Walk into Rust Belt Books, the picturesquely disheveled shop on Allen Street that has been dispensing musty volumes of prose and poetry to neighborhood denizens since 2000, and you might not even notice it.
At the end of a narrow alley between towering mountains of books, just past the spirituality section, lies the bookstore’s tiny back room. Peek your head inside, and it doesn’t seem like much: Pockmarked walls painted a deep shade of maroon; a few scattered tables and chairs surrounding a raised platform that barely qualifies as a stage; an ad hoc art installation nestled into a dusty pocket of crumbling bricks in the wall.
While it might strike the casual visitor as some sort of throwaway storage space, this room – which will close along with the rest of shop on Dec. 30 in preparation for its move and January reopening at 415 Grant St. – is Rust Belt’s essential reason for being.
“The bookstore is a front,” said Kristi Meal, who has been with Rust Belt since 2000 and has run it along with partner Erin Verhoef since 2004. But unlike a pizza joint laundering money for the mafia or some other nefarious purpose, Rust Belt the bookstore has long been a front for Rust Belt the cultural incubator.
Over the years, the back room of Rust Belt has helped to launch the careers of countless theater performers, poets, electronic musicians and totally unclassifiable performers of every imaginable background. Though the spirit of the room will be reincarnated in January when Rust Belt opens its new home on Grant Street, its disappearance from Allentown deserves a period of mourning.
Even with the door propped open to let a breeze through, the room was usually insufferably hot in the summer. It wasn’t much more comfortable in the winter, with shivering but dedicated patrons jammed into the space to watch whatever brand of unpredictable weirdness was in store for them that afternoon or evening.
But you’ve heard about suffering for art? In this case, the trade-off was well worth it.
For many in Buffalo’s arts community, the back room of Rust Belt carries an almost spiritual significance.
It’s where so many timid poets stepped to the podium to read their work in public for the first time. It’s where untold numbers of shoestring theater productions from once-unknown companies like Torn Space, Subversive and American Repertory Theatre first sputtered to life. It’s where the sprawling Buffalo Infringement Festival was born and nurtured into the grandest accomplishment of the city’s vast grassroots cultural community.
Meal, who has overseen programming in the back room for more than a decade, the intimacy and comfort of the space allowed artists and small companies to experiment freely.
“People come in, they have a great time, and it’s a small space, so they take risks that they wouldn’t normally be doing in other settings,” she said. “People have to feel at home in order to let the thing begin, to feel comfortable enough to begin. We work very hard to help people feel at home.”
But as recent developments on Allen Street have shown, artists and performers are feeling less and less at home lately in the neighborhood as rents rise and a Chippewa-esque frat party vibe encroaches on Allentown’s erstwhile bohemia. Earlier this year, Michael Mulley’s College Street Gallery was booted by his landlord from its location next door to a restaurant that was planning to expand. That restaurant is now closed and the storefront is empty, creating the paradox of a neighborhood both more expensive and less culturally interesting than it’s been in years.
For Meal, a move for Rust Belt has felt inevitable at least since the building that houses it was sold in 2012.
“A few years ago, you could feel the breezes coming. We would not be able to exist at contemporary Allentown rental prices. Just can’t,” she said, reflecting on the changing tastes and desires of the neighborhood’s new residents and visitors. “It’s just a different mindset. It’s a social media mindset and a Kindle mindset. This culture is closer to the mass market, the standard of American culture right now. Those are the things that are important to them. Not us with our stinky books.”
Fortunately for lovers of stinky books and living culture, Meal and Verhoef were able to buy a building at 415 Grant St. for a cool $44,000 – “maybe the last great deal in Buffalo,” Meal said – that was formerly an antique shop. In the new shop, there will be even more cultural opportunities, with a second floor that can potentially be renovated to host performances, poetry readings and installations.
The new spot, a few blocks from Forest Avenue, the Museum District and SUNY Buffalo State, suits the shop and its diverse base of customers and visitors. And for Meal, while the move to new and friendlier frontiers might not bode well for Allentown, she’s confident that Rust Belt will continue to play an important role in the cultural life of the city.
“Buffalo has always been a place where you don’t know who you’re talking to and what kind of artist they are, because it’s pretty intense. And it can happen because it’s always been inexpensive to live here. You can operate planet Earth from Buffalo with the way its economy has been. And now that’s a little bit changed, and the art scene has changed,” she said. “But I think the secret of Buffalo is deep soul, and that’s something that’s really intrinsically here, regardless of what’s going on on the shifting face of its streets.”