially for the queer community and the leftist radical community,” Senlin Means told The Daily Progress.
Means, long known as J. Tobias Beard, was a freelance journalist known for penning deeply researched crime and culture articles for the C-ville Weekly publication in Charlottesville. In recent years, however, Means moved into direct action and has local court convictions both for blocking traffic and trespassing, the latter a reduced charge after an accusation of chipping off parts of the granite base of Charlottesville’s now-removed statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
In the past two years, however, Means has channelled her activist spirit into the F12 Infoshop, which she operates with University of Virginia graduate student Ellie Picard at Visible Records, an artists’ space in the city’s Woolen Mills neighborhood. The shop carries anarchist books and magazines under a moniker expressing disdain for the police. It was Picard who came up with the notion of calling the new shop the Beautiful Idea.
“It’s a phrase that’s been used for the last couple of centuries to refer to the principle of anarchism,” Picard told The Daily Progress. “And that’s something that resonated with us.”
When the two move F12 into the new store, they’ll be joined by the two owners of Critter Butts, a business that has a two-year track record of selling hand-blocked T-shirts with whimsical queer-friendly sayings from the mouths, or other parts, of animals.
“I don’t want to be Polite or HETEROSEXUAL,” proclaims the posterior spray of a skunk, a linoleum block print that blends the formal composition of Albrecht Dürer with the whimsical motion of Keith Haring.
“EAT THE RICH,” says another print that depicts a fox making off with the stump of a business-suited forearm.
The owners of Critter Butts say that even before this leap to brick and mortar they’ve already been building community while selling T-shirts and other merchandise at local farmers markets.
“It’s been apparent that people need a place to hang out,” said Critter Butts co-owner Dylan West, who says they noticed throngs of people would linger at their booth.
“There are definitely other queer-owned businesses that are doing their best to make space, but they’re also not the ideal business structure to let people just hang out and not have to buy something,” fellow Critter Butts co-owner Joan Kovatch told The Daily Progress. “So that’s what we are most excited about.”
All four business owners chatted recently with The Daily Progress on the leather sofas that form the store’s future “reading nook.” It’s a place they hope becomes something of a queer community center.
The proposed store already has some neighbors buzzing. Ryan Becklund, who runs a vegan restaurant called Botanical Fare three doors down, is one.
“We’re super excited to have some new people on the block but also some people who are helping to spread a more progressive mindset,” Becklund told The Daily Progress.
Also excited are vendors such as Chris Martin, a baker and pastry chef who plans to sell gelato sandwiches from a little freezer at the new shop.
“I think it is actually a beautiful idea,” Martin told The Daily Progress. “This is allowing us to have additional revenue streams because we’re all small businesses making it work in different ways.”
The Beautiful Idea’s spot on the Downtown Mall was recently the site of a short-lived outpost of LiFT Mattress Co. store. Before that, the glassy storefront near Ting Pavilion played host to the simultaneously operating Boutique Boutique and the Shoe Store Next Door.
“This space had been vacant for quite a while, so they were pretty eager to rent it,” said Kovatch. “We feel like we got a very reasonable price.”
The location is just steps from Fourth Street, where in 2017 an anti-racist activist named Heather Heyer was killed and several others seriously injured after an avowed neo-Nazi from Ohio drove his car through a crowd during the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot.
“It’s very important to be right next to Fourth Street,” said Means. “I was on the street all day on August 12. I want the idea that anti-fascism, which was really important on that day, to remain a strong presence in Charlottesville downtown.”
The group hopes to keep shop every day except Monday with its planned opening on Sunday, Sept. 17, the day of the city’s largest annual Pride event: the Charlottesville Pride Festival.