CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the Queen City’s iconic LGBT-friendly gathering places closed its doors on Sunday, taking more than a decade of local LGBT social history with it.
The Caribou Coffee at 1531 East Blvd. is one of seven locations being closed locally by the national chain. The company is also closing 80 other locations across the country and converting 88 others into Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
“It’s really sad to see it closing,” says Dan Mauney, an organizer of Charlotte’s Takeover Friday and leader in other LGBT causes. “I’ve been going there since it opened. It was the unofficial gay coffee shop in Charlotte.”
The Dilworth location, affectionately called “The ‘Bou” by its many patrons, had long been a gay-friendly hang out. In 1999, it’s reputation as a “Toooootally Gay Coffeehouse,” as Charlotte Magazine’s Jeremy Markovich wrote last week, was sealed when an gay social club began meeting there regularly.
John Mayes, who moved to Los Angeles two years ago, began The Caribou Club in 1999 shortly after arriving in Charlotte in 1996. The group later changed its name to Amity Allies, as it began to hold social events in other locations. Eventually it grew to attract nearly 100 or more people to its weekly Wednesday-night coffee nights at Caribou.
“Originally, it was a pretty casual gathering,” Mayes says. “I was really just out of the closet at the time and I was frustrated with the options and opportunities to meet people that were not in a bar. That was kind of the reason for trying to pull a group together to have a place to hang out outside of a bar.”
Mayes never sought out to create a new community organization. Amity Allies’ goal was a social one. The group organized club outings to events like the Renaissance fair and the Charlotte Symphony. Other activities like hiking trips, laser tag and bowling were also planned. But, as the weekly meet-ups and the group’s accompanying email list grew, so did its ability to organize.
“There were a couple parties organized outside of [the club],” Mayes says. “There was certainly participation in the AIDS Walk. It became a place where people could discuss what they were going to be doing or participating in. It was a place where some of the other groups could connect with people. A number of people that came were involved in other organizations and it became a venue for them to continue to discuss and organize what their organizations were doing.”
The social fabric built among the members of the group was strong. “Other folks in town may be building a community center, but we’re building the community,” Amity Allies coordinator James Johnson told qnotes for an August 5, 2000, news article.
Mayes was surprised that Amity Allies’ events and fondness among the community grew so quickly.
“Long after Amity Allies was around, a manager there several managers after me knew who I was and that I was the one who started this thing,” says Mayes. “I had no idea that this thing had the reputation it had, even among the management and staff at Caribou.”
Though the social club’s activities waned in the mid-2000s, Caribou’s reputation as a friendly place to meet new friends and chat with old ones never changed. People just coming out or moving to Charlotte were told to seek out “the gay coffee shop on East.” The business routinely got top votes in the QList, qnotes‘ annual “Best of” contest. The shop’s open and affirming environment, complete with a bevy of friendly and openly gay staff, inspired other groups to meet there for informal chats and coffee hours.
Tor Froland, of the monthly Charlotte Bear Dinners, began organizing twice-monthly coffee nights at the Caribou four years ago.
“It’s like a little meeting place for the gays,” Froland says. “It’s always been that way.”
Froland’s group will now seek out another location for its coffee nights, though he thinks the search for a comfortable alternative will be difficult.
“The only place that comes close is Amelie’s in NoDa…but inside its always so crowded and there’s not always enough space,” Froland says. “At Caribou, there was always outside place to sit and if you had to, you could sit on the stoop like sitting on the front porch of your house.”
The Caribou, community members say, will be missed.
“It’s going to leave a big void in daily interactions that so many of us had for years,” says Mauney.
From the archives
The two articles below are from the qnotes archive. Click images to enlarge.