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The end can be just the beginning for Curiosity’s closure

Nov 10, 2023 03:46PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

Performer reading their work at poetry night. (via Jade)

Salt Lake’s first zero-proof bottle shop and bar in the heart of the Maven District has closed. 

Curiosity, the brainchild of co-owner Raegan Plewe, was a place that gave space to the underground queer artist community with events such as their popular poetry reading nights. 

“My vision was always trying to create this level of intimacy and remind people how to connect with each other on a deeper level,” Plewe said of her shop that was located at 145 E. 900 South. “It seemed like no one knew how to even have a conversation, especially after the pandemic, which felt like the meaning of life was getting lost in all of the convenience and technology.” 

With a background in fine coffee and cafe delicatessen, Plewe uses her value in taste and the bodily experience to guide her curation of the space. 

“I’ve always been passionate about taste because that’s what helped me connect back to my body. When you engage the senses through space, smell, taste, you come back into your body in a world where people are dissociating more and more, thought based in technology. I felt like there needed to be this return to the body in order for people to remember how to connect with each other,” Plewe said. 

Especially important to her was speaking to queer and artist communities in her direction with the space. “So much of the queer community dissipated during the pandemic and I wanted to figure out a way that people would feel safe to come back together,” Plewe said. “I think engaging the senses is a doorway into moving towards feeling.”

Reconnecting to the body is reason for the dry inventory selection. 

“I started noticing, especially in queer communities here after the pandemic, that things became much more about escapism. Many struggling with overconsumption of alcohol and drugs as a way to feel comfortable in their body because there was so much belief that existing in their body was bad. So I wanted there to be a safe space where people could explore coming back to their bodies,” Plewe said. “I'm not even against drinking. I just wanted there to be a unique space that was not about checking out or dampening your consciousness, but actually about coming back to yourself and being more conscious.” 

The curators, Plewe and Jade, witnessed an evolution of comfort in the space with their poetry nights. 

“I started seeing people become more personal,” Jade said about their poetry nights. “Seeing people who were once shaky and nervous get up there like they’ve been doing this for years. People kept getting more and more comfortable sharing.” 

“Whether they identify as an artist or a writer or not, everyone's creative. Being creative is the most human element to all of us,” Plewe said. “That's what poetry night was to me. It was people sharing those raw emotions, whether it's beauty or happiness or joy or love, or extreme trauma and pain. That's what I feel like we need, the connections of those people around us to hold us in those very vulnerable moments.”

That vulnerability helped set a basis for what the curators described as a supportive community. 

“All of the people there, we feel like a community to each other, but we didn’t know each other before. That was all formulated through the poetry nights, that sense of supporting each other and the way that we’re talking to each other and responding to each other,” Jade said. “Really boosting the people up and letting them know this couldn’t happen without them, they really took that to heart and felt committed to continually showing up.” 

But now, Curiosity is closed. Leaving a daunting path forward for similar spaces hosting the DIY scene who do not put profit at the forefront of their business model. 

“There's a lot of aspects of running a business that I didn't want to be spending my time doing. I love the communal aspects, I love the creativity. But I honestly don't want to spend all my time figuring out how to profit, adjusting the business away from my vision to function in a capitalist society and be profitable because it's a lot of compromise,” Plewe said. “I just want to give to my community and I think there's other ways I can do that, that don't involve me focusing so much energy on selling things.” 

The space was to incubate and foster connection. But finding the balance between the intention and ethos of the business with the bureaucracy of capitalism was a difficult beam to balance. 

“It makes me really sad to see the direction, especially in the U.S., that we’re going. It’s almost like you have to franchise to get to a certain scale in order to profit. And that’s frustrating,” Plewe said. “It feels like there was a switch in coffee and cafes from this delicatessen, beautiful experience that engages the brain to being this grab-and-go utility to get through the day. I am so sad about this loop people are stuck in constant consumption and never actually have time to slow down and live to experience this beautiful delicious thing.” 

It’s quick to scapegoat blame onto unfair external factors that worked against Plewe’s attempts of keeping Curiosity’s doors open. “Right now it’s a really hard time to be a small business. We’re getting more and more pressurized. The gap between the rich and the poor is ever increasing. Everything is more expensive. No one can even afford to go out. I don’t blame people if they couldn’t afford what we were doing. But we also couldn’t make our experience cheaper because we were already not profiting off that.” 

But for all those obstacle-jumping external factors, Plewe will be the first to admit her own accountability for Curiosity’s ultimate demise.

“I’m not trying to blame anyone else. There were a lot of internal factors that I learned I could have done differently. I don’t think it was society’s fault.” 

Like paying her few employees a good wage, to a point she couldn’t pay herself. “To ensure that I was being the type of business owner I wanted to be,” Plewe said. “In order to make a profitable business, most businesses change what they actually cared about to start with. I am really stubborn and there’s a lot of areas I wasn’t willing to compromise. I accept that.” 

That steadfast belief in her ethos, even for the two short years Curiosity was around, has created a model for how other spaces can begin hosting the underground artist meetups of which Curiosity was just beginning to scratch the surface. 

Curiosity provided the physical space to host these events, centering the queer and artist communities in Salt Lake. With its highly intentional atmosphere that fostered comfort and safety for these events to latch on.  

“I think when people can see businesses having events like that, it really shows people what is possible in Salt Lake City,” Jade said. “People expect that stuff to be in New York City, Seattle, Portland, New Orleans; bigger cities that have more of that art base already. I don’t think people always perceive Salt Lake that way, but I feel like I want people to see that and create their own versions of Curiosity and poetry night and that combination.” 

But without affordable options, spaces and events face barriers to entry insurmountable for small businesses. 

“I think artists are being priced out of the city, when artists are what make it interesting,” Plewe said. “They are the soul and breath of the city.”

The Maven District is a really good example of this exact phenomenon (read: gentrification). “I went to middle school on the block that I opened Curiosity, I grew up there,” Plewe said. “Now I can’t afford it. They talk as if they're doing this charity for the city by developing it when the reality is they're making the city really generic and really expensive.”  

It also comes down to rendering lasting support systems for these DIY spaces and small businesses. 

“When people saw me organizing things, they felt empowered to organize things themselves. I think that’s how we start to see the foundation of an underground network of events that are creativity based,” Jade said. “It gives people this sense that there is a counterculture here and to exist here is possible as somebody in counterculture.” 

What someone wants in their city is what they’re willing to support, Jade said. The organizer wanting a cultural shift to recognize there doesn’t have to be so many spaces dedicated to parking lots and chains and corporations. That third spaces, underground spaces, small businesses can exist for the betterment of the community. Where events like poetry nights can continue their legacy of giving space to voices often crowded out in the mainstream. 

“We have to find creative ways to make attending these things part of our culture here. It’s possible, it’s just continuing to do things like poetry nights, finding the people that are committed,” Jade said. “Gathering together and asking, how do we make this a part of our city? How are we going to manifest our commitment in a collective way? To make it keep growing until we can’t make it stop?” 

“I believe that more spaces can be this intentional and elevated if we keep pushing for them and working for them to survive when they do appear,” Jade said. 

“There was always a different signature to each poetry night. It was always unique. I don't think I can say the last one was more or less special than the first one,” Plewe said. “I feel like seeing people get up there and be willing to be vulnerable and brave gave me strength in my own creative process. And I'm gonna hold on to that.”