Richmond has been having a cultural renaissance lately, and evidence — the G40 mural summit, defunct spaces becoming lofts, the tech-darling Tumblr in the Manchester District — is everywhere.
Indeed, the River City is blossoming so much that it’s becoming hard to keep up with the array of art, tech, foodie and design developments around town.
If you’ve noticed more tattoos, more non-conformist beards, more skinny guys wearing skinny jeans with skinny ties, and people generally looking like they belong in a rock band, you’re not imagining things. These exquisite creatures are called “hipsters,” and Richmond is teeming with them.
And though no self-respecting hipster would ever admit to being one, hipsters are slowly making a significant impact on the cultural and even economic makeup of Richmond.
“I’ve definitely seen the rise of hipster culture in the time since I’ve come here,” said Melanie Buffington, an art education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University — hipster ground zero.
Here since 2006, she said, “I see it in their behavior on campus — the ideas students hold, the way they dress. One key thing of hipster culture is rejection — breaking away from other cultures they didn’t want to be associated with, so they created their own culture.”
And that culture is flourishing in Richmond. Proof? Pabst Blue Ribbon — a hipster staple because it’s cheap and so uncool it becomes cool — confirmed last year that Richmond is the third-largest market for the beer.
We’ve long been known as one of the most tattooed cities in America. Add VCU’s world-class art school and living costs low enough to sustain a boho lifestyle, and it’s no wonder that Culture Map Houston, an online magazine for Texans, said its unscientific poll named Richmond the “hipster city of America.”
“It’s definitely a Richmond thing,” said 19-year-old VCU sophomore Symone Simmons, an art student. “Hipsters are like, 90 percent of the art program.” A native of Stafford, she was shocked to discover such a thriving culture here.
“You see these kind of quirky, kooky outfits — oxford shoes, nerdy glasses — and people would say, ‘Oh, that’s a hipster,’ and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ It has definitely seeped into the vocabulary of Richmond.”
What’s a hipster, exactly? In short, it means living a lifestyle different from the mainstream. Irony is big, so things that are nerdy, outdated, conventionally “ugly” or unlikely to be appreciated by the masses are prized hipster possessions.
Hipsters don’t do Starbucks; coffee has to be local — the more known about its origins the better. Applebee’s? Not on your life. If a hipster does eat out — vegan, gluten-free, organic, locally sourced food isn’t exactly on every corner you know — the place needs a backstory, vibe and customers who understand sustainability.
Some have suggested that the term and ethos might have begun in the jazz era; writers, including Norman Mailer, have surmised that counterculture began as middle-class whites appropriated “outsider” values of jazz black musicians cut out of mainstream society by segregation.
Closer to home, Richmond has long resisted mainstream ideals, not only in its legacy as capital of the Confederacy but also in the late 1950s through the ’70s as beatniks, poets, leftists, gays and other “outcasts” found a home in such Richmond landmarks as The Village Restaurant.
Today though, “hipster” — like “greaser” or “hippie” before it — can conjure up a clear image that isn’t entirely positive. The great hipster paradox is that people who’d fit the definition don’t like the term.
“It’s kind of offensive,” said Brian McDaniel, who might be fairly described as a “man about town.” His acclaimed blog (a major hipster pastime, by the way), Dirty Richmond, featured photographs of Richmond’s most stylish people.
And since McDaniel is always stylishly dressed, thin, vegetarian and into indie music, well, you know. “It stings,” McDaniel said. “I hate being called a hipster. At the same time, I see why people would say that.”
Hipsters, by definition, loathe doing what everyone else is doing. So being called a hipster suggests you’re not only trendy but also easily defined — which, of course, defies the point of being edgy, cool and underground in the first place. You can see how this gets complicated.
“One time,” he said, “someone called me a ‘blipster,’ ” (meaning “black hipster”). “I said, ‘Oh, no!’ I went to Urban Dictionary and read the description — and I have to say, it was pretty accurate. You find out you’re not that unique. It gets tough sometimes, this lifestyle.”
Chris Ramming is a co-owner of The Well, a recently revamped restaurant that was once Cous Cous, a Richmond hipster institution. Decidedly more low-key, The Well features a jukebox playing 45s and an amber glow in a back lounge that bears a noticeable similarity to an Instagram filter. The Well’s departure from hardcore hipster days wasn’t accidental; Ramming loathes the word.
“I hear the term a lot, but it’s never anything nice,” he said. “I like hipsters. They pay my bills. I think it’s a negative term. It’s just younger people that like art and music.”
Cous Cous, where Ramming served as bar manager and de facto events director, catered to a crowd of young people looking for a unique experience — not just food — and it’s that specialized vibe that kept him in business. “The scene became what it is because kids wanted to dance. It was dead — we needed to make money. We started booking friends.”
It worked. DJs played anti-Top 40 — reggae, disco, funk, vintage hip-hop — music difficult to hear live just anywhere. The indie masses came.
“When I came to this area in the ’90s, it was seedy,” he said. “It’s better cleaned up, but now they’re building high-rises and Chipotles — we have to provide a scene that’s different.”
Though hipster culture is often reduced to a look, other values are at play — some of which have economic impact. The same insistence on DIY and local that’s sometimes lampooned is, in fact, creating business — and getting people jobs. Ramming thinks people — city leaders, especially — might do well to pay more attention to this cultural shift.
“We can’t serve lunch because we’re required to have parking,” he said. “But we don’t need parking. Everyone I know walks here.” (Studies say millennials, the age group in which hipsters fall, drive less than previous generations.) “Some kids hold community improvement meetings here. I hear people asking all the time things, like, ‘Why don’t we have bike lanes?’ Young people are smart; they have good ideas.”
Sure, hipsterism can border on the absurd, with people finding themselves in existential debates over, say, whether shopping at Urban Outfitters makes one a sellout (“It gets to a point,” McDaniel said, “where it’s like, ‘Come on man.’ ”), but then, why shouldn’t you strive to put your money back in your own community?
“Sometimes, I’ll wait to go see a movie at the Byrd versus going to some chain,” McDaniel said. “That money doesn’t go back into the community. These places are getting people jobs.”
At least 35 jobs exist in Richmond now thanks to Lamplighter Roasting Co., a coffee shop just east of Carytown. In 2009, partners Jennifer Rawlings, Zachary Archibald and Noelle Archibald transformed a dilapidated garage into a coffee shop, and it now has a following so large it routinely draws crowds. Calling Lamplighter Richmond’s “best hipster coffee shop” might seem charitable — unless you knew how much that annoys the owners.
“We have great Yelp reviews,” Noelle Archibald said, “but when people say, ‘I’m not hipster enough to go there,’ to be honest, it gets under our skin. It bothers us a lot, actually. It’s not complimentary.”
Hipster, she said, has become a kind of catch-all used to group people that folks just don’t understand. Tattoos and funky hairstyles are just external reflections of her staff’s diverse experiences and points of view and, anyway, “we have CEOs of major corporations sitting next to major gallery owners next to a train-hopping kid. We try to break those norms and create a place comfortable for everyone. We wanted to do it for ourselves and create jobs.”
At its core, rejecting mainstream isn’t just about appearances. It’s really about doing something — starting projects and businesses — such as The Well, Lamplighter or the punk thrift boutique Rumors — that reflects what America is truly about: entrepreneurial spirit, passion, taking care of your community.
“Overwhelmingly,” Archibald said, “people are looking for things that have meaning. Small businesses that are worker-owned and passionate are exactly what our city and country need. We’re not doing it to be cool or hip. Maybe it’s time we move beyond that phrase and look at it as a return to sanity and loving what you do.”
Ramming, co-owner of The Well, agrees. He dislikes the word hipster but emphasizes the positive. “Hipsters are actually moving things forward. There are a lot of cool people here doing good things. (The city) should let them do it.”
And, for the record, Ramming not only dislikes hipster, but also, if you’re going to lump him into a group, you might as well get it right.
“I’m 37,” he said. “I’m officially a geezer.”