Whether you’re a local, or you’re planning a visit to the Welsh capital over the summer, make sure to stop by this shopping utopia
BY POLLY ANGELOVA
My first visit to the Queer Emporium started off with the intention to quickly pop in, ask owner Yan White if he’d be happy to answer some questions, arrange a time for our chat, and be on my way. How it ended was with me buying a book from Paned o Gê’s stall, some gorgeous Pride earrings made by Kelzo Jewellery, and just about managing to resist taking home yet another plant from Tropigaz.
That’s normal, Yan reassures me on our second meeting. We’re having coffee, safely away from temptation. “That’s been something quite nice,” he says. “The customer base will often come in to buy a book, but they’ll end up going away with a tote bag, a plant [as well].” Apparently, it’s quite rare for customers to leave empty-handed, or with just one item, so at least I’m not alone.
The charm of the Queer Emporium pop-up stands collective is undeniable, but how did it come together?
It turns out, the original plan was to make a queer market for the winter holidays. Yan and his partner, who were both running market stalls during lockdown for their queer social enterprises, kept meeting other queer-owned businesses, when the idea took seed to set up a dedicated group of LGBTQI market stalls. But between lockdowns and how long it takes to pull this type of venture together, the idea evolved into the Queer Emporium as it is now. “Originally it was going to be a bunch of market stalls. And now it’s a full blown shop,” muses Yan.
My next question is an obvious one – why did they choose the current location for the shop? I ask this thinking I know the answer, but Yan surprises me. “I didn’t really choose St Mary Street,” he says. “But I did choose the Morgan Quarter because when I approached them, they were really, really enthusiastic about it.”
This supportive attitude has continued the whole way through, Yan tells me. “In the first week that we opened, they put up all the Pride flags in the two arcades, which was really lovely as a surprise – to walk in on a Monday morning, and be greeted by 16 different Pride flags.”
Yan also mentions that being on St Mary Street and opposite the gay cabaret bar Mary’s (my original guess for the reason behind the shop’s strategic location) is great. “We’re hopefully creating a bit of a new queer street in Cardiff,” Yan jokes. “Which is kind of fun!”
The location of the shop – right at the entrance of the Morgan Quarter, in a space with big windows to let the rare Welsh sunshine in – is truly marvellous. But even more joyous is what’s inside: an abundance of pop-up nooks for different queer owned and ran businesses, each of them so enticing that I had to pause for a moment after entering so I can actually decide which one to approach first.
Every vendor has proper signage next to their goods, all of it bilingual, something which Yan tells me was really important to him when setting up the shop. But where did he find these hidden gems, and how did he get them on board with the Queer Emporium? “I really didn’t know how it would go down,” he admits. “So I approached four or five [queer businesses] who I knew personally, to see if they wanted to be involved, initially.” Following a enthusiastic response, and the ironing out of all the contractual details, they put out an open call for other queer businesses who want to join.
“We did get a huge number of responses. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include everyone, which is really sad,” Yan says. But seeing a problem as an opportunity to help locals and tourists alike find LGBTQI businesses easier, the folks at the Queer Emporium will be creating The Queer X Directory, which will feature a range of queer businesses from all spheres. According to Yan, this list will be open to everyone, so people can file applications to be included. “I think it’s important to be visible,” he notes. “Because people want to spend money and support [queer] businesses. We’re just connecting the dots at the Emporium.”
Alongside businesses, the Queer Emporium have invited charities, aid and support groups to design badges, whose sales will raise money directly for these organisations. At the moment they have two really important local charities, Stonewall Cymru and TransAid Cymru, taking part, Yan shares. He adds that the call for badge designs is still open for anyone else who wants to join.
TRULY GOOD GOODIES
Before the Queer Emporium, during the market stall days, Yan was running a smaller social enterprise, NanoCast Studio, the profits from which went to the LGBTQI charity Rainbow Railroad. This is no ordinary candle shop, however. “They’re all unusual scents,” explains Yan. “We specialise in hand-making candles designed for people who don’t like scented candles.”
He warns me they’ll never make a vanilla candle, but there are plenty of other interesting smells to choose from, some of which they stock at the Emporium, including Volcano & Maple, a customer favourite. “And it’s all vegan, all carbon offset,” Yan adds.
In fact, he tells me all of the traders in the Queer Emporium are very eco-friendly, whether through compostable packaging, biodegradable glitter made from plant cellulose, or being a slow fashion brand selling clothes designed to last a long time.
The first corner I approached on my visit, Paned o Gê’s selection of books, is the queer bookstore’s first physical presence in Cardiff. “I think it’s a really good example of how something like the Queer Emporium can facilitate businesses that maybe are people’s part time jobs, something which they’re trying to get up and running,” Yan says. “The Queer Emporium can act as an amazing stepping stone between having a full blown shop, and only existing online.”
OUT (AND ABOUT)
It’s not just queer retail therapy, here. The Queer Emporium have a number of events coming up, including Drag Queen Story Hour – a storytime event for children under 12 and their parents – and Drag In The Arcades: An Evening With Victoria Scone and Jolene Dover, both of which will take place on Saturday 26 June 2021.
On top of that, Yan teases a comedy night with queer stand up comedians, as well as at least two “in conversation” sessions. If you want to stay on top of all their events, keep an eye on the Queer Emporium social media where he promises all the highlights will be advertised between one and two weeks in advance.
The Emporium will also soon be launching a Queer Out To Help Out scheme. I’ve been seeing mentions about it, so I ask Yan to explain more about how it’s going to work. “If you come in and buy something in the Emporium, you get a little ticket,” he tells me. “You can take that to a number of different venues, which will be listed, and you get 10% off your first drink.”
The six or seven restaurants and coffee shops taking part include local favourites like eartha and the North Star. “There may be some less obviously queer-owned, and some of the more main ones in Cardiff,” Yan notes. “But I think that’s great. Because it means that people know there are other safe spaces around the city that they can go to.”
THE PRIDE BANDWAGON
Talking to the owner of an enterprise bringing together local LGBTQI-led artisan businesses, I couldn’t resist asking about his take on rainbow capitalism before wrapping up our lovely chat.
“10 years ago, it was great that there were corporations who were putting rainbow flags in their windows, because that was still taking a stance and doing something political. But it’s really not enough now,” Yan responds.
He notes the fact that when big businesses get called out for jumping on the Pride bandwagon with themed merchandise, they promise to donate to charities, but looking at the fine print, they’re often only committing a minuscule fraction of their profits to LGBTQI causes.
“They need to work a lot harder,” Yan says. “The corporations that are real allies right now, if they were taking an interest in what was going on in the community, they’d see what’s been happening recently with Stonewall and with trans people. And I think they would realise that of the whole of the community, that group needs a lot of attention right now. It’s important that we stand up for them. I would challenge those corporations to go and actually try and help the trans community in particular.
“Putting a rainbow isn’t enough, donating some money to something isn’t enough,” he concludes. “If you really want to be political and be a true ally, put trans flags in your windows.”
THE FUTURE IS QUEER
The Queer Emporium’s social media promises the shop will be around until the end of August (good news for everyone planning a trip from further afield). But what happens after?
“A lot of people have asked about it being a permanent space,” Yan says with a smile, before admitting that it would be quite hard. He is definitely keen to explore that route though, and promises that at the very least, they’ll be back trying to do this each year. Fingers crossed!
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