A hand-painted window sign greets customers as they enter The Beautiful Idea, a new trans-owned bookshop and makers’ market on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Wedged between a boutique and a CBD dispensary, the store sells artwork from over twenty small businesses run by LGBTQ+ artists into a colorful, brick-and-mortar home.
The Beautiful Idea is a condensed indoor art market in the front, selling everything from political zines and fruit-themed embroidery hoops to beadwork earrings and pronoun button pins. Behind the shelves of artwork lies a bookstore with memoirs, LGBTQ+ history books, antifascist literature and radical fiction.
Just two months after its opening, customers and community members — including Anthony Lerner, one of the store’s regulars — have come to appreciate the inviting atmosphere of the space.
“When I go into The Beautiful Idea, I see friends and many folks such as myself who are wanting to connect and hang with others in a visibly trans-owned, queer and anti-fascist store,” Lerner said. “To go to a store [where] I know trans and queerness are not just safe and accepted, but a central focus with intention and care behind it, allows me to feel like I myself can start to claim space too.”
According to co-owner Ellie Picard, at its core, The Beautiful Idea centers on trans visibility, queer community and a resistance to oppression that Picard calls “lived antifascism.”
“Queer folks [and] marginalized folks face this particular kind of everyday fascism — efforts to control who we are, how we express ourselves and to stamp out that kind of variation and queerness itself,” Picard said. “Queer antifascism has always been about that fight that we have to fight every single day just to exist and to thrive.”
The store opened its doors on Sept. 17 of this year, a date Picard and her co-owners Senlin Means, Dylan West and Joan Covatch deliberately chose to align with the Cville Pride festival. An annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community in Charlottesville, Cville Pride features queer food vendors, artists, and nonprofits in booths sprinkled across Ix Art Park.
“It would have been nice to have a little extra time,” West said. “But it felt important to have that crossover. We did it, and people were so thrilled.”
West calls the experience of running a trans-owned business in Downtown Charlottesville “magical.” Since its September opening, The Beautiful Idea has been embraced by the Charlottesville community — an overwhelmingly positive reaction that surpassed the owners’ expectations.
Seeing four visibly trans business owners makes a difference to younger customers, said Means, presenting trans youth who visit The Beautiful Idea with examples of successful trans adults.
“It's really amazing and unique to walk into a space and see someone who's trans behind the counter and know that they own it, and that this place is totally safe — and not just safe, celebrates you,” Means said.
Featuring merchandise from a diverse array of local LGBTQ+ vendors, The Beautiful Idea overflows with art of virtually every medium. Candy-colored enamel pins by Lucky Hodgepodge share a shelf with sparkly resin ashtrays by Angry Black Gxrl Art, body-inclusive vases by Griot Goods and pride-flag frog stickers by Wednesday’s Whimsies.
“Gender is like the universe / Constantly expanding,” reads one starry print. The genesis of Picard, Means, West and Covatch’s business has also been a story of expansion as the owners’ idea to centralize the LGBTQ+ community in a physical space became a reality.
“It's important to highlight that aspect of the business in the store, make sure that it's as visible as possible,” Picard said. “People need to see [trans identity] because they need that example
in their life, because they have sort of a beacon of safety and possibility.”
The business began as the F-12 Infoshop, an antifascist bookstore located within an art gallery in a converted warehouse in the Woolen Mills neighborhood. Picard and Means, who ran the shop, decided to move the infoshop to a new location with more breathing room and foot traffic.
“We wanted to partner with another like-minded business that was successful and that we felt could carry something with us,” Means said of the F-12 Infoshop’s relocation to the Downtown Mall.
Picard reached out to Dylan West of Critter Butts, a line of block printed art and apparel owned by West and their partner, Joan Covatch. The couple’s humorous, LGBTQ+-focused designs feature absurdist iconography such as the rear end of a skunk and the phrase “Be Gay Do Crimes.”
“We couldn’t say no,” said West, who brought experience and connections from their time selling at LGBTQ+ art markets in the Charlottesville and Richmond areas.
The F-12 Infoshop and Critter Butts combined to create The Beautiful Idea, and the four owners brought in sixteen vendors from their artists’ network to rent space in the store. They later began renting space to other vendors, some of whom had never had an opportunity to market their art.
“Having a space where people who maybe aren't physically or financially able to be at a market — this is a really great place to just have your stuff,” West said. “[Selling at The Beautiful Idea] is a really low-pressure way to dip your toe in if you're not sure about getting out there.”
The owners shared stories of customers who visit The Beautiful Idea simply to exist in the space, which provides a unique outlet for LGBTQ+ individuals to see themselves reflected in media, art and the professional world. One young regular, Picard said, takes day trips from Culpeper, Va. to visit The Beautiful Idea, traveling with their father to spend hours in the store.
“There's nothing like this in Culpeper,” said Picard. “There's really nothing like this literally anywhere in Virginia.”
The owners of The Beautiful Idea make fostering this home for LGBTQ+ individuals a central tenet of their business model — their website frames the store as a “radical community hub.”
A cluster of couches tucks into a sitting area behind the bookshelves, and the owners plan to use this space for movie nights, affinity group meetings, potlucks and other events as The Beautiful Idea community grows. One group of teenage customers spent so much time piling onto one of the couches that West had to reinforce its frame with metal.
“It was part of the plan for this to be a place where people would hang out and feel like a home,” Means said, “But it succeeded so quickly, and so much more than I expected. We get a lot of people who just come here as a second home.”
The Beautiful Idea is open to customers Tuesday through Sunday. Those interested can check out the bookstore on the Downtown Mall to find a warm and welcoming home for LGBTQ+ literature, art, community and joy.