When Kelli Baron realized they were transgender, there weren’t many places in Charlotte where they felt they could turn. Sure, there were LGBTQ-welcoming hangouts, but none that were loudly inclusive, and certainly none that were centered on trans inclusion.
“When I first figured out I was trans, the only place I had to find community was Reddit and Facebook, which are not good places to find your community,” Baron says. “I went through the hardest parts of transition by myself … Not knowing where to go as a queer person — as a newly hatched queer person — was hard, so I just stayed home.”
In November 2017, the same month that Baron came out publicly, local activist, musician and photojournalist Lara Americo opened Comic Girl Coffee, an LGBTQ-owned-and-operated bookstore and coffee co-op that hosted regular LGBTQ-centered events and gatherings.
Eventually, Baron began hanging out at Comic Girl and volunteering. It was from the Comic Girl co-op that Baron launched Queer City Charities, which began as an LGBTQ+ events calendar and has since grown into a nonprofit that plans events and serves as a networking group for local LGBTQ+ organizations.
It was at Comic Girl that Baron met Erica Wand, who began volunteering there every once in a while “just to pick up chicks,” as she puts it, but ended up heavily invested in the co-op, as did Baron. Along with other Comic Girl volunteers, the two worked tirelessly at trying to balance nonprofit work with their other jobs while still serving coffee in the co-op for nothing but tips. The work led to feelings of burnout, and the two were just about ready to give up when an opportunity presented itself.
Those who were left running Comic Girl had put what they could into it and were ready to step down themselves. Baron and Wand had ideas about how to make the shop run better as a for-profit business, separate from the operations of Queer City or other nonprofits like Transcend Charlotte, a transgender advocacy and support group for which Baron serves as president of the board. So the two partnered up and opened Ritual Coffee, Tea and Oddities, with Wand stepping away from nonprofit activities to focus on the business while Baron focuses on Queer City from within the space.
“We were realizing that what we were doing here wasn’t enough for the burnout that we were receiving,” Wand says. “So we were like, ‘We’ve got to come up with some sort of option, something so that we can try to make a change here … How about we work together so that we can create a space that I can maintain for [Queer City] to be able to utilize as their hub and the place that they can go and do their community work?”
Following a successful opening weekend that began on Oct. 18 and attracted hundreds of people, Ritual and Queer City will host a Halloween Spooktacular dance party on Nov. 2 featuring live music and a costume contest for those not ready to move into Thanksgiving vibes just yet.
I meet with Wand and Baron in Ritual on an October night just as they’re putting finishing touches on the space, which has the homey feel of a residential kitchen. Gone are the comics and (most of) the books that were so prevalent in the Comic Girl days. The walls are adorned with paintings from local artists and shelves full of eccentric items and antiques like Ouija boards and gothic tea kettles.
Everything on the walls is for sale, while the shop will serve exclusive blends of coffee from Crossroads Coffee in Waxhaw, in house or in bulk, and tea from Atlantic Spice Company, among others.
One demographic that will benefit plenty from Ritual’s presence is gamers. Just next door in the same building as Ritual is Get Some Game, which regularly holds video game and board game tournaments. The pastries served at Ritual will keep the neighbors fed, but the coffee plays a bigger role.
“We’ll have stuff that is easy to eat, especially for these gaming guys,” Wand says. “They do all-nighters and so we want to be there for them, too. Coffee is crucial for them.”
But in the end, Ritual is a space focused on making members of the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome.
“Minority communities come first in this area for us,” says Wand. “It’s funny, even having these conversations with my parents, they’re like, ‘I just don’t understand why you felt the need to pigeonhole yourself into a strange place,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you can find a coffee shop on every corner. But finding a queer, weird occult coffee shop is a whole other ballgame.’ Having a space that is strange, unique, interesting and fun to come to is super important. I think that’s most important to our community but even important to Charlotte as a whole. You have to have that culture, and it gets whitewashed all across the community.”
Baron picks up where Wand left off, as the two are wont to do: “There are some places around Charlotte that everyone knows are queer-safe, but they just happen to be queer-safe because they’re open and welcoming in general. This space is more of, while we’re looking to go beyond the queer community, we’re definitely putting the needs of the queer community at the top of the list.”
Ritual is a safe space in many aspects, including the decision to keep it a sober space. Baron points out that the LGBTQ community deals with higher rates of addiction and alcoholism.
“It isn’t possible to [hang out in bars and breweries], especially for people who may suffer from any kind of alcoholism or anything, who may be allergic, who aren’t comfortable being in spaces where people are intoxicated, or are just tired of it.”
Besides, Wand adds, who needs a new place to drink in Charlotte?
“We’ve got plenty of it in Charlotte, the last thing we need is another brewery,” she says.
Wand and Baron are looking forward to hosting more events like the one held on opening weekend, a vendor market and variety show featuring performances from Lena Gray, Stray Cat Sideshow and Eevee Rubii for which more than 100 people showed up.
The two plan to continue hosting LGBTQ-centered events like the open mics and game nights that began at Comic Girl, while adding newer and bigger events like the opening weekend variety show.
For Baron, Ritual is more than a hangout, it’s a continuance of the Comic Girl mission under a new flag inspired by her own personal experience with transitioning.
It’s easy to see the emotion involved when she speaks about why it’s important to her that Ritual be successful.
“Had we had places like this that were loudly queer-accepting, that might have made a big difference to me during those couple of really rough years,” she says, beginning to choke up but holding it back. “So it’s important to me because I’ve lived that isolation, and I refuse to let anybody cry the tears that I cried.”