About eight years ago, Alan Blackwell found a vacant storefront in downtown Brattleboro. He wanted to build a dive bar from the ground up.
Blackwell started gathering funky art and old road signs, mismatched lamps and furniture, plus some retro video games. He called it Arkham, and he wanted it to be a place where drinks were affordable.
He also wanted it to be a place where anyone could have a drink or two, maybe stand next to someone they'd never otherwise meet and get into a conversation about race, poverty or gender.
“This is a dive bar,” Blackwell says. “This is also an LGBTQ bar. This is also a black bar, and a white bar and a brown bar. And this is someplace where everyone can just be themselves, and that’s the point.”
Blackwell is a tall guy, 6-foot-7, and 37 years old. He grew up in New York City, but he ended up in Vermont after college. He said he took to the slower pace and progressive ideas up here. But as a black business owner, he said he’s experienced occasional racist assumptions from delivery guys who ask to see the owner.
“Being black in a small, rural community is really interesting," Blackwell said. "And at the same time, I’ve also gotten to know a lot of people, who as they’ve gotten comfortable with me, have felt able to ask me very honest questions about race, which I am very okay with."
He added: “People will ask me how I feel about certain events or situations, and ask me how I feel about that as a black man. And that’s something that’s been really nice, to have those types of open communication.”
On a recent Saturday night, Ken Kavanagh was hanging out with a friend, enjoying a few drinks and taking in the karaoke. It was his first time in Arkham, and he said he read about the downtown Brattleboro bar on Yelp.
“It said it had likea GLBT kind of flavor to this place," Kavanaugh said. "So I said, 'That’s kind of cool.' Because I had no idea that in southern Vermont, you’d ever find anything like that."
Downtowns across America are struggling, and Brattleboro has its own challenges with homelessness, drugs, crime and despair. And like any business owner, Blackwell worries about the business at Arkham, the bills and taking care of his employees.
“You know this is a town that is struggling in so many ways,” Blackwell said. “And it’s something that I see very clearly, because I am right on the forefront of it, being a business that’s open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week."
Blackwell said it can be hard to see that honest view of the community, it's struggles, but he also said there's a benefit. If you have a few drinks, you'll likely learn about how more people live and think.
“I want everyone to be comfortable no matter who they are, no matter what they believe,” Blackwell said. “There’s something really incredible about someone who identifies as a ‘they/them,’ sitting next to someone who is just coming back from school, who’s sitting next to someone who may or may not be a Trump supporter. You know, these are the conversations that really allow people to share ideas and learn who we all are.”
So if you’re in Brattleboro, and you’ve got some time, Blackwell said he’s happy to talk with you about anything you might have on your mind.
February is Black History Month, and all this week, VPR is featuring black entrepreneurs and business owners across Vermont. We'll meet a dairy farmer, a bar owner, a dentist and the owner of an executive search firm.