Northwest Arkansas contains all the contrasts and contradictions of other small city gay bars, isolated from gay neighborhoods but close to American landmarks. Fort Smith and Fayetteville are one hour apart, but their two gay clubs are entwined by more than their relative proximity in northwest Arkansas, home of Walmart’s international headquarters and the tiny, gay-friendly Eureka Springs.
We spent Independence Day in Fort Smith, with its revitalized brick downtown that celebrates both its frontier heritage on the border of Indian Territory and contemporary art through a series of spectacular murals. The official city visitor’s center is in a restored brothel by the railroad tracks, Miss Laura’s. Fort Smith’s Kinkead’s is the skinniest bar we’ve seen, a shotgun affair 12 feet wide on the end of a 19th-century brick block that houses an Army Supply store and an Irish bar. There we chatted with bartender Matt and two other patrons who, like us, were out-of-towners. We laughed and played songs on the jukebox and swapped stories about straight men in gay bars.
C4 in Fayetteville is a slick nightclub in a new commercial development along a bike path on Dickson street, the main party district for the University of Arkansas. It’s not a bar that you can just drift into for a drink and a chat: it has a cover charge and is where you go to dance after a night of drinking at other bars. Like many of the places we’ve visited, Jamie Wilson, the manager and one of C4’s co-owners, doesn’t call it a gay club because “we are fighting for equality so hard, why label ourselves to make it feel like we’re exclusive? We’ll protect anyone.” At the same time, the club is open about being gay-owned: “we are proud of that, we are not going to be in the closet about that at all.”
Although the bars are an hour’s drive apart, they are linked. As Matt, Kinkead’s bartender says, “[I tell 18 year olds who come to us to go up to C4 until they turn 21]”. As Jamie Wilson says, “We have a few local [drag] queens, but we pull from Little Rock—there’s some really good queens out in Little Rock.” Thus even bars that are more than 60 miles apart share patrons and entertainers (Someone should map the migratory patterns of drag queens. All these small-city gay bars have drag shows, and all the shows feature queens from neighboring small cities and the nearby metropolises. And when you’re done with the map, please animate it kthxbai).
Although there are significant regulatory hurdles to admit 18-year-olds to clubs that serve liquor, it is worth the trouble, says Jamie Wilson, co-owner of C4:
For me it was important because they have nowhere else to go. If I had been comfortable with myself at that age I would have liked to have a space… We did have discussions about it because it’s a pain in the ass, you have to have food.
The kitchen required for 18 and up clubs isn’t used much by patrons, but is justified by the club’s mission to provide LGBTQ 18-year-olds a space to go. And yet, for Jamie, having an 18+ bar is not an end in itself if it doesn’t make business sense as well. When asked whether Kinkead’s should go 18+ as well, Jamie said he didn’t think it was a good idea:
They’re testing to turn it into 18+, they wanna talk to me about it, it’s dumb, it’s such a small space. What they need to figure out is how to get people who buy stuff in there. We have the ability here, we can handle some 18+ because we have a huge space that we have a greater amount of paying people in here.
We also visited Eureka Springs, a quirky Victorian spa town clinging to the Ozark Mountains. It has no gay bar per se, according to Damron or Jay Wilks, the organizer of Out in Eureka, so we did not arrange for any interviews.
Eureka Springs does have a population where one-fifth of the couples in town are same-sex, and features the Eureka Live Underground, which on closer inspection has all the hallmarks of a small-city gay bar: the subtle rainbow logo, the code word “diverse,” monthly drag shows and weekly karaoke, a “walk of shame” bloody Mary bar, an incredible selection of top-shelf liquors, “dancing, hula hoops, crazy hats,” and it is owned by gay couple Walter Burrell and Lee Keating (Lee passed the week before we arrived). Like other regional tourist destinations, the combination of visiting gays and gay-friendly locals means patronage can be predominantly straight but the vibe can be more than merely gay-inspired.
It was a common story for small city gay bars that they are linked by their relative isolation, in competition not with each other or even with other bars, but less-expensive leisure activities. When asked about their biggest competition, we heard over and over again that it wasn’t another bar, it was “the lake.” This lake was one of any number of lakes where people spend their evenings and weekends when the weather is nice. This reflects the seasonality of entertainment industries, to be sure, but also the way that rural and small city Americans value outdoor time and have less discretionary income, than their big-city peers. If owning the only gay bar for miles around doesn’t mean a monopoly on gay dollars, it certainly doesn’t mean a monopoly on gay time. Owning a successful gay bar requires a carefully balanced formula that is so locally specific that one bar’s business model doesn’t necessarily translate to another. Tory decided we needed to have a convention to gather all these owners together so they could meet each other, share ideas, and troubleshoot. Anyone know of any funders for such a thing?
Arkansas: definitely worth stopping for.
Tory Sparks and I wrote this together. Hire her!