Supporting Gay History
Editor’s Note: After consenting to this interview, Phoenix Rising owner Jim Todd requested this article not be published out of respect of his store and privacy. The context of the article focuses on the importance of supporting locally-owned businesses, which was GayRVA.com’s deciding factor in publishing this piece. To maintain a standard of journalistic integrity, we do not allow interview subjects advance viewing of articles.
As we head into high shopping season, there are endless choices of where to spend your retail dollar. With a growing emphasis on shopping local and shopping the independents, Richmond still has a plethora of options for your holiday dollar.
But how about a shop with gay history attached to it? A shop that was controversial when it opened, providing an oasis for the LGBT community at a time when no other options were available, but one now easily overlooked in an Internet-saturated world where everything can be found online.
Phoenix Rising opened on Belmont Avenue in the Museum District in 1992 as part of the burgeoning Gay Pride movement. Owner Jim Todd had opened his first gay store in Norfolk in 1989 during the first blossoming of Pride, when activity and activism were high.
“The stores were outreach for young people and their parents at a time when a lot of people were just coming out,” Todd explains. “It used to be very exciting here. Every Monday we had the Black Cat Café with music and poetry readings. The place was packed, with people outside on the sidewalk listening. Back in the late ‘90s, every Thursday the ROSMY group would come here before going to their group meeting.”
Slowly the Internet began to replace the purpose of the physical store as newly-outed people no longer needed to come in to purchase gay-themed cards, movies, book, magazines, jewelry and paraphernalia.
Nearly twenty years later, Phoenix Rising is one of the few gay stores left in the country. “It’d be a real shame to see it go because it’s a big piece of gay history that a lot of people don’t even know about. The first time I walked into a place like this back in the mid-80s, I was in awe. At some point once we close, people will go, ‘What happened?’ and it’ll be too late.”
His point is well taken. In cities far larger than Richmond across the country, gay shops have closed, never to return.
“In the early days,” says Todd, “We said we could have been in Petersburg or Chesterfield and people would have found us because the need was so great. Now we’re in the thick of the city and people come in and say, ‘I didn’t know you were here.”
Facts bear out that Richmond’s gay history really did evolve from the nexus of Phoenix Rising.
“One of the most rewarding things that happened because of the store was back in the early ‘90s. An older couple, like in their sixties, used to drive up and come in all the time. Their son had come out and they wanted to be familiar with his world. They were regulars. Eventually they started the PFLAG group in Portsmouth,” Todd says with obvious pride.
For a long time, Todd was heavily involved in gay causes, working with the “Virginia Gazette” and assisting in the early days of creating Diversity Thrift. After years of activism for gay issues, he started to feel burned out and stepped back, making way for a new generation to make their mark.
For a while, the store allowed him to make a difference and provide a center for Richmond’s gays in the days before the Gay Community Center existed. But as business has declined, he’s thinking more seriously about retiring and closing Richmond’s seminal LGBT hub.
But he’s also quick to point out that the store was never intended solely for a gay clientele, although he had counted on the support of the queer community.
“Everyone has gay friends and we have gay birthday cards, wedding and union cards, all of it. Sure, you can get movies and books from a big chain, but I would think gays would want to support a gay-owned business.”
Not to mention a vital piece of LGBT history.
Pheonix Rising is located at 19 N. Belmont Ave.
Karen Newton is a freelance writer and full-time nerd who isn’t happy unless she’s going out every night for food, music or art and blogging it at www.icouldgoonandon.blogspot.com.
Enjoy the holiday season however you can this week, and in the weeks ahead, and support small businesses AS MUCH AS YOU CAN.November 23, 2015
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