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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

S.F. Loses a BDSM Community Hub with the Closing of Wicked Grounds Coffeehouse

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Rose White and Ryan Galiotto owned Wicked Grounds.
  • Rose White and Ryan Galiotto owned Wicked Grounds.

@WickedGrounds is closed today. We are very sorry for any inconvenience.

That tweet went out two Wednesdays ago. It was at once cryptic and unsurprising. On the one hand, it might just mean what it said: Wicked Grounds was closed for the day. On the other, it could mean something more, because the city's only kink-oriented coffeehouse had suffered financially since its opening. The fact that it was still open at all was because of an enormous effort by regular clientele to raise funds. (The owners had announced it would close at the end of April.) When the tweet went out, everyone froze for a minute, wondering whether the axe had finally dropped.

Once the baristas started posting on Twitter and Fetlife about finding new jobs, it seemed very clear: Wicked Grounds was closed for good -- and with it an important hub of San Francisco's BDSM community.

I can't pretend to have journalistic objectivity on this subject. For the past two years, Wicked Grounds has been central to my social life in the city. When it opened, I wrote it up for CarnalNation, the website where I worked at the time, and when it looked like it would close, I participated in the fundraisers to keep it open. A lot of my writing has been done sitting at one of its tables while people openly practiced bondage knots a few feet away. My main response to its closing is a profound sense of grief and loss.

Supporters were able to raise $50,000 to keep the cafe open, but it eventually wasn't enough.
  • Supporters were able to raise $50,000 to keep the cafe open, but it eventually wasn't enough.

Those feelings are even more acute because the story of Wicked Grounds says so much about the state of San Francisco's sexual subculture. Just getting the café's doors open in 2009 was a community effort. Before the first coffee was poured, people volunteered their help to get the space into shape. Co-owner Ryan Galiotto (who was joined by his wife Rose White) acknowledges that they probably wouldn't have been able to open without that assistance.

But as much as that says something about the fundamental decency of our local pervs, the closing of Wicked Grounds also shows a real problem: Kinksters are fighting tooth and nail to keep community spaces. It's not just one coffeehouse.

"Things have been really bad," Galiotto says. "When we opened, we had Stormy Leather, A Taste of Leather, as well as Mister S and Leather Etc."

The first two of those four retailers are gone.

"There were a handful of leather bars [in the SoMa area] and right now, I think Powerhouse is probably the only real leather bar," he says.

click to enlarge Rose White holds a "g-spot cucumber" in the "We Can Do It!" pose.
  • Rose White holds a "g-spot cucumber" in the "We Can Do It!" pose.

After Rose and Ryan announced that Wicked Grounds would close at the end of April, two more of San Francisco's queer institutions were also fighting for their lives: the Eagle Tavern and Lyon Martin Health Services. In May the Eagle lost the battle to keep its lease after being indispensable to the numerous sectors of the queer community community for 30 years and closed its doors. Lyon Martin has held on, if barely, thanks to fundraising by its patients, staff, and community members.

click to enlarge A recent bondage demonstration.
  • A recent bondage demonstration.

With each closing, it feels like San Francisco is becoming less and less of a place to be queer or kinky, unless you want to keep it in your apartment.

Wicked Grounds was unusual in that it was primarily a social space where everyone just happened to be kinky. People came in as a normal part of their everyday lives, not to get laid or to buy stuff for a special night out. On any given afternoon or evening, you might see Scrabble at one table and bondage at the next. The casual nature of the space broke down the careful segregation between "normal" life and sex.

click to enlarge This shot is from a "Beefcake Barista" event.
  • This shot is from a "Beefcake Barista" event.

Perhaps even more important, because it was a coffeehouse, it was a great landing place for the younger members of the scene, the ones just learning how to shape their mouths around the word "queer" and finding out what that means. They now have one fewer door that will open to them. It's also a place where other groups held fundraisers, such as one to help victims of the earthquake in Japan.

The dedication of Wicked Grounds' customers and employees to preserve that kind of space, where they could come and chat and be normal without being in a closet, was demonstrated in April, when they raised more than $50,000 to keep the place open. They did it through individual pledges, raffles, and fundraising events.

It still wasn't enough.

While walking to the café on Oct. 5, Galiotto got a call from his wife that they had to close the café immediately because of bankruptcy rules.

"We did not qualify for conditions under Chapter 7 to remain open in receivership," Galiotto says. "So as soon as Chapter 7 went into effect, we were no longer able to be in business."

click to enlarge The tweet that accompanied this photos says "She might have won the contest, but now she is forced to live in a cage for the rest of her life."
  • The tweet that accompanied this photos says "She might have won the contest, but now she is forced to live in a cage for the rest of her life."

As a result, a lot of groups are scurrying for new venues for their get-togethers, sometimes called "munches" because they're informal discussions over food and beverages. At the time Wicked Grounds closed, regularly scheduled meetups included a pony play munch, a games night, a twice-monthly bondage munch called "Rope Bite," and events sponsored by the Society of Janus and the Exiles. Despite our twisted reputation, venues for those kinds of events are surprisingly difficult to find in San Francisco. Even here, most business owners prefer it if the freaks find somewhere else to talk shop.

A week and a half after closing, Galiotto's voice was heavy with exhaustion and grief, but not with regret.

"I guess what I have to do is just lick my wounds for a bit," he says. "I put so much of myself into this place, it's really hard not having it there. I'm trying to remind myself that we did an amazing thing, that it may not have lasted forever, but we did it. For two years, we provided this for everyone."

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Chris Hall

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