It is not often that a coffee shop is also an art gallery and a safe haven for the queer community — but walk down to 335 Wickenden St., and you’ll find that warmth and innovation converge at Small Format.
A space “by and for queer folks,” Small Format is run by self-identified queer individuals who aim to cultivate a community focused on a “collective liberation process,” Founder Tameka Eastman-Coburn said. This process recognizes that in an interconnected society, all peoples should enjoy dignity, respect and individual freedom, necessarily including the LGBTQ+ population.
Small Format opened in October 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which posed numerous challenges from the get-go. The opening process grew more complicated with delays in liquor licensing and health inspections. And with social distancing in place, processes from physically procuring art to fostering a community in the 500-square-foot space were more challenging to achieve. This size “previously would have been cozy, and people would have been happy to kind of sit on top of each other … but suddenly you’re only allowed to have one person per 100 square feet,” Eastman-Coburn said.
Small Format met these difficulties by adjusting their model swiftly, including by moving outdoors. Creating an open-air gallery was the shop’s attempt at maintaining the creative gallery experience, Eastman-Coburn said. To them, customer experiences should not just revolve around the art shows, but should also be about finding the creative space to dream, have conversations and build a better world together.
Constantly responding to new pandemic restrictions is what led to the conception of Small Format’s unique model, which combines coffee, food, cocktails and art, with the daily coffee and food services being added as an additional source of income. And though ithey were introduced out of necessity, food and coffee now form an essential part of the Small Format experience: “There’s something so healing about going into a space and being able to break bread with people … so having food, thoughtful food, available is fundamental to how the development has shifted,” said Eastman-Coburn.
The shop’s first exhibition was called “Third Space.” It was based on the idea that Small Format would be the space members of the queer community could turn to outside of their homes and workplaces to “self-actualize and just exist,” Eastman-Coburn said. Sharon Cho GS, a new staff member at Small Format, said “within the walls of Small Format is ideally a space that allows people to thrive through the freedom of expression, through joy and fun and that connection with community.”
The need for this physical space and a community to turn to only increased during the pandemic. Eastman-Coburn said that, to them, what confirmed the importance of opening during the pandemic was “the amount of people just coming and sitting and talking with me every week, like they just needed somebody to talk to. People were extremely lonely, specifically queer folks feeling separated from their families in bigger ways.”
Beyond the provision of this space, Small Format has also held several events to directly engage with and contribute to the community, including a “free market” to help people meet their basic needs. Small Format’s first free market was held within the first week of opening, when they provided necessities such as basic food staples and winter clothes. “We also had a cupcake fundraiser for Hurricane Ida victims,” Cho said.
For local customers like Molly D’Anderich, being a part of these “cute little events,” such as giving out free plants for Juneteenth, makes her feel good about spending her money there.
“I’ve been coming here for a while,” D’Anderich said. “I like the vibe and their mission and the fact that they support the local Providence community and queer, Black and brown people.”
Recently, Small Format also hosted a “Reclaiming Radical Mindfulness and Meditation” series. The series was “specifically geared toward giving QTBIPOC folks in the Providence Community a toolset for dealing with the world,” Cho said. The shop teamed up with Chris Rodriguez, a mindfulness practitioner who reached out to Small Format to “engage with the community in ways that make meditation and mindfulness accessible and introductory.”
Amid the chaos and stress of the pandemic, the series has proved to be more relevant than ever. “There’s changing information every single day, and to make it digestible, to make your body acclimate to extreme and heavy information coming to you every single day (through practicing mindfulness and meditation), we can learn more skills to metabolize this information, to make it easier to live in your body,” Eastman-Coburn said.
The exhibition currently on display at Small Format is centered around the theme of “collective memory.”
“We are all, actively, all the time, creating memories,” Eastman-Coburn said. “But the folks that write the history books, the memory of things, are not our people, so we, right now, are coming together to create these collective memories and tell our stories.”
That is the essence of Small Format, a space that preserves and brings together different stories from marginalized voices. With upcoming events such as open mic nights, “gay game nights” and “LGBTQ+ movie nights,” Small Format provides a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Eastman-Coburn using the wrong pronouns. The Herald regrets the error.