The Changing Face of Provincetown Businesses
By Erik Borg
Provincetown is ever changing, and that change is being driven in every corner. With the traditional markers of culture leading the way, the business community is also quietly playing its part in illuminating a new identity for Provincetown that is both in keeping with Provincetown’s history and also pushing it forward.
As they always do, an array of small businesses has emerged in the past several years contributing to a new Provincetown. In many instances, these businesses are not new at their fundamental core. From t-shirt shops to guest houses, art galleries, and event spaces, they all have long been part of the Provincetown tapestry. But they are unique in that they are putting a twist on the traditional. They are doing it their own way, with a new angle or purpose, that is helping to shift or simply play with what Provincetown represents. Perhaps it’s a more inclusive Provincetown. More political. More accessible. Queerer, or even more radical. A better Provincetown, perhaps.
The through line with these businesses? Owners and operators who fell in love with Provincetown and saw an opportunity to start a business in the image of the Provincetown they wanted to see. It wasn’t there, so they created it.
Not quite a newcomer, Adam’s Nest has established itself over the past six years as a business that distorts what it means to be a vacation town t-shirt shop. Owner Adam Singer parlayed a long career in retail into a store that he describes as “sex-positive, politically engaged, socially conscious, spiritually connected, a bit naughty, queer and visible.” He says he didn’t set out to create a provocative brand, “but then, all these different things happened that sort of helped direct what the shop turned into.”
He opened the shop four days after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and the summer before Trump’s election. That year’s Carnival theme? Back to the 80s. “I came out in 1985, and I was sort of surprised that we were celebrating the 80s. So when everyone was printing Pac Man and Rubick’s Cubes, I printed Silence Equals Death, Read My Lips, and Frankie Says Relax, Get PreP.” Today, Adam’s Nest designs are hard to miss up and down Commercial Street. “Shoot Loads Not Guns,” in bold letters makes a statement and gives a portion of proceeds back to Gays Against Guns. His Queer hats and sweatshirts support the Trevor Project. He has collaborated with and commissioned new designs from queer artists all over, many of whom he finds on Instagram or by customer referral. “It’s definitely political and it’s also passing on queer history,” he says. “I have a retail business with purpose, and if I can do anything to leave the world better than I found it, that’s what my aim is.”
“A new art gallery in Provincetown? Groundbreaking.” So goes the self-deprecating wit of Treadwell Gallery owner Shann Treadwell, who—despite his attempts to downplay his efforts—is quietly creating a space for new and emerging artists to show and sell their work in Provincetown.
The gallery, now in its first summer, is clean, sleek, and airy. Many of the pieces veer away from the seascapes and vistas often associated with Provincetown art. In addition to the work of Treadwell himself, who is known for his large-scale, playful photo collages of famous and not-so-famous drag queens, 14 other emerging talents from Provincetown and beyond that fit his taste are featured as well. “It’s all really just work that I like and that I would put in my home. And I also feel like I have a very different taste from what is often shown in town,” he explains. He says he never set out to run a gallery, but always wanted a space of his own to finally show his own work properly. When the opportunity materialized to create Treadwell Gallery this spring, he said he wanted to do it differently. “All the artists I have could easily be represented by other places, they’re just not. The gallery world is kind of like an old boy’s club and it’s really hard to get into a gallery if you’re not in a gallery already.”
By creating room for artists who have been denied coveted gallery wall space until now, he may be helping redefine what it means to be an artist working or showing in Provincetown. Later this month he will feature an exhibit by Andrew Sedgwick Guth, a New York-based artist who came to Provincetown as part of the Stowaway artist residency program this year and spent a month sketching and painting Provincetown-based models for his new work, which incorporates sewn yarn and plastics and other materials for a uniquely textured result. In September, Treadwell will feature the work of Sam Waxman, another New York-based artist and former Stowaway resident whose photographs are playful and cinematic; this exhibit will feature visual recreations of real-life Craigslist Missed Connection Ads, several of which were photographed in Provincetown. Emil Cohen, a New York-based photographer, is showing his captured moments of Provincetown dune scapes in all their elicit and erotic glory. “So far, I feel like we have really checked all the boxes with what is showing—work that I like, work that other people like, and work that’s unique to town and people will pay for.”
Three years ago, Sheri Galyean was in a challenging place. She was recently widowed, wasn’t sure where her life was taking her, and was searching for what was next. A trip to Provincetown, which she had enjoyed many times over the years, became the source of a new direction for her. “I realized there weren’t any stores in Provincetown that catered to folks like me—women who are masculine of center,” she said. “And I thought, this town could use that. I thought maybe I could do that. And the idea just sort of stuck to me.” That idea became BoiChick, an ethos-driven retail store that sells “de-gendered clothing,” as Galyean and her partner Kayleen Gray describe it, meaning their selections are based on a style aesthetic and the fit and shape of the clothes, rather than whether the clothing is marketed as men’s or women’s. Now in its third season, BoiChick is hitting its stride and is broadening the store to appeal to all people who don’t necessarily see themselves represented in a retail space. “People come from all over the country and they see themselves reflected here. So it feels good for them to come here. I really feel like we’re building a community of support,” she says.
The experience of opening a de-gendered clothing store, especially in Provincetown, has been full of challenges, but also daily reaffirmations of her choice. “I wish I had a dollar as the saying going for every time someone comes in here and says thank you, we’re glad you’re here. It makes my heart swell.” While acceptance for an evolving idea of identity is strong in Provincetown, she notes that it’s also a daily part of the job to interact with would-be customers who struggle with or don’t understand the store’s ethos. “Probably every day, somebody says, is this for men or women? We banter back and forth about how do we answer that. People are usually heartfelt, they aren’t being jerks, they just want to know. So often I say both, and it’s all mixed together,” she explains. “I think we’re all in an evolving period, we’re all having our eyes opened about gender and fluidity and what it means in our community. We all get used to things the way they are and it’s ok to get a little nudging in a new direction. So we’re just nudging. Out of respect and love.”
In the basement of an old church, what was formerly the Velvet Lounge has officially coalesced into the Red Room. The space itself is not so different from the Velvet Lounge experience that many know. Red velvet walls still surround the room, creating a mix of sexiness and coziness. Its efficient stage and DJ booth still suggests it can quickly transform from performance arena to nightclub, which it regularly does.
But its purpose, its mission, has evolved. “We wanted to transform it into an LGTBQ+, queer and ally space. It really is for everyone. We wanted to leave its old identify behind,” says Janet Jorgulesco, who co-owns the space with Alan Cancelino. Jorgulesco and Cancelino, longtime friends who met in Provincetown after years in Miami and New York nightlife, respectively, came together six years ago to throw a Monday night dance party at the then-Velvet Lounge.
Cancelino, who also owns drag and costume shop House of La Rue, wanted to throw a party he and his friends would want to attend. “I’m so bored everywhere I go,” he told Jorgulesco, who was bar manager of the space. “Can we throw a party here?” They called it Gesellschaft, which means “community” in German. Or more specifically, as Cancelino describes it, “a community of people that have no common purpose to get together other than to want to get together.”
Today, Gesellschaft is still going strong, a Monday night staple of Provincetown nightlife featuring outrageous themes, costumes, and music by DJ Eddie. That spirit of Gesellschaft—the aspect of community and revelry—now serves as the guiding light for the identity of Red Room as a whole, says Jorgulesco. “In my vision, we kind of want to create like a mini-Joe’s Pub here, where we have quality stuff, and it can be very wacky or legit performers and singers, but always something that’s very interesting and pushes it forward.” What is emerging is an alternative performance space that strikes the balance between local and national acts, live music, stand-up comedy, drag performances, and even big parties hosted by Lady Bunny, Candis Cayne, and other icons of queer nightlife. Billy Hough of Scream Along with Billy fame now does his Sunday night shows at the Red Room piano. Most importantly, it’s a safe space, with the soul of Gesellschaft that started it all. “I’d love to see the name Red Room become a thing that stays in Provincetown. Everything that we do here, from the Portuguese Festival on, they’ve started somewhere. And this, I hope we’ve started something that can stay,” says Jorgulesco.
The Stowaway, in the East End of town, is a guest house done a little differently. The six-suite Victorian guesthouse has been transformed into a sophisticated yet playful space by owner Steven Azar, who moved to Provincetown along with the Provincetown Brewing Co. crew in 2019. The feel of the space has become central to what the Stowaway represents, and why it has drawn an eclectic crowd of visitors to its grounds.
Azar says he wants the space to feel like more of an experience than a guest house, where creative expression is nurtured and you never know what you will be surprised to see—from an impromptu piano performance in the parlor, painting or photos shoots in the lawn, pottery wheel sessions, meditation and drum circles, healing and body work, and more. “For me, what separates Provincetown from any other beach town, even queer beach towns, is that there’s just a magic here. You kind of have to come here without expectations, and at the end of it, your mind is blown,” he explains. “So if people want to create art, if people want to sing, if people want to show their movie, if people want to do drag without judgement or ridicule, then my Mantra is to say yes.”
That desire to fan the flames of creative self-expression led Azar to see how much Provincetown is becoming less affordable to artists, which threatens the town’s unique soul. He began the Stowaway Artist Residency program last year, after a sudden epiphany during the COVID pandemic that he had empty space and could put it to use with artists. “The thing that stood out the most for me is the fact that I own this huge property with many rooms, and it would essentially be empty for six months if not for a weekend here and a weekend there. Here I was in this privileged position, with all this space. I had to share it.”
The artist residency began in earnest in 2020, with two artists selected by a panel of local artists out of more than 50 applicants to stay at Stowaway for one month, free of charge. Their directive? Produce art that makes a positive impact on the local community and a greater audience. The result has been an incredible boon to Provincetown’s arts scene. Mike Sullivan, the Stowaway’s first-ever artist resident, officially relocated from New York to Provincetown and shows his work at the Schoolhouse Gallery. Subsequent residents Sam Waxman and Andrew Sedgwick Guth have also made their mark, with upcoming shows at the Treadwell Gallery featuring some of their works created in Provincetown. The success of the program has led Azar to begin to explore further endeavors in the philanthropic space that support Provincetown artists. “Giving people access who wouldn’t normally have access to the world of Provincetown, that’s what really excites me.”
Back Door Cocktails
Mikey LaBruna’s Back Door Cocktails is a new venture from a beloved figure in Provincetown’s bar and restaurant scene. Part catering service, part ready-to-pour homemade batched cocktails, the endeavor has allowed LaBruna to put his own stamp on a community that has over the past four years gone from a seasonal home to a permanent one. “It kind of happened organically. I had never thought of starting my own thing at all, but then this bug came in about starting a business. And I thought that actually might be kind of fun, and it would be sort of contributing to this community using a skillset I already have,” he explains.
He first began experimenting during the early days of the COVID pandemic by creating homemade cocktail syrups like blackberry mint and rooibos tea, among others, and playing with custom cocktail recipes. “At first I started doing it mostly just to have something to do,” he explains. He drew inspiration from fancy cocktail recipes and began to envision how they could be altered to make them work for a party of 20 people. “I started to think, okay, there actually might be something here. I can do this. And I can feel proud of it. And have fun with it too,” he said.
In one year, LaBruna has developed business fueled by word-of-mouth referrals and an Instagram page (@backdoorcocktails) that allows people to have an elevated cocktail experience without a lot of hassle. The name Back Door Cocktails is playful nod to Provincetown that also “feels like sort of a speakeasy you can bring to your house. It’s for people who kind of want to show off a little bit, or just don’t want your traditional margarita mix that you buy at Stop n Shop,” he explains. He finds that often clients know the flavor profile or energy they want for their party, but not exactly how to execute it. “It’s fun for people to come to me and say this is the type of party I’m throwing, now what do you think? And I say, okay, cool, here are some ideas.”
LaBruna says he is excited to grow with the business and with Provincetown. “I think this is kind of securing my place in Provincetown, because I do want to be the person people call when they want cocktails at their party, he said. “I do feel like there is a new fresh wave of folks here, and it feels really empowering to be a part of that.”
There’s more where that came from. Check out everything new in Provincetown in 2021!