Welcome to Black-owned gay bar Lambda Lounge
In case you thought every independently-owned gay bar had shut its doors due to Covid, meet the persistent and visionary married couple behind Lambda Lounge — Harlem’s only African American owned LGBTQ lounge.
Charles Hughes and Richard Solomon are switched on and self-created Black entrepreneurs who are more than well aware of the importance of LGBTQ-owned nightlife spaces, LGBTQ spaces that welcome people of color, and Black-owned LGBTQ spaces.
After all, they came into each other's orbit at Chi Chi's — a West Village gay bar on historic Christoper Street that was welcoming of Black men in a way which wasn't and still isn't common in the Village and many of our "gay golden miles." After an unsuccessful appeal to keep its liquor license in 2010, Chi Chi's closed; and we've all seen the shuttering of LGBTQ bars across the nation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
But this leaves even less opportunities for Black queer folks to party in public. Even today, when Hughes and Solomon go out to other establishments it is clear the venue is tolerating them for the night — and that's all.
Gay spaces are important for both Hughes and Solomon. Hughes grew up in the South and struggled to hide his sexuality from his family. Solomon was the first man he brought home to meet them.
Solomon, a New Yorker, had it a little easier with his family. "I had the kind of mom who was like, 'OK, he's wearing my heels...' When I finally went to her with it she said, 'Listen, I've just been waiting for you to say something...' My father is a Jehovah's Witness so it was a little rocky with our relationship, there came the whole 'abomination' thing, and by the time he came around it was really too late, so I don't really have a relationship with my father, it's just me and my mother. But coming out for me was easy. Unfortunately not a lot of people get to experience that. But for me it was, OK I'm out."
And so the Greek Lambda symbol is important to them because they felt that "Rainbow" was a little on the nose. Hughes and Solomon wanted to reach back further and they discovered the history of the Lambda symbol during the immediate post-Stonewall era to signify gay liberation.
"It was kind of like a secret fraternity during that time, which was really dope to me," says Solomon.
"Lambda to me means family," says Hughes. "A unity. When people come in here you pretty much know everybody's names from security to the host to the bartender. It's a gay Cheers. I enjoy it, even though I'm the owner. We talk to each other the same."
When Hughes and Solomon got together, neither had experience in the nightclub business as anything other than as patrons. But both agreed that a nightclub held a certain attraction for gay men as a "home away from home." They especially wanted a relaxed space where queer people of color could come and be themselves.
But how that came about was circuitous.
First came their vodka brand, Lambda Vodka, a premium spirit that is served in their establishment and used in its signature cocktails. But when Hughes and Solomon started out with the brand they found it to be a mammoth task, from dealing with distilleries to distributors. And when they couldn't get a lot of traction with their vodka in an oversaturated market, someone suggested to them, "Why don't you open a bar and sell your vodka to yourself?"
That worked. Because Lambda Vodka had helped to give them a foothold in Harlem where they had already built a following. When they settled on the premises on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, they put special thought into the space and its appearance.
"We put a lot of time, effort and money into this space. All the art on the wall is from LGBTQ+ artists who gave it to us and designed the bottles as well."
And the venue has now grown to provide a stylish community space the welcomes different demographics of the community such as the ballroom scene, the drag scene, bears, lesbians, and more.
The bar had previously been 95% gay male but they've seen an increase in lesbians, trans folks, and even some straight women. "I remember once some straight men came in to play the video games and I remember they bought bottles and invited their girlfriends over. We get every walk of life who comes in here to have a good time," says Hughes.
While they have support now, getting the bar established wasn't easy — and when Covid happened and they had to close because the City of New York closed, they were down to their last few dollars when they launched a GoFundMe to try to bail themselves out. "We cried," says Hughes, now laughing a little painfully at the memory.
"We didn't want to ask people for assistance but we finally did it and once we did it for maybe a week, the City opened and we were able to open and generate some funds," says Hughes.
But they have done it all without investors so far. And they'd like to keep it that way so that they retain control. They have high praise for TD Bank who met with Hughes and Solomon and offered them a small business loan.
"They rolled out the red carpet," says Solomon, describing their meeting with the bank's LGBTQ Task Force, and the relationship continues to this day, with Hughes and Solomon featured in the bank's diversity ads.
It may have been a bumpy ride during the height of Covid, but the community has come out in support of the bar, regardless.
"The moment we opened the doors the line was around the corner," says Solomon. "And it was literally the last straw." They got a special permit from the city and were able to have their patrons out front, safely.
Today, the bar looks welcoming and stylish, with a very cool vibe—almost as if it was easy to set up. If it wasn't easy, at least it was right because they stayed true to the plan, despite the pushback they received when they announced they wanted to set up an LGBTQ+ bar in Harlem, or the doubts they faced about a vodka that was just for the LGBTQ community. But they were adamant about their vision.
People come to visit the lounge from all over: From Connecticut, from Jersey, and one night there was a man from Africa, who had researched the bar and sought it out when he came to New York.
"It was very emotional and humbling," says Hughes.
Humbling, maybe, but their vision is still grand, and that is to open a Lambda lounge in other metropolitan areas, starting with a megaclub version of the Lambda Lounge slated for Brooklyn, hopefully to open some time in 2022. Stay tuned!
Keep up with news, special events and theme nights here and here.
The Lambda Lounge
2256 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., New York, NY 10027
Covid protocols: Proof of vaccination required upon entry
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