Gender-neutral bathrooms, affirming signs, and diverse bookings all help make a space more inviting, but the process of creating a truly inclusive space is a bit more elusive. But two bars—Arcana in Durham and Ruby Deluxe in Raleigh—have decided they're up to the challenge. The two subterranean enclaves have managed to establish themselves as models of inclusivity over the course of their relatively short existences, dedicating themselves to ensuring a good time for all, but especially those who are marginalized.
When Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher decided to open Arcana in Durham, they knew they wanted to incorporate tarot and give the space a lounge feel with plenty of couches and soft elements, but the rest evolved over time.
"We just wanted to make a space that feels welcoming to everyone and definitely making a place that's not a 'dude bar,'" Karcher says. "And the idea of the esoteric already draws a certain set of clientele that has almost a softness to it."
Karcher adds that because Arcana hosts tarot readings, the space has to be amenable to vulnerable experiences.
"The tarot can create this instant intimacy, where you might open up more to your tarot card reader than to a therapist or a best friend, and all the sudden get cut to the quick about what's going on in your life or what's troubling you or where you need guidance," Karcher says.
Andrews and Karcher didn't initially intend for Arcana to be a performance venue, but as more and more acts approached them, they decided the space should be a place where artists could try new things out and experiment.
"I think it's great that we're catching some bands as they're on their way up and they just want a space to play that's one step up from their living room," Karcher says, "Maybe they're not ready for a big show—it's a space where experimentation is welcome."
Since opening two years ago, Arcana has hosted some fairly experimental performances ranging from people playing cello while rolling around on the ground with My Little Pony dolls to artists dancing with a bed of nails and plenty of rituals involving burning sage.
"Even Jess Dilday coming in on a Sunday night and playing some of their own original music, I think was a big deal for them," Karcher adds. "It's amazing to see d.j.s who play out all the time feel that sense of humility about sharing their own creations."
Dilday, aka DJ PlayPlay, has been supportive of Arcana since the beginning.
"With Arcana I think it's more like they don't even need to say they're inclusive because they're inclusive; it's just a diverse group of people who go," Dilday says.
Arcana, which is one of downtown Durham's only woman-owned bars, achieves that aura by setting the stage with an all-female staff. Its staff also seeks out and encourages music collectives like Mamis and the Papis, which is made up of womxn and femmes, and regular events like Super Secret Dance Party and Four on the Floor, which make of point of featuring diverse lineups.
"While we're proud of our cocktails, our beers, and our staff, I think this sort of encapsulates a lot of our vision for the bar," Andrews says.
- Photo by Madeline Gray
- Ruby Deluxe's Daniel Tomas and Tim Lemuel
When Tim Lemuel opened Ruby Deluxe in Raleigh, he knew from the beginning he wanted the space to be actively geared toward everyone under the LGBTQIA umbrella, but when he asked Daniel Tomas to come on board to handle booking, the space became an epicenter for queer artists and performers.
Tomas had lived in Barcelona and Madrid for a few years, and lamented the lack of big queer dance parties in Raleigh that he enjoyed in large European cities. Shortly after opening the bar, Lemuel readily offered up Ruby Deluxe to host Tomas's dream dance party and the result was a huge success, paving the way for many more Viz Queer Dance parties over the past couple of years.
"I myself am queer, and if you talk to anybody in the queer community that's not a gay man you'll find out very quickly that there are not spots for other people that fall under the realm," Tomas says. "There's nothing wrong with gay clubs, but what you have in a lot of your bigger cities, and even here in North Carolina, are clubs that just cater to gay men, when you have all these other people under the umbrella. So it's really important for me when we're booking that we get bands that are nonbinary and queer."
Tomas says he gives everybody a shot to play at Ruby Deluxe as long as they're serious and responsive. Lemuel, meanwhile, says he's seen bands that played their earliest shows at Ruby Deluxe successfully step up into bigger venues around the Triangle. Aside from booking a diverse slate of performers, Lemuel and Tomas work daily to provide an inclusive atmosphere.
"It's a daily thing we do," Lemuel says. "We work every day to try and make it queer-friendly and safe and also inclusive at the same time, so it's a daily fight and chore to make sure that it gets done."
Part of that action happens through the bar's décor. A sign near the entrance reads, "This Is a Queer Space," the interior is decorated in shimmering red glitter, and the lighting is dominated by soft blues, purples, and pinks.
"It's standard things, but when all of it comes together, it looks like something is going to happen in this space tonight," Tomas says.
Like Arcana, Ruby Deluxe wasn't initially intended to be a music venue, but now its organizers have found themselves in the happy predicament of being approached by more great bands than they can handle. They'll soon be booking even more bands at The Wicked Witch, a new music venue in Raleigh.
"We're opening The Wicked Witch because we have, in a positive way, outgrown our space and are getting invitations and dates from bands that Ruby is not big enough to house," Tomas says. "And now we'll be able to cast a bit of a wider net since we can put more people in that venue."
The more people these missions reach, the more these inclusive atmospheres continue to grow, fostering a bigger, better community for all.