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Anyone who thinks New York nightlife is dead has never spent an evening on the town with Eric Schmalenberger. From the psychedelic circus parties of the Lady Circus to the underground art shindigs of Kenny Scharf to the anarchic fringes of the drag world, he's carved out a much-needed spot for himself as an artist, instigator, and den mother to a new generation of the fabulous creatures — all of which makes his next act as a storeowner even more intriguing.
His space, ? the Store (that is, "Question the Store," but like Prince in the 90s, he prefers the symbol) is located at 135 Thames Street in Bushwick and is assembled from equal parts boutique, gallery, and club house. It's his first venture into retail and brings customers clothing, jewelry, and artwork from some of his favorite "downtown famous" stars.
It's a throwback to the heady days of the 70s and 80s, when the city supported as much street fashion as haute couture; his goal is develop the space in such a way that it serves as in a launchpad for underground talent. We sat down with Schmalenberger to talk all things ?, from how he creates an artist-centered environment to everyone's favorite product: the dick banana.
Let's start off with your background — what were you doing before opening a store?
I started off in theater when I first moved to New York about 15 years ago and ended up working in art and production in Deitch Projects and helped to produce its Art Parade. Through that I was led back to performance, and nightlife and burlesque led to working with the House of Yes and somehow along the line curating shows like [art and performance event] Bonsai, which I did for many years. A lot of the people in the shop come from all those various places.
And how did that turn into the opportunity to run your own shop?
I've known the people who run the building where we're located, La Luz, for years through performance. And [both co-founder] Evan Collier, who was the installer for all of my art shows for many years, and the building itself has been through many iterations — it was a theater, it was a scenery shop — and when he decided to open a shop, he asked me if I would like to do some curation and fill it with things by people that I love.
"I feel like you should be questioning what you're walking into, what you're buying. You should ask questions all the time."
Okay, about that store name...
The name come from my business partner Muffinhead, who literally just thought that the symbol of the question mark should be what the store was called. I toyed around with it a little bit, and thought "? the Store" was funny, and sort of political, too — I feel like you should be questioning what you're walking into, what you're buying. You should ask questions all the time, and it just seemed right when it happened.
Where do you think the link is between nightlife and shopping, and how is that embodied here?
I love shopping, and I always love things that have a bit of wit and humor. Coming from a nightlife and performance background, I want that to be showcased here. People are so concerned about the sales and the bottom line that they lose a lot of personality [in their stores]. In the opposite way, I know so many personalities that don't have a space to show the work that they do, so this was an opportunity for me to mix in together a lot of things I like — I love clothes, I love costuming, I love art pieces, and I love things that blur the lines between those. And wearable art or art that's inspired by fashion, that's important to me. I want to give people a chance to use the space in other ways as well, so I'm trying to build out programming that can build out these artists.
I want it to have a very clubhouse-y vibe. I love people who live in the aesthetics that they make, wearing the things they make and performing in the things that they make. They bring in these wild ideas to me, and I can present the full aesthetic of one of my designers or artists. That, to me, is really exciting, because you get to see a lived experience, not just buy a tee-shirt.
Tell me about the designers you're currently featuring.
A lot of the people have come from my friend group. I know Muffinhead through the Art Parade — he is like a walking art piece, and he started a line of accessories so that anyone can have a little piece of that over-the-top grandeur. They're really popular; his lightning bolt ties are also completely unique, and you don't see them anywhere else.
Then you have someone like Wren Britton, who creates entirely little worlds inside a single accessory; and you have PJ Linden, who creates these moments of psychedelia in small wearable objects. She does phone cases, she does pasties, and she does larger art pieces, but they're so detailed and incredible that people are always wowed by them. You have somebody like Stella Rose St. Claire, who makes giant sparkly bow and pizza patches, and her line is just growing. She's bringing in lipstick tops and other things that are just really fun.
I also have a partnership with a traveling pop-up called Elkel that's headed up by a curator named Kelvin Goncalves, and we have a really great sort of similar aesthetic vision — we love beautiful things that you can't find in other places, and I really like being a home base for him. He has a pop up right now at Soho Grand; I'm sort of providing him with a few accessories while his pop-up exists here, and it's a nice symbiotic relationship.
There's definitely also a queer sense to everything in the store. Not all of the designers are queer, but enough are that you're like, "Oh, queers, yay!"
Your stock goes beyond just clothing and accessories into art and experience as well.
We have some really great art pieces, like paintings by Sarah Moran, photography by Julie Atlas Muz, and a big piece of taxidermy that's been hand-painted by PJ Linden. And we also have the ever-popular dick bananas by Grace Eddy — it's for sale for $69.69. People love the dick banana, it's shocking what people say when they come in and see the dick banana.
We've also had a lot of events here, and I want to keep doing more and more of those. We had a poetry reading last week by Sarah Galvin, with clothes done by Stella Rose St. Claire...and that was a lovely evening of hybrid fashion and poetry. Ways to activate the space are really important to me, because they bring in new people.
Besides from people that you know in the nightlife scene and these events, how are you drawing people in?
"I try and keep bright things in the window to attract the wandering eye — people see the neon and the sparkles and just walk right across the street and through the door!"
We get some people who wander in off the street. We have had the designers' fans come in. And due to the events, we've had more attention from those — like, people will tell their friends, "Oh, you should check this out." We opened during Bushwick Open Studios, so a lot of people came by during that.
Right now, I'm really underground. I don't have a website quite yet, but it's coming. I try and keep bright things in the window to attract the wandering eye — people see the neon and the sparkles and just walk right across the street and through the door!
Do you have a long-term vision for ? the Store?
I have no idea yet. I would like to keep growing I would like to keep discovering new talent. Eventually, I would like to have a separate gallery space along with interesting wearable and house items. I think that it's a great way to take creativity home with you that isn't buying a $3,000 painting. I love a good $3,000 painting, but these artists are also creating things you can go home with, and I want to keep working on that — wearable art and affordable art and things that just brighten up people's days and make them a little bit stranger and more wonderful.
I feel like nothing is artist-run anymore, and that's funny to me. Designers are corporations now, and I don't have a problem with that, but I feel like what makes my space unique is that I don't have a history in retail or fashion. I think of it like a set or an art show, a mindset that a lot of other stores don't necessarily come from — it's fun and very pro-artist. To me, it's a good time.
On to our lightning round! 8am or 8pm?
Dogs or cats?
Soup or salad?
Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?
Sage in Williamsburg. It's a Thai place.
Beer or wine?
Both — one in each hand.
Dracula or Frankenstein?
Lipstick or mascara?
Why would you wear one without the other?
Beach or mountains?
Favorite vacation spot?