Starbucks Banner

Hey, It's Our Thing

By A.P. WYER
Hey, It's Our Thing
Michael Wolchover and velo gang member Peter “Fixie” Cunningham.

Sarah Sparrow Biasetti is dressing for a meeting, or as she likes to call it, a “meet.” (The “-up” was dropped, it would seem, a while ago in her precincts of Ft. Greene.)  She carefully adjusts her wooden-bead necklace -- “My friend curated a video retrospective of the 1970s, and I just fell in love with them, I think of them as like little individual bullets of vegetable life,” -- and her wide-framed glasses from Otte. She’d love to wear one of her vintage skirts, which she likes to accessorize with t-shirts from Threadless or home-laquered Hanes men’s v-neck tees, but this is a bike ride, and, of course, a business trip.

Sarah locks her 1973 Raleigh Superbe, in British racing green, to the railing outside the Third Eye, a consignment shop selling objets and tools from the “maker” community of DUMBO, Ft. Greene, and Greenpoint.  Ian Danforth, the owner, greets her with a hug, which is, he explains, how he greets everyone. (“The handshake was developed to prove to a stranger that you’re unarmed,” he says. “I want people to know a lot more than that about me.”)  They make small talk about some beautiful handmade wooden briefcases, made by a craftsman using recovered hardwoods from demolition sites.

Sarah taps on the case. “Really beautiful,” she says. “I’ll totally think about this for my partner’s birthday. But aren’t they vulnerable to fire?”

“Sure,” says Ian. “They’re made of wood.”

“Because a lot of things could happen to a store like this, in this neighborhood,” Sarah says, fingering her beads thoughtfully. “Fire, flood, vandalism. God, did you see what happened to that tea shop over on Adelphi Street? Totally wrecked. And I talked to them about it, too, beforehand.”

Ian starts nervously polishing the glass case holding some beautiful stone watches.

“So listen, my friends and I, we have this art-collective thing, we’re mostly interesting in exploring collaborative consciousness, plus we do some underground dinners, you should come, but we also are getting into personal security. We try to secure spaces, make them stable, in a kind of energetic and physical way. We should talk, maybe we can help out,” Sarah said, looking around the shop. “This is such an energetic space. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

“There’s really no name for what we do,” says Sarah, lounging in the back room of Kai Organics, so close to the Brooklyn Academy of Music that you can sometimes hear the thrumming percussion of Kodo drums.  It’s become an unofficial office for Sarah and what she laughingly calls her “crew,” mostly Gen Z 20-somethings, each with a portfolio or DVD of design work, and degrees from some of the more interesting art schools in the US and Europe.  “It’s kind of a free-form business model, where we don’t so much work in traditional flows of capital, from consumer to producer, but we insert ourselves into the process in interesting and sometimes transgressive ways. I like to think of it as just, ‘our thing.’”

For example: last year, Sarah says, she and her friends began networking with the managers of the many Starbucks now in Brooklyn. “They knew they’re kind of the corporate dinosaur, the Big Bad Mermaid from Seattle, and they were interested in how they could make themselves more of a part of a genuine expression of the local community.” Sarah’s solution: hiring many of her friends, including some strictly notional characters created as “avatars,” who draw no espresso shots but do draw real pay. A certain percentage is paid back to the manager, who authorized and oversees the process; Sarah and her friends keep the rest.

“We think of it as a victimless performance,” says Michael Wolchover, Sarah’s business partner, a tall man with a thick, bushy beard and a ubiquitous bicycling cap.  “In one state of being, I’m working at Starbucks, doing the eight hour shift, getting paid. In another, more physical state, I’m out making my images of the waterfront. Or maybe I’m down at the bar.”

A number of the hipster community in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as off-shoot groups or “families” in Washington Heights are entering into this non-traditional profit making collectives, as more and more young artists realize that the marketplace has no more use for their scrimshaw revivals or kinetic sculptures than, say, their parents did. In a way, it’s a maturing, as the urban pioneers and adventurers of yesterday settle into the late 20s and 30s. Some few leave the city to become organic farmers, and some even return to law school; as for the rest, more and more are dealing in what Michael calls the “interstices of commerce.”

“Consider a standard supply chain,” he says, while enjoying one of many free chais that the store seems to serve up to him, with no questions asked. “Merchandise moves from manufacturer to distribution center to transportation center to local distribution center to retailer. That’s a lot of steps, and a lot of inefficiencies, and a lot of places where something could just fall off a truck. And we know a lot of bicyclists, who happen to be following trucks when stuff falls off.”

As the groups of artists, writers, “instigators,” “soldiers,” and “muscle” have coalesced, both geographical distinctions and a hierarchy has emerged. Sarah and Michael do their work throughout Ft. Greene and Brooklyn Heights, although, in late 2009, another group, based out of a weaving workshop in Boerum Hill, vied with them for the business represented by the gentrifying neighborhoods along Atlantic Avenue. “It was difficult, because we were finding our way, they were finding theirs, and sometimes our energies were in conflict and weren’t creating anything for anybody.” The problem was solved, happily at least for most involved, when the weaving workshop burned to the ground, killing two.

Will this non-traditional business model thrive? According to Michael and Sarah, more and more new arrivals in Brooklyn, the kind of people who once would be tending bar while creating web-based performance art at night, are flocking to their doorstep. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re not a traditional hide-bound business,” Sarah says. “We let people, including new associates, find their own way, create their own models, whatever feeds their spirit. And people really respond to that kind of challenge. All we care about is how thick the envelope is at the end of the week, and of course if people are growing.”

“Funny,” laughs Michael, flicking open a box of pastries, taking one, tasting it, then throwing it away. “I used to think I could make a living just by being myself. But now: forget about it.”

rule
Background: Shim
Starbucks Skinny